Porn to poverty: help Jenni Lee

Porn to poverty: help Jenni Lee

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The first time I saw Jenni Lee, I was so mesmerised that I took out my credit card and paid to watch porn. Can you imagine that? A teaser trailer for one of her scenes was so tantalising that, in a drunken haze and in the midst of a dying relationship, I just had to see more. The way she moved, the look in her eyes, the way she spoke, the shape of her body? She became by far my favourite performer. I?d watch every one of her scenes ? although the proliferation of free streaming sites such as YouPorn meant I never had to pay again.

I largely kicked my porn habit but would occasionally check in to see if any new scenes had emerged. Or else I?d look at her Twitter feed @jennileeonline to see what she was up to. Her tweets were smart and drily funny. So too were her occasional conversations at the start of her scenes, even if it was with the disembodied leering voice of a man behind the camera. This was someone who enjoyed her work too, or so it seemed. Sure, there were some scenes where she didn?t seem as comfortable but, what the hell, skip those and move to one where she does. There are plenty to choose from.

Some of those scenes are virtually imprinted in my mind, I?ve watched them so many times. Now, after a long unexplained hiatus, another video has dropped and I can hardly bear to look.

Last week, for the first time in ages, I did a quick Twitter search for Jenni Lee only to find this: ?This is crazy! Jenni Lee, who was once a beautiful porn star, is now homeless living in the Las Vegas tunnels. Heartbreaking.? It linked to a YouTube clip from a Dutch documentary about the homeless people who live in the flood tunnels under the Nevada city (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW5B6ZrHkCE). The presenter, Ewout Genemans, approaches Jenni in a dark subterranean corner that is now her home, amid a scatter of possessions. She looks pale and tired, her hair and fingers unwashed. It?s still recognisably her, though, and she is still articulate.

She introduces herself as Stephanie, her real name, and Genemans asks her how she can live in the tunnels. She tries to be positive. It?s not as hard as you might think, she says. The people who live there are really respectful and less judgmental than the ones above ground. But the sigh before she gives her age tells another story.

Some of the comments beneath the video and on Reddit focus on her dirty fingers and the state of her teeth, many surmising that she is on meth. It?s all about what has happened to her looks. For me, though, the most depressing moment comes when Genemans asks if she could ever get out of the tunnels. ?Um, y?know, yes,? she replies, as if the thought hadn?t occurred. ?But why?? That response that could only be spoken by someone who has given up on their future.

Jenni Lee ? as opposed to Stephanie ? was someone I felt I knew, in an odd way. The tunnels video shows what a pathetic illusion that was. In that interview, she is trying to put on a brave face. ?I?m happy,? she says. ?I have everything I need? here.? It struck me that this was what we were watching all along in those porn videos ? someone putting on an act while who knows what was going on in reality.

How much money would she have made from porn? I must have watched hours of her videos and only paid that one time, quickly downloaded what I could, then cancelled. How much of that, what was it, $10 would she have seen? And this was the days before the free streaming sites took off. The British journalist Jon Ronson?s podcast series The Butterfly Effect documents the devastating effect that these have had on the industry. Jenni Lee seemed to try to get around this by setting up her own website and charging for the videos she posted there. Before long, these ended up on the free sites. Then she tried working on paid-for chat sites but even footage from these was recorded and can now be watched for free.

There are many spiteful and dismissive comments under the tunnels video. Jenni Lee chose to go on drugs, some say; she was addicted to gambling says one. Any effort to help her is futile, some say ? she?d only spend the money on drugs. I don?t know the details of how she ended up where she is, although I could make some educated guesses. But the truth is every one of us who jerked off to her videos for free is in some way responsible.

Amid the hurtful comments are some expressing genuine concern. ?How to help?? asks one. The replies can be dismissive ? she?ll only throw away any more on drugs; people who want to help her are just desperate ?white knights?.

But you know what, as addicts are often told, it?s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Let?s not forget, this is a woman with two children. This might sound nave and hopeful but there must be a way to #helpjennilee, to quote a hashtag that has so far failed to take off. Are there family, friends, old colleagues, some Las Vegas or porn star charity or even one of those streaming sites who could come to her rescue? Could we crowdfund rehab or some other kind of support to get her out of the hole we helped to put her in? Let?s make it happen. For Jenni Lee ? no, for Stephanie ? I?ll reach for that credit card again.

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