She's Taking on Porn's Mental Health Crisis
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these services can save lives.
By Mark Hay
Leya Tanit, an Ibiza-based British dominatrix and occasional porn performer, flew to Los Angeles in January 2018 for the XBIZ Awards, the adult world’s answer to the Golden Globes. She had planned to use the show as an opportunity to ramp up her webcamming and indie-porn-clip-making career. But that plan went out the window when the event opened with a memorial for five stars who had died in the three months before the show from causes seemingly tied to mental health struggles.
Their deaths had been big industry and mainstream news for weeks, and they prompted conversations about porn’s longstanding, yet to that point largely silent, mental health crisis. But Tanit had been on a yearlong hiatus, out of the adult loop. So the news — the weight and pain — of these deaths, received in a room full of the women’s grieving friends and peers, hit her like a brick.
“Seeing people in pain, in need, when there’s something that can be done is not something that I can cope with, really,” Tanit explains. “On the flight back, I thought, I’m going to do something.”
Less than three months later, Tanit, 36, launched Pineapple Support, a nonprofit that offers a 24/7 peer listening hotline, organizes events and support groups and connects adult performers to therapists in their area who do not stigmatize porn work, covering the costs of therapy for anyone who can’t afford it. Two years on, her organization has not only supported more than 700 adult performers, but it has also become the force propelling a mental health culture and resource accessibility revolution in the porn world.
Tanit was neither inured to industry deaths nor daunted by logistical challenges.
There is a widespread belief that porn is a magnet for damaged people and a meat grinder that further damages them — or makes healthy people ill. In truth, mental health is a widespread problem across most industries. Porn’s real mental health crisis stems from the fact that cultural stigmas can isolate performers, making it hard to seek support from friends or family, or report abuse. This is exacerbated by the fact that mental health care providers often make a biased assumption that performers’ jobs are the root of all their problems, making many feel unheard and hopeless, driving them away from care.
Industry groups like the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee and Free Speech Coalition (FSC) try to get performers information about where and how to find non-stigmatizing care providers, organize local mental health events or support groups and do ad hoc wellness checks. Some performers also seek help from (overburdened) general sex worker support organizations, like the Cupcake Girls or the Sex Workers Outreach Project–USA. But Mike Stabile of the FSC says that before Tanit, “there wasn’t a unified source for either information or treatment” for people in porn.
The deaths of late 2017 and early 2018 sparked talk about improving industry support systems. Tanit points out that at least a few people in the porn world die every year, many of causes related to mental health, which can make the crisis feel intractable. And the challenge of confronting a complex mental health crisis while simultaneously navigating broken health care systems to provide for a global yet fragmented and cash-strapped industry make “the project just seem so huge and overwhelming” to many insiders, Stabile says.
Tanit was neither inured to industry deaths nor daunted by logistical challenges. Though a known clip maker, she was more established in the BDSM world. (She named Pineapple Support for the third most common safe word in the kink world, after stop and red, which “would have made terrible names.”) Being “a ready, fire, aim type person,” she didn’t bother to examine structural challenges before jumping in. By the time she did realize the difficulty of her grand goal, she admits, she’d told so many people about it that she felt she couldn’t back down.
This boldness, Tanit acknowledges, does not always work. But within weeks, she’d sketched out an organizational concept, poured her life’s savings into it, got a few therapists to agree to work for deferred payment and leveraged her industry contacts to find donors. In December 2018, she got her big break when Pornhub donated to Pineapple Support (the sum was undisclosed), kicking off a wave of legitimacy and support. The organization raised $200,000 last year.
Over 2019, Tanit and her growing crew of volunteers organized a slew of industry events, support groups and even a digital mental health summit. They created a network of performers, agents and industry media outlets to monitor social media and sets for people who seem to be struggling — especially new, marginalized or otherwise less connected folks — and reach out to them. By year’s end, they had firmly established Pineapple Support as the new go-to mental health resource for the adult industry, connecting between 35 and 65 people with therapy each week. They plan to expand further this year with a focus on reaching uniquely isolated or stigmatized groups.
Performers feel Pineapple Support’s impact even when they don’t directly use its services. Amberly Rothfield, a 15-year veteran performer who lives in a small, at times judgmental town, says just knowing she has a reliable mental health resource that understands and accepts her work “has saved me in many cases.” Rothfield and other performers also say that Pineapple Support has helped make it easier for everyone in the industry to talk openly about their mental health struggles, something many used to fear would negatively impact their brands or careers.
Pineapple Support’s rapid growth and ambition do raise sustainability concerns. Two years in, no one has drawn a salary from the nonprofit (the therapists it works with do get paid), and Tanit is its only full-time staffer, a role so all-consuming she has no time left to perform. She hopes to bring one other person on full-time soon, but she admits she has trouble with delegation. And while she thinks demand for services will someday plateau, “the more people that know about us, the more requests we’re going to get,” requiring ever more money and manpower.
Yet she won’t stop until the whole industry knows pineapple as not just a safe word, but a safe space.
- Mark Hay, OZY Author Contact Mark Hay