'The Fallout to My Career Was Devastating': Speaking Out Amid the Porn Industry's #MeTooIn DepthIn Depth
Nearly three years ago, Ashley Fires was at home in New Hampshire making breakfast on a Sunday morning. While waiting with a spatula in hand to flip a pancake, she decided to quickly check Twitter on her phone. That’s when she saw a tweet accusing porn star James Deen of rape. “I just felt this compelling urge to say something—and I did,” she said. “I didn’t realize the backlash that I would receive.”
That morning, Fires—then a porn performer in the prime of her career—tweeted support for porn performer Stoya, Deen’s accuser and ex-girlfriend. In her tweet, Fires noted that she had refused to work with the so-called golden boy of porn for years and suggested that he was “showing his true colors.” The following day, she elaborated in an interview with The Daily Beast. Fires alleged that Deen had “almost raped” her while at the San Francisco headquarters for Kink.com.
The backlash was swift. She was inundated with tweets, DMs, and emails from people in and outside of the industry “spewing hate,” she says. Within a week, her now former agent called to say that, as Fires put it, “There’s a lot of people who won’t hire you now.”
About a dozen women ultimately made allegations against Deen—many, although not all, involve his behavior on porn sets—ranging from physical abuse to sexual assault. (Deen has denied all of the allegations.)
But, in the months that followed those allegations, Fires says that she nonetheless saw her work in the mainstream adult industry slowly dry up. She says a director pulled her aside during a shoot and told her, “You’ve gotta stop with this pro-woman feminism stuff. Nobody wants that. It kills the fantasy.” Fires says that she turned to alcohol as a way to numb the pain—and drank so much that her doctor eventually told her that she was damaging her liver.
“The fallout to my career was devastating,” said Fires, who rarely shoots for mainstream productions anymore. Now she relies on work as a dominatrix, selling self-made videos on Clips4Sale, and shooting for the niche site Sci-Fi Dream Girls. “It never occurred to me that speaking my personal truth would have such ramifications,” she said. “That was almost more hurtful than anything he did.”
This month marks the one-year anniversary of Hollywood’s #MeToo movement, which launched in October of 2017 when the New York Times published a story detailing decades of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. But it was the adult industry that two years earlier had a #MeToo-like moment with the mass of accusations against Deen.
Since then, a few more porn performers have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against performers and directors. These cases have sparked important conversations around consent and led to some policy changes. The question, though, is whether it’s gone far enough.
From speaking with several performers who made allegations over the last few years, it’s clear that there have been serious consequences for speaking out—ranging from on-set teasing to lost jobs, social media harassment to mental health challenges. But, they say, there haven’t been enough consequences for the accused or enough change within the industry at large.
“I don’t think we’ve had our #MeToo moment, yet,” said Lily LaBeau, one of the women who made allegations against Deen in 2015. “We keep trying, but as a collective industry, I don’t think it’s happened yet.”
Deen did see some initial consequences to his career following the accusations against him. Porn studios Kink.com and Evil Angel severed their working relationship with him. The former, which was named in Fires’s allegation, subsequently updated its “model bill of rights,” emphasizing consent and encouraging reporting of non-consensual behavior. Doc Johnson discontinued production of a line of dildos modeled after Deen’s penis. His advice column at The Frisky was axed.
Since then, however, he has continued to perform prolifically for his own production company, as well as outside studios like Elegant Angel, Girlfriend Films, and New Sensations. (None of the companies responded to requests for comment.) Last year, he starred in 177 films—which is 20 fewer than in 2014, the year before the allegations surfaced, according to the Internet Adult Film Database (IAFD). In a recent blog post, however, he wrote that he performs less now that he owns his own production company, and that he still averages between 15 to 20 scenes a month.
But the giddy mainstream media profiles have come to a halt. (In fairness and transparency, I should add that I used Deen as an industry source prior to the allegations.) And, though he’s been nominated many times, Deen hasn’t won any awards during the last two AVN Awards, the so-called Oscars of the adult industry.
Jezebel reached out to Deen directly via text message—an avenue to which he was previously responsive to media requests—to ask about how his career had been impacted. He responded, curiously, with a photo of the actor Tom Hardy. Deen’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
LaBeau—who in 2015 alleged that Deen had ignored her sexual boundaries during a shoot and also hit her hard enough in the face that her jaw locked—says of the business at large, “They forgave James.” She added, “There is this weird community or family thing where we look out for each other even when it’s not healthy.”
