Arousing, but not in a good way: Jon Ronson on porn’s new frontier

He warns me it’s a stretch, but Jon Ronson is comparing himself to a porn star. The journalist, whose job title is almost always preceded with “mild mannered”, is coming to Melbourne and Sydney in April to present an analysis of his seven-part Audible Originals series The Butterfly Effect. It’s about how the 2007 advent of Pornhub – which last year had more than 6.83 million new videos uploaded and more than 42 billion visits – acted as the flap of a butterfly’s wing, affecting all kinds of unexpected people in unexpected ways.

One such way was to make female porn performers in their 20s practically unemployable, now that the keywords used on videos uploaded to Pornhub have relegated tastes in women into either ‘‘teen’’ or ‘‘MILF’’ (a sexually attractive older woman).

“It makes me think about how I’m basically a left-leaning moderate,” Ronson says, “and on Twitter that’s like being a 25-year-old porn star. I’m not a teen and I’m not a MILF. Nobody cares! You’re this indefinable thing that doesn’t matter.”

Jon Ronson explores the porn industry in a series of talks in Australia in April.

Ronson has become the protector of porn stars. Before his forays into podcasting, he was known for his best-selling investigative books, including The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. But for the past four years he’s been intrigued by the porn industry – a world populated by people living on the fringes and under the boot of piracy; people he now calls friends.

I share that fascination, having worked for adult magazines around 2000, when the landscape was very different. Women carved out high-earning careers through record-breaking feats of endurance, such as Bridgette Kerkove, a Pamela Anderson lookalike who, in one video, took 103 chopsticks anally; or Annabel Chong, who made the porno The World’s Biggest Gangbang, in which she had sex with 251 men, which kicked off an ever-escalating series. Invariably it would turn out, years later, that these feats had been greatly exaggerated, but nonetheless, they had tapped into an American obsession with athletic achievement and winning, ingrained at high school age. I almost look back nostalgically at Annabel and Bridgette’s record-breaking era. Because if porn then was like sex Olympics, in the age of Pornhub, it’s like factory farming.

Porn star star August Ames is the subject of Jon Ronson’s The Last Days of August. Credit:Getty Images

Ronson’s show will be a behind-the-scenes look at the two series he made about the adult industry – The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August. The latter proved so traumatic in its telling of the suicide of star August Ames that Ronson had “a mini decline in mental health”. As he told The Yorkshire Post, the pressure of telling the story responsibly led him to be diagnosed with adjustment disorder – basically situational depression – for which he sought cognitive behavioural therapy.

He’ll also be showing clips of ‘‘custom porn’’, which was a happy-accident discovery when he was making The Butterfly Effect. He’d stumbled upon husband-and-wife team Rhiannon and Dan, who had an unusual business model. They realised that one way of combatting the piracy of porn was to create bespoke videos for individuals to their very precise specifications.

One example Ronson gives is a film in which Wonder Woman is trying to leave the house but is prevented from doing so by a gremlin. Ronson tracks down the client behind that request and discovers that the man’s mother had left the family when he was five years old, and he’d fruitlessly tried to sit on her suitcase to stop her. Many of these custom videos can be traced back to childhood trauma, it seems. But what’s heartwarming to Ronson is that few requests involve violent scenarios, despite the prevalence of keywords such as ‘‘brutal’’, ‘‘violent