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Mind Meets Body: Nikki Hearts on the State of Mental Health in the Porn Industry

The adult film director and former performer unpacks the recent spike in suicide within the porn industry, as well as what needs to change in order to protect her peers going forward.

by Nikki Hearts

by Nikki Hearts

Lead illustration by Sara Rabin

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles and started doing porn full time, roughly five years ago, I have always compared it to high school. There are cliques, hierarchies, bullies, creeps, jocks, and — of course — the hottest cheerleaders of all time. The biggest difference is that in porn we are all getting paid to have sex with each other, then exploit it all over the internet. Can you imagine?

Thinking of the adult film community in that light is the most simple way to understand why there are so many mental health issues rising within the industry, especially as social media becomes increasingly omnipresent in our lives daily. As of recently, the rate of suicide amongst young women in porn has spiked to epidemic levels.

In high school, many kids are lucky enough to have supporting family members to get them through hard times, or at least recognize struggle from a loving and outside perspective. When there is a serious problem in school, you can go to a caring staff member, ideally one trained to handle mental health and conflict resolution issues.

In porn, unfortunately those safety blankets and life lines are removed. The age of consent to participate in the industry is 18. When I was 19, I tossed myself into the adult entertainment world head-first. I thought I was ready conquer it all. I was a young feminist with strong goals, and I wasn't about to let anyone take advantage of me. I wanted to destigmatize the career and empower women to make porn. Soon, though, I learned that the average time for a female performer to stick around was about a year. At first, I couldn't understand why — it seemed like such a great job to me. Looking back, I was clueless.

The vast majority of adults around me had one of two reactions when they discovered my new job; some were concerned and urged me to quit, while others saw an opportunity to benefit off of me, my body, and my work. I was missing one of the most important resources I could have had at the time, which is a wellspring of true love and support. I needed someone who didn't want to gain anything from me. I needed guidance. Anyone in my position at the time would've need that, but looking back at myself as an overwhelmed teen, I clearly could not see that.

What people outside porn often miss is that in a state of hopelessness and stress, the idea of finding and spending money on a mental health professional — who very well may just judge you, and tell you that your job is the problem — seems quite impossible and terrifying, not to mention outright unaffordable in an industry where health insurance benefits are few and far between.

Over the years, I learned through observation and mistakes just how many downfalls and manipulations there are to avoid, not just as a teenage girl, but for everyone in the industry. Corrupt agents, unprofessional directors, shady performers, creepy location owners, the list goes on. I was so naive to believe that, as a 19-year-old female, I could come in and skip the ringer. During the onset of my career, I experienced some of the darkest periods in my life. I was in a relationship at the time that later proved to be more damaging than anything I ever experienced directly on set. Not due to any form of abuse that I was even aware of at the time, but for the way I was brainwashed to think about my work by my 'partner.' I was with a woman who treated me as if I was cheating every time I went to work, but expected to ride on my coattails for the entire misadventure.

I lost relationships with family members for reasons varying from disgust to just a little too much interest. At times, I felt like I didn't want to be here anymore; it was just like in high school, but all so much heavier. This was the real world after-all, even though working in porn eventually felt like a joke. This was my career, though — I chose to be here, and I had never planned on leaving after four years like in school. Everyone's experience is different, obviously, but as far as I know… most have a far worse time than I have. After all, most only last a year in this industry, remember?

It took a hiatus back to my hometown — as well as a pause from performing to focus on being behind the camera — to truly believe that inside this bizarre workplace, there are actually far more amazing, talented, and loving people than those who give it all such a bad rep. Through experience, age, and stability, I weeded out most of the bad ones, and found myself surrounded by some of the most loving and talented people you could imagine.

That said, I still sought therapy — to which I owe my sanity. I was lucky enough to find an older feminist woman who gave me the guidance that I'd needed for so long. I learned more about myself in six months with her than I had my entire life while wandering around like a lost duck. Shortly after, I married an amazing and supportive partner who works as a performer, as well. We challenge one another, while we also we push one another to keep working towards whatever our end goal is. Most importantly, we support one another through anything from writer's block to a sore body after a crazy gangbang. I also learned the true meaning of self-care.