Unlike Fires, she hasn’t seen much of an impact on her career from speaking out—although she notes that she is represented by influential talent agent Mark Spiegler, which confers a certain amount of protection and privilege. She did, however, find that her allegations put some directors on edge, who have more recently made jokes along the lines of, as she put it, “Oh, ha-ha, careful I can’t touch you, don’t want to get MeToo-ed.”
In the years since, LaBeau has also been on sets and witnessed male directors—seemingly oblivious to her accusations—defend Deen as a great guy deserving of a second chance. In one instance, LaBeau says she went along with it, just to get through the day. As she put it, “What am I supposed to say?”
Just recently, she was shooting a scene for a porn film that LaBeau had been told would be about “sex positivity” and helping people to communicate about sex. Halfway through the shoot, she learned that Deen would also be starring in the film, although in a different scene. “If I knew James was going to be in this movie I would not have been in it,” she said. “That’s so hypocritical, I’m in a movie about sex-positivity and James is also in it?”
Despite these challenges, LaBeau says she is still happy that she came forward. “It was the first step in healing a lot of trauma that I’d carried from him, and just from the industry in general,” she said. “You forget how to say ‘no’ and how to use your voice and stand up for yourself.”
Just over a year after the Deen allegations, performer Nikki Benz alleged abuse in late 2016, citing a shoot for the production company Brazzers. She claimed that she was stomped on and choked while filming a scene with director Tony T and co-star Ramón Nomar. She tweeted, “The director himself put his hands on me and was choking me.” Benz later added, “I guess rape scenes are in now huh?”
Benz would go on to allege that she was pressured into filming a positive “exit interview” in order to receive her paycheck. Exit interviews are a common industry practice during which performers are typically filmed, for documentation purposes, saying that a shoot was consensual. (Both Tony T. and Nomar denied the allegations.)
This was late 2016—still nearly a year before the mainstream Hollywood #MeToo movement began.
Shortly after the allegations, Brazzers severed ties with Tony T. but Nomar has continued to work in the industry, performing in 163 films so far this year—not far off from his 186 films in the whole of 2016, according to IAFD. In the summer of 2017, he starred in a film for feminist pornographer Erika Lust (Lust’s publicist says that the director was unaware of the allegations at the time).
In response to a Twitter DM from Jezebel requesting a comment, Nomar denied Benz’s allegations and wrote, “Are you a feminist?!?” He continued, “As you can imagine…after you wrote about the false allegations calling me rapist…honestly…you can go fuck yourself with all due respect.” (Presumably, he was referring to this article, which does not refer to him as a rapist.) He later followed up with a middle-finger emoji.
Meanwhile, Benz has watched as her career of 14 years has fallen apart. “My income has completely changed. My lifestyle has changed,” she said. “To put it into perspective, I went from shooting four scenes a month on average to four scenes this whole year.”
Although Benz brought her allegations to police, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges, citing “insufficient evidence” in an email to Jezebel. Still, she has pushed forward, suing Brazzers, MindGeek, Tony T., and Nomar for sexual battery. (The case is ongoing.) Tony T has also sued her for defamation.
Benz says that the damage to her career largely results from speaking out against Brazzers, which is owned by the monopolistic MindGeek, which controls great swaths of the adult industry—including top tube sites like Pornhub and YouPorn, as well as popular producers like Digital Playground and Reality Kings. “It’s a silent blackball. They won’t work with me,” she said. “It went from me getting phone calls every week from one of their companies to me getting nothing.” (A MindGeek spokesperson told Jezebel, “This matter is currently before the courts. As a policy, we do not comment on ongoing litigation.”)
She has been able to supplement her income through webcamming, as well as new platforms like Only Fans and Fan Centro, which performers use to charge for subscription access to restricted social media feeds. “But in terms of me shooting movies,” said Benz, “that part of my career is pretty much dead because of me speaking out.”
It has taken its toll. “My overall mental health has suffered,” she said. “I’ve been really depressed… I was at the top of my career.” Later, when the subject of depression arose again, Benz started crying. “It’s just, it’s hard. I question myself all the time. Why? Did I do the right thing? I believe I did because I couldn’t live right now and know what had happened to me and not ever talk about it.” She paused to gasp for air. “Sorry, I did not mean to cry.”
