INVESTIGATORS: The pressure of porn - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: The pressure of porn

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STILLWATER, Minn. (KMSP) -

By some estimates, pornography is now a $10-billion industry in America -- bigger than the NFL, NBA and MLB, but the profits sometimes come at a tragic cost.

This is a story about unforeseen consequences -- about what happens when a young, impressionable woman enters a world she knows almost nothing about. Instead of getting famous, she found people turning against her. It all played out against the backdrop of social media, bullying and Internet pornography -- and the tragic sequence of events began unfolding just a couple of months ago.

The first thing a person might notice about Alyssa is that she is stunningly beautiful, but she is so much more -- a straight-A student, and a freshman at the University of Wisconsin's River Falls campus with big dreams.

"I want to be a major in biology, minor in chemistry, and I want to be an anesthesiologist," she said while sitting on a casting couch.

Yet, it was no ordinary job interview. Taped earlier this year in Las Vegas, it was the seemingly normal prelude to a pornographic movie from a company called Casting Couch Videos. In a few minutes, Alyssa -- who goes by the name "Stella" in the movie -- will be seen on camera, having sex with a total stranger.

"I'm Stella Ann. I'm 18, from Minnesota, and I'm really looking forward to get started," she said.

Just a few days after that video was posted online, Alyssa began getting taunting messages on Twitter and Facebook -- mostly from old classmates at Stillwater High School, where students were abuzz and they were not kind.

Students huddled around their phones in the cafeteria, looking at the video. One student sent a tweet that said, "Wow your a thot" -- slang for a prostitute -- "Does her dad know?"

Another wrote, "Nothing brings a school together like a porn star who graduated last year. I guess you could say news spreads fast here at Stillwater hahah."

Alyssa responded with her own tweets, "famous for dayzzz" and "pornstar status, a-okay" -- but everything was not okay. Two weeks after the video was posted online, on April 16, Alyssa bought a 12-gauge shotgun, drove to a picturesque boat landing on Big Carnelia Lake and killed herself. She was only 19 years old.

Alyssa's family did not want to speak on camera, and it's easy to understand why -- but they did tell the Fox 9 Investigators that although Alyssa had struggled with depression from time to time, they believe the taunts on social media played a significant role in her suicide.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office is still investigating her death, but detectives don't believe the postings on social media constitute criminal harassment and a spokesperson for Stillwater High School says they haven't received any complaints or reports of bullying -- but they point out, correctly, that Alyssa was no longer a student of theirs.

Yet, her classmates at UW-River Falls say they have little doubt about what drove her to suicide.

"A lot of people are really negative -- troll-y -- about it or standing up and saying it shouldn't happen to people," Katrina dodge said. "Sad it's still happening, actually."

There is a striking contrast between Alyssa's story and that of Duke University Freshman Miriam Weeks, aka porn star Belle Knox. She has become a kind of celebrity with a glowing profile in Rolling Stone magazine last month and appearances on the talk show circuit.

"I am breaking down barriers between mainstream and the adult industry," she told FOX 5 in New York City. "I think that's great, and I want to keep getting my message about female empowerment and sex worker rights."

Joy Friedman doesn't buy it for a minute.

"She's biting her lip," Friedman pointed out. "She's not okay with this."

Friedman is a social worker with Breaking Free, a non-profit that helps women get out of the sex industry. She sees young women like Alyssa and Miriam all the time and sees little difference between pornography and prostitution -- especially when she hears the man behind the camera.

"He did the same thing that pimps do," she said. "It reminds me of the pimps who talked to me."

Friedman believes that because children are exposed to pornography at a younger age, they've become desensitized to it and don't realize that the decision to do porn today could follow them for a lifetime.

"This is permanent, she can't erase this. Now, it goes into your family, it goes into your friends, it goes into your career," Friedman said. "In the future, this is what you're known for and this is who you're labeled as. That affects you."

The man in the video asked Alyssa if she had a normal childhood. She said yes, but Friedman didn't buy that either.

"I bet if we had to go back and pull back the layers of what happened for her, I imagine we'd find something dysfunctional in her past," Friedman said.

Indeed, Alyssa had more than her share of challenges growing up. Her biological father has a rap sheet for theft and swindling; her mother and a boyfriend were busted for dealing drugs and neglecting Alyssa's younger siblings. Alyssa had moved in with her grandmother when she was just a young teen, and she struggled with money -- transferring from St. Catherine's to UW-River Falls last year.

When asked whether she blames the students from Stillwater High, Friedman said, "Yeah, I do."

"I mean, I blame them 'cause everybody plays a role here. You can be a part -- positive or negative. Why did no on go talk to her and say, 'Girl, why did you do that? What can I do to help you?'" she explained. "Instead, we jump on the bandwagon and it's her fault 'cause she got in a video."

Since Alyssa's suicide, there's been an outpouring of grief on social media, including moving tributes. Friends remember her as a sweet, bright and intelligent young woman with so much promise.

Yet, a month after her suicide, that pornographic video is still online too -- outliving the young woman who paid so dearly for it.

"The fact is: If this is such a glamorous, okay job/lifestyle/career, why'd she kill herself?" Friedman asked.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department is expected to complete its investigation soon. About a month ago, the Fox 9 Investigators informed Casting Couch Video that Alyssa had killed herself, but they have not returned phone calls or e-mails and have not answered why they continue to keep that video online.

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