For me, the best method of self-care I've found is the use of medical marijuana. So much of what causes my depression, especially when related to work, is stress. I have been fortunate enough to discover cannabis products that help not only with stress and anxiety, but also improve nearly every aspect of my day. The porn community is blessed to have access to Four Fathers Farms delivery service, run by a grower who caters specially to us. The man in charge is the biggest weed nerd I've ever met, and by that I mean the best at growing exactly what we need. He sits with each of his customers, listens about their day, and is always able to recommend the flower to get you where you want to be. Also — and this is vital — cannabis is a non-addictive plant, unlike the vast majority of other medication prescribed to manage stress. It's important that I choose cannabis over addictive pharmaceuticals, such as Xanax, which catalyze a downward spiral of dependency and can lead to losing control of your personal boundaries.

More than anything in the past several years, I've gained so much empathy for the performers who haven't been as successful when it comes to staying healthy. People with similar dreams and far-shittier pasts come in and get taken advantage of mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially. No one is officially appointed to show you any better, or be there when things get out of hand. As a result, it makes isolation, depression, and feelings of hopelessness the quickest emotions to rear their ugly faces in the mind's eye of performers.

Once you reach this point, people like to start pointing fingers. There is no principal or guidance counselor in porn to expel those who rape, steal, and lie. Performers are afraid to speak up against people in the position of power due to retaliation, loss of work, or accusations of slander. For many who have become jaded to the injustices of working in the adult industry, the response usually is, "Welcome to porn, it is never fair."

In December, 2017 we lost 23-year-old performer August Ames to suicide. She was triggered by online bullying, amongst other emotional turmoil. In the following weeks, we lost several more of our young females. The media is always looking for a reason to attack the porn world; this was a perfect opportunity. Personally, as a regularly outspoken performer, I was flooded with emails from mainstream media, asking my opinion as to why this is suddenly happening. Media and fans were quick to make assumptions. I saw many people say, "Men are out of control, they must be abusing these girls on set!" or, "Look at how rough and raunchy porn is, no wonder they are all fucked up!" I have expressed to so many that nothing has dramatically changed on sets, but that women are becoming empowered to recognize what abuse is, what rape is, and what unhealthy work conditions are.

We have to recognize that having sex on camera, and everything else that comes along with making pornography, is not what is too traumatizing and damaging for people to handle. These ideas are what breed shame, as well as the fallacy that if we participate in this type of work we deserve whatever comes along with it.

In the past two years, as a more seasoned member of the XXX bubble, I've become much more consciously aware of the issues that we face in this industry. It becomes much easier to identify the problems once you have been through them yourself. My conversations with outsiders are always followed by a reaction of surprise because no one has any idea what the real problems are!

Condemning the companies, the producers, and especially the talent will never change anything. The negativity that is cast upon performers, specifically via the media (let alone family members), is far more injurious than that of about any other job choice I can imagine. Unfortunately, performers face a laundry list of highly stressful circumstances that may not be apparent in the beginning. We are surrounded by pressure to lose weight, have perfect skin, push physical boundaries, use drugs to stay awake, use drugs to fall asleep, and use drugs to numb the pressure that builds. When things reach that point, friendship and smoking weed simply isn't enough to stay healthy.

I've opened my home over the past year to so many women who I consider friends, who have fallen victim to depression, drug use, and the manipulative people who come crawling out of the cracks when you're vulnerable. Each of them had one thing in common: they needed true support — more than I could possibly give them as a friend. I believe that if there were instantly-accessible mental health care to provide professional therapy that's local and specific to sex workers, maybe my friends wouldn't keep disappearing into a slump they never imagined for themselves.

This industry is full of people from all over the world, from every different background, education, religion, etc. There are both 18-year-old girls from Middle America and worldwide celebrities who participate in the adult entertainment world. There are beautiful bonds among the people who do this work unlike I've ever seen. We have so much strength as an industry; we have the ability to influence media and sexual trends that will leave a lasting impact. This all leads me to a question that's been plaguing my head for months: Why aren't we focusing that strength and power on the most valuable part of our system? The performers...

Performers willingly decide to make themselves vulnerable to the world, for the purpose of other people's enjoyment. Before we can continue to grow as an industry, let alone change the rest of the globe's misconceptions about what we do, we have no choice but to unite and support our talent. There will always be people with bad intentions here, just like everywhere else, but we can't let them continue to pillage our community and set de facto standards.

In 2018, it is my personal mission to advocate healthy coping skills within our line of work. Beyond that, I am encouraging professionals and peers to help in the foundation of an industry-specific mental health and substance abuse counseling facility. I will share more information about the initiative as progress is made. I promise you that.

Follow Nikki Hearts on Twitter and Instagram

If you are struggling with depression or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


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Nikki Hearts

Nikki Hearts is an adult film director and former performer based in California. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @NikkiHeartsx



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