Later, Benz mentioned the spate of industry deaths leading up to this year’s AVN Awards. Five performers died within the span of just three months—in two cases a drug overdose was suspected, and at least one was by suicide. “That scares me,” she said. “I definitely—I don’t want to end up like that. I’ve been working on myself to get myself out of that depressed state.”
Benz feels “all alone” in her fight—and she looks to Hollywood’s #MeToo movement with a twinge of envy. “In the [mainstream] entertainment industry, there is unity and there’s support and there [are] support groups,” Benz said, although she noted that many porn performers have privately expressed their support and are too afraid to speak up publicly. “I wish that my industry was united and more supportive of women that do speak out.”
Benz’s lawyer, Daniel Gilleon, suggested in a statement to Jezebel that the mainstream #MeToo movement “has its limits and sometimes looks like #metoolite for certain categories of women.”
Siouxsie Q, a porn performer and writer, as well as secretary of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC), a non-profit centered around protecting performers’ rights, says that Benz’s experience in the wake of allegations is not unusual. “Female performers who accuse producers and male talent of abuse almost always face scrutiny, negative career consequences, and other forms of backlash, which can include vicious and vindictive cyberbullying from both fans and fellow performers.”
There are some signs that Benz’s allegations might have made an impact within the industry. Shortly after she tweeted her allegations, the AVN Awards announced that it would be instituting a zero-tolerance conduct policy banning “harassment of any kind,” including “physical assault and/or battery” and “unwelcome physical contact”—but any connection to her allegations was explicitly denied, according to the LA Weekly. Earlier this year, The Adult Performers Actors Guild released The Benz List, a checklist that performers can bring to a shoot to detail their sexual boundaries, but it’s entirely voluntary. The Free Speech Coalition, the adult industry’s trade association, is also working on a similar pre-shoot boundaries checklist that is expected to be released soon.
Siouxsie Q says APAC has been growing its programs and will be launching an ongoing drop-in mental health support group for performers, which has been long in the works. “We hope that making these programs and services available to anyone who shoots adult content will help our community navigate consent, harassment, and stigma in a productive and positive way,” said Siouxsie who says that she was recently sexually assaulted by management during a burlesque performance at a mainstream Hollywood venue.
In fact, Siouxsie says she has been touched non-consensually “far more often” in mainstream settings than on adult film sets, and feels that “the adult industry is slightly ahead of the curve when it comes to consent.”
In January of this year, Ron Jeremy—perhaps the most infamous male porn star of our time—was banned from the AVN Awards and Adult Entertainment Expo. For years, whispers about his behavior had circulated within the industry—but then Rolling Stone published an article detailing a decade-worth of allegations of misconduct, from indecent exposure to rape. Some of the alleged misconduct was claimed to have happened on porn sets. In many more instances, women alleged that he had non-consensually groped or digitally penetrated them at adult industry conventions, where performers often pose for photos with fans.
In that Rolling Stone article, Jeremy denied the “serious allegations,” but said, “I AM A GROPER. And by groper, I mean I get paid to show up to these shows, events, and photo shoots and touch the people and they touch me.” That admission appeared to trigger his blacklisting from the event. Still, Deen attended, as did Nomar.
Then in March, with the mainstream #MeToo movement in full swing, performers Leigh Raven and Riley Nixon published a more than hour-long YouTube video detailing allegations of abuse during two different porn shoots with director Just Dave and the performer Rico Strong. The accusations included misleading booking practices, excessive face-slapping and strangling, and boundary violations. “I didn’t know what could happen to me,” said Raven, explaining why she didn’t just walk off the set that day. “I was in a warehouse, it was nighttime, there were multiple men on set, it was just me, I didn’t have a car.” Raven, who reported the alleged incident to police, added, “I just said to myself, ‘Let’s just get this over with.’”
Just recently—more than six months after the accusations first surfaced—footage from the shoots in question was published by Black Payback, a porn site built around the idea of black men exacting sexual revenge for racism on white women. The footage is accompanied by mocking commentary about the women’s accusations.
The clip featuring footage from Raven’s shoot, which was published by Black Payback on its Pornhub channel, begins with a moment from her YouTube video in which she says, “Hi, my name is Leigh Raven and I am—.” Then it cuts to a clip of Henry Rollins screaming, “a liar” from his music video for Liar. The video proceeds to show the Wikipedia page for “pathological lying” before eventually cutting to a clip of Raven gagging on Strong’s penis during the shoot in question. Later, interspersed between derisive commentary and clips from her YouTube video, Raven is shown multiple times throwing up from deep throating.
