How We Mourn Amber Rayne

Content Warning: sexual assault

Amber Rayne, a 31-year-old woman, was found dead in her Los Angeles home over the weekend. Like millions of people, she died unexpectedly, in circumstances that are yet to be determined. But unlike those millions of people, Rayne, by dying, has catapulted herself into international consciousness.

Rayne was a 10-year veteran of professional pornography, an actor, director, and producer. And, last year, she was one of a handful of brave performers who publicly accused James Deen, one of the most popular male porn stars on earth, of routinely assaulting and raping women on set and in his private life.

In the Daily Beast, Rayne reported what Deen did to her, early in his career:

“We were in a piledriver, he was fucking me in the ass and I said something like, ‘Yeah fuck me like that you son of a bitch.’ His face twisted and he came down on my face two times — close-fisted . . . I was punched in the face while he was still in my ass and then he starts going crazy on my butt — extreme, brutally fucking it. He just starts shoving things in to the point where he ripped it and I bled everywhere. There was so much blood I couldn’t finish the scene.”

Rayne later became friends with Deen, but told the Daily Beast that she always remembered the incident:

“I’ve gotten to know him on many different levels. There’s a friendship that’s developed. I don’t want to betray or lose that, but at the same time this did happen, and it happened to other people that I know and love . . . We’re friends now and I’ll sometimes bring it up as a joke and you can see it makes him physically uncomfortable when I do, so he does realize something was wrong that day. I thought it was an insecurity phase. He was just starting out, he was still a young punk kid coming in and I still didn’t know what the game was.”

When someone dies unexpectedly, those who knew them are enveloped in shock and anguish, and numbly struggle to pick up the pieces, to patch closed the holes that they leave in their communities. Rayne’s friends are doing this for her. Those of us standing on the outside mourn in a different way for someone that we do not know, someone who has become a symbol of defiance, of justice, of humanity. We mourn her as we would mourn a comrade felled in the heat of battle, in the midst of a war that has not yet been won. We mourn her as a fighter against male supremacy, as someone who stood up and was counted, who called out James Deen as an abuser in an industry whose ostensible celebration of sexuality masks the ways in which it is the same as every other industry: In porn, as in broadcasting, or food service, or the military, men can push the boundaries and get away with it, time and time again.

And yet, this is not the story of mourning, of respect, being told by the media.

Instead, many of the articles marking Rayne’s death objectify her in their summary of her life. The Independent’s headline initially read, “Porn star who accused James Deen of rape is found dead;” it and the Tweet promoting it didn’t even mention her name. (The headline has since been amended to call Rayne an “adult film actor.”) The Daily Mail, announcing Rayne’s death, reduced her to a nameless sex worker but named her abuser.

On Twitter, sex worker rights activists criticize the coverage of her that conflates her rich life into the identity of porn performer and victim. Their hashtag, #SheHasAName, calls publications like the Independent and the Daily Mail out for their reductive approach to her life.

Those who hate porn will say that porn itself killed her. Those who hate sex workers will say that sex work drove her to drugs. However she died, and for whatever reason, the cause of her death is not the point. The point is that she put her neck on the line for all of us who face male violence at work just because we are women, and that she did not live to see her hoped-for victory, in society at large or even within the porn industry.

Media outlets might shame her in their reporting, but they cannot erase the defiant and solemn honor paid to a fellow fighter by an army of women whose salvos against rape culture have drawn world attention, but have not yet felled our common enemy. We don’t need to invade her privacy or disrespect her agency by explaining her death, or by waving it as a flag for our causes. Anyone can wave a flag, but can they be as brave as she was, she who put her own career and reputation on the line to call out Deen as an abuser, who spoke out despite her friendship with him in order to make her industry and our culture better?

Already, those who knew her and stood in solidarity with her, like Stoya, are speaking out to honor her. These supporters, myself included, want Amber Rayne to be remembered as the complex and human person that she was, not to fade into obscurity or to be hung on the wall as an object lesson to so-called bad women everywhere.

Rayne was a dedicated horsewoman who competed in eventing and dressage events, a loving mother, sister, daughter and aunt, and a ferocious and engaged fan of her beloved hockey team, the Sharks. Active on social media, Rayne interacted with her fans, calling out those who sent unsolicited dick pics and thanking those who showed kindness and respect. She shared her struggle against uterine cancer and uplifted others fighting the disease. She signal boosted feminist voices like Tig Notaro, and, recently, mourned the sudden death of her beautiful, powerful, big, red horse, Luuk. Her fans saw her on flickering screens, performing primal lust, but on Twitter, she gently reminded readers that she was a human being: a woman, a sex worker, and a lover of the outdoors, family, and faith. She drew concept art for video games and worked behind the scenes for bands, exercised her horses and mucked out stables, and flew all over the country in pursuit of joy, life, love, and her daily bread.

She died, while James Deen continues to make films, while famous former broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who many women call a violent rapist, is exonerated by a judge whose judicial standards of truth ignore the reality of how sexual assault works in a patriarchal society. She died while sex workers are still murdered and assaulted on the streets and persecuted by police, while women of color and trans women are seen as garbage by both the capitalist patriarchal state and by some of the very feminists who would claim to want to unmake it.

Meanwhile, we feminists who know that sex work is work, and that porn performers have a right to safety in their work, honor the entire life of Amber Rayne. We honor its fight and laughter and love and pain, our eyes brimming with tears, our solemnity itself a rebuke to the men who brutalize women and carry on as if nothing has happened. After we mourn, women who call for justice will take off our dress uniforms and put on our battle fatigues. We will take out the blanks that we used for our funeral salute, and we will put back the live rounds in our metaphorical guns, on whose casings are written the names of our rapists and our abusers, and we will pick them up again in our fight for peace and justice.

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Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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