Jon Ronson on porn, gender and sexual humiliation

Jon Ronson on porn, gender and sexual humiliation
In Conversation — Megan Nolan meets the author and journalist to discuss his new podcast The Butterfly Effect – a seven-part series examining the changing face of the US porn industry.

In 2015, the documentary Hot Girls Wanted premiered at Sundance, shedding light on a seedy corner of the adult entertainment industry in Florida which manipulated naive girls. It was a strange, atonal film, confused about its stance, enacting some of the same prurient exploitation of young women it sought to condemn. Mainstream media doesn’t have a great record documenting sex work of any kind, usually arriving with some preconceived point to prove or a faintly hysterical moralising overtone.

The Butterfly Effect, a new podcast series by writer and broadcaster Jon Ronson, arrives then as a relief. Here is a serious and warm piece of work which engages with complex and rapid changes affecting the porn industry, without neglecting the humanity of the people who perform within it. The structural conceit of the series is to begin with a single event and trace its wide-ranging effects. The butterfly in this case is a man named Fabian Thylmann, who devised a plan to become rich from providing free internet porn to the masses while he was still a teenager in the early 2000’s. His eventual success and the ubiquity of Pornhub and other streaming sites has radically changed the way porn is consumed and produced – Ronson sets out to investigate some of the many disparate results from Thylmann’s enterprising, from the increasing influence of tech on the porn industry to the production of niche bespoke films tailored to individual fantasies.

In the wake of Serial and S-Town, The Butterfly Effect is another stride forward in demonstrating the creative possibilities of the podcast. While focused on a very modern phenomenon and told using an innovative narrative structure, it is a piece of satisfyingly old-fashioned and thorough, empathetic reporting. We spoke to Jon Ronson to find out more.


There was a chapter about the porn production company Public Disgrace in your book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Was that your first experience reporting about porn?
Yes – I’d never been to a porn shoot before then. It all started because a man called Conner Habib who works in porn follows me on Twitter, and he said to me “If you ever want to know anything about me or about the industry you can Google me.” So I did, and immediately saw many, many close up photographs of his penis. It was Conner who said to me: “If you’re writing a book about shame and humiliation, have you thought about writing about the sexualisation of humiliation?” and I thought, that could be quite interesting. So I went to a porn shoot where a woman was enacting her most humiliating fears for a film by Public Disgrace.

How did that lead to you making The Butterfly Effect?
I was meeting a porn star as part of that reporting in quite a chichi hotel. I got down to the lobby and everyone was dressed exactly how I was dressed, in inconspicuous shapeless hoodies, greys and blues, except for this porn star who was like a peacock. As I was walking towards her, I happened to look at the receptionist, and he was looking at her without realising anyone could see. The look on his face was one of complete contempt. He was disgusted by her, but he would be much less likely to be disgusted if she was on his computer screen. And that really got me interested in thinking about the hypocrisy of how people consume porn and consider porn performers. They’re totally happy to see them on a computer, but not in real life.

It comes up a couple of times in The Butterfly Effect that people have a need to “other” people they see in porn.
There was a woman I met at a church group in New Orleans who watched Pornhub a lot, and I asked if she had ever got to know who any of them were, or even their names. She said, “No, I never learned their names; it’s like when you kill a deer, you don’t name it because then you can’t eat it,” which I thought was an extraordinarily self-aware thing to say.


And yet some porn stars really trade on having a strong personal brand, and maintain it on social media and go to conventions and so on. Is it that they can be personalised individual characters, as long as they are purely sexual?
I met a woman named Maci May who would vent on Twitter from time to time about how she wasn’t getting any work or she’d had a bad day, and a whole bunch of porn producers told her not to do that. It was like, “You’re supposed to be this sort of brand, don’t tweet about having a bad day.” In a parallel universe, Twitter is where you would be able to do that, and complain, and be un-self conscious. I thought that was kind of sad, that we’re all on guard now like corporations have to be.