Currently, the profile picture for the Black Payback Twitter profile is a closeup of Raven’s face with Strong’s fingers down her throat.
The video description for Nixon’s scene, which was published on Black Payback’s site, reads, “This Cabbage Patch lookin voluptuous Becky, man we luv her fat ass n’ titties but she need to watch her lip n’ think before she speak. Typical wyte woman wit no accountability for her actions, say she don’t like our set yet refuse speak up n’ cashin da check still, white devil trickster.” Part of the premise for her scene is that she’s a feminist—footage of an actual protest with women holding signs reading, “TOGETHER WE CAN END MALE VIOLENCE,” is included at the beginning of the trailer. Strong is shown asking her, “What has feminism done for black people?” As she starts to respond, Strong slaps Nixon across the face.
There is engaging in the rich world of fantasy and forbidden taboos—including depicting faux abuse—but it seems another thing to publish footage of alleged abuse, along with mocking commentary about the accusers.
Raven and Nixon did not respond to Jezebel’s requests for comment. But Raven has, on multiple occasions, said that the accusations resulted in lost jobs for her, as well as and her wife, Nikki Hearts, who filmed the YouTube video. In April, she tweeted, “Really sad that since @NikkiHeartsx @RileyNixon_ and myself dropped our YouTube video describing our horrible experiences on an abusive set… we are struggling for consistent work.”
In this case, it appears that the accused performer has also seen a hit to his career. Strong says that he was out of work for six months following the release of the YouTube video, and that it is still hard to find work. It’s worth noting that Strong is black, and black male performers are often relegated to “interracial” porn and treated as an ultimate taboo for white women performers. That is to say, Strong doesn’t have anything like the privilege or range of opportunity of a performer like Deen.
But Strong seems to see himself as a victim of the #MeToo moment. “Having my name lied on and tarnished people will always side with women especially with everything going on in the mainstream media,” he wrote in an email to Jezebel. Just Dave—who previously sent Jezebel troubling footage from the shoot in question in an attempt to exonerate himself—did not respond to a request for comment, but he appears, via Twitter, to be shooting for Black Payback, as well as the site Facial Abuse.
Raven reported her allegations to police, but the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office declined to file charges. She considered a civil suit, but ultimately decided against it, telling AVN, “I had many attorneys hear my story and offer to take my case because they firmly believed I have one… but I don’t want money,” she said. “I want people like Just Dave removed from the porn community.”
But there is no regulatory body that can remove directors or performers from the industry. There is the Free Speech Coalition, which runs the industry’s STI testing database and sets ethical guidelines. But, Eric Paul Leue, the group’s executive director, says, it “can’t stop anyone from shooting a video, uploading it or selling it, any more than the RIAA”—the Recording Industry Association of America—“can stop someone from singing on YouTube.”
In the past, distribution was controlled by a handful of companies, he says, but that all changed with the internet. Now, Leue explains, “the enforcement comes from partners who can decide whether or not to work with a producer—agents, distributors, advertisers.” In theory, consumers could hold some sway as well—although it’s questionable how much ethical consideration or engagement your average viewer has in the age of tube sites and free porn.
This year, performer Tasha Reign has been pushing for the adult industry to mandate sexual harassment and abuse training for performers and crew members. “I would say that 99 percent of companies don’t even have a sexual harassment policy for their company in the office let alone on-set,” she said. “If anybody needs a sexual harassment policy it’s the adult industry.”
Her conviction comes, in part, from her own experiences. Reign says that last year she was assaulted by a crew member during a Wicked Pictures shoot directed by Stormy Daniels. As she told The Daily Beast, “I’m fully clothed in my outfit, I’m standing and signing my paperwork, and all of a sudden I feel two hands from behind me grab my ass and make sexual moaning noises.” (Both Daniels and the accused crew member deny the allegation.) As a result of that alleged incident, Reign says she has been talking with Wicked Pictures about instituting sexual harassment training. (Wicked did not respond to request for comment.)
The Free Speech Coalition currently runs a program that calls for performers to be tested for STIs every two weeks, and Reign had hoped that a sexual harassment and abuse training requirement could be folded into that system. “They need to know that this is a real place of work and not just a free for all where people can touch you,” said Reign, who also alleges that several years ago a director non-consensually slapped her bare genitals during a shoot. “It is frightening to even think of how wild, wild west-esque I feel the adult industry is.”
Sexual harassment training is something the Free Speech Coalition has been looking into over the last year, according to Leue, the group’s executive director. But the initiative has been challenged by budgetary constraints and the need to build a lesson plan from scratch—because, as he put it, “we’re in uncharted territory.” Leue explains, “In any other industry, there are fairly templated training solutions to deal with standard harassment issues, like sexual conversations in the workplace, or nudity, or porn on computers,” he said. “Those would have to be entirely rewritten for us. No one we’ve talked to, not lawyers and not compliance companies, has been willing or interested in working with us on a custom solution.”
Leue also notes that few of the abuse allegations that have emerged over the last few years “would have been addressed by traditional, state-mandated harassment training.” So, he says, “we’re focusing on a multi-pronged approach towards a culture of consent”—the as-yet-unreleased consent checklist, as well as a forthcoming list of industry best practices, is the beginning of that. “Even if it doesn’t carry the force of law, these lists can serve as an educational and conversational guide point for performers and companies alike,” he argued. “They can help new performers understand their rights.”
Reign argues that the industry also needs to forbid directors from pressuring performers into filming positive exit interviews before receiving their checks—issues that appeared in both Benz’s and Raven’s allegations. Leue says this will likely be addressed by the upcoming best practices document. “Many scenes can’t be distributed without an exit interview, so companies have come to think of them as a necessary part of the completion of work,” he said, adding that the FSC has been talking with companies about the possibility of using more open-ended questions during exit interviews “so that they may be more nuanced.”
It’s also worth noting some changes at Kink.com, the BDSM porn company which was named in both Fires’s and LaBeau’s allegations against Deen, and which has since moved away from production toward the distribution of content made by independent producers. Alison Boden, Kink’s new CEO, says the company has created a Talent Advocacy and Compliance Supervisor role with the aim of doing outreach to performers and encouraging reporting of on-set issues. “Because we’re a now separate entity from the producers, we can facilitate a conversation that hopefully results in even more honest discussions,” said Boden. “It also means we can more easily break ties with anyone that isn’t complying, isn’t safe, or is getting complaints.”
Still, Reign recently stepped down as chair of APAC, because she felt her attempts in these arenas were not well received. “To be perfectly candid, I didn’t think that the adult industry as a whole had the same mindset as I did,” she said. “Because of that, I wasn’t the right person to represent the adult business.” Now, she’s a full-time student at the University of Southern California and feels somewhat ambivalent about the industry—although she is quick to add that she both loves her fans and “making content that I can control.”
As Fires watched the fallout to her career from making her allegation against Deen, she started to reconsider the types of films in which she was performing, some of which involved themes of hesitation, manipulation, and coercion—or where, more generally, “consent was a little blurry.” Fires felt that she had been “perpetuating a patriarchal male-dominated porno image,” as she put it, through her work. Fires says she asked herself, “What the hell are you doing here? You are complicit in this bullshit.”
That change in perspective—“I was woke,” she said with a laugh—started to lead to on-set disagreements during the few mainstream shoots she was still landing. “I don’t want to look feeble, weak—like just a girl,” she said. “Bending to the sexual will of a man, I don’t want that.” Fires recalls having to argue with a director who wanted to film a scene where her co-star would come up on her from behind—not unlike what she alleges that Deen did to her. “I said, ‘No, let’s find a scenario for this scene that doesn’t make me look like a victim,’” Fires says.
Partly out of a lack of mainstream opportunities, and partly out of this change in perspective, she started making more of her own content and considered new themes. “I decided that I wanted to do more ‘female empowerment’ types of scenarios,” she said. “I didn’t want to be part of the message that… a woman’s consent is secondary to a man’s desire.” As part of her work with Sci-Fi Dream Girls, she decided to reverse the usual dynamic involving female androids and developed a “mandroids” storyline—but viewers were outraged. “I lost so many memberships. I got hate mail,” she said. “But it was so much more fun.”
“I’ve seen my bottom line change,” she said. “If that’s the price, I don’t care. I’d rather do what I’m doing with integrity, and make sure that other people are safe [rather] than make more money.” Fires added, “All I can do is be the change I wanna see in porn.”