Twitter did once seem like somewhere you could go and complain about your job and not be your best self, but it’s so different now.
Or just be banal! Or talk about nonsense! I noticed Twitter going wrong when people started saying “Oh I’m following some celebrity and he’s so banal it’s just what he has for breakfast” – but that’s what I liked about Twitter. It was like a John Cassavetes movie or a Robert Altman movie, just little slices of life, almost the opposite of brand management. And I think it’s a shame we lost that.

I found Fabian a very interesting character because he sounds almost villainous, but it turns out to be so personable and mild. The only things he said that I recoiled from were nothing to do with porn at all, but just common to people running any industry, exploiting anyone’s labour for profit.
That was the heart of The Butterfly Effect for me. Tech people tend to be lionised and porn people tend to be dismissed. One way this is really evident is that if a porn star wants to take out a small business loan or even have a chequing account, they’ll get refused because they are porn stars – it’s what banks call reputational risk. Whereas Fabian wanted a loan to help him expand the empire that began with Pornhub, and because he was a male tech entrepreneur and not a porn star he got a 362 million dollar loan from a hedge fund. One of the things we show is that maybe these rich tech guys shouldn’t be quite so lionised, and the people in porn, who are lovely, caring, kind, idiosyncratic, delightful people, shouldn’t be stigmatised.


Did you have any ideological preconceptions or objections to porn? There’s a part of the podcast where someone mentions that porn is less extremely violent now than before Pornhub, but even if that’s true a lot of what’s there now can be pretty degrading.
In terms of ideology, one of my techniques as a storyteller is to not be ideological, to be humanistic instead. And if an ideology comes from the story as a result, then fine.

We never saw any actor being mistreated. That’s partly because we embedded ourselves with a director Mike Quasar who is a mainstream porn director in the Valley. In that community, where it’s legal and mainstream, the atmosphere is by and large very positive. When the film Hot Girls Wanted came out a lot of people were very annoyed with it because it looked at this disrespectful, fucked up corner of porn production in Florida where porn is illegal. The film made it look like all the exploitative things that happened there were the norm, and people in the Valley were trying to say, no that’s not how it is.

Porn was much more violent in the late 90s with directors like Max Hardcore who made these very disturbing, violent films. They were hugely successful, which influenced other directors to go that direction too. So there was this big wave, but people I spoke to said it has receded now. Something different happened, which is that everything has to be categorised now, and that’s because of the tech people. Because tech people are swooping in, and everything needs to be keyword searchable now – which means if you’re not a “teen” and you’re not a “MILF”, you’ve got no work.

I found that part so bleak, the idea that you can’t just be a human woman that has sex, that you’re impossible to sexualise outside those roles.
Let me stress this isn’t coming from porn people, it’s a consequence of tech people identifying what people desire and search for and then feeding them back their worst instincts.


Do male actors have this problem as well or can they play straight through their 20s and 30s?
They seem to have more longevity. I think there are fewer male stars but they’re able to work for longer. Especially now that profit margins are so tight, if you can’t get an erection exactly when you need to it’s very frustrating for everybody because there’s so much work to do. As a consequence, because I don’t think there are so many porn actors who can do that, I suspect the pool of performers in the valley is pretty small. I would see the same guys time and time again on sets, because they’re reliable. Tommy Gunn must be in his 50s by now and nobody even thinks about it.

They’re a bit more of a blank canvas.
Yes, they’re not the focal point, that’s part of it.

Have you recorded more of The Butterfly Effect?
We’re still in touch with all the people from Season 1, who really liked it, so if other stories come up there we’ll follow them. But we’re also looking for other stories in different worlds, which follow the structure. You start with a tiny event and look at the consequences that follow that event.

Have you been pleased with the reception of Season One?
The thing I’m happiest about is lots of porn people have loved it. They’ve gotten in touch to say this is the first time someone’s come in without an agenda, without being pitying or attacking, and spoken to them as they are, as human beings. And that’s what we always wanted to do.

The Butterfly Effect is available to stream now on Audible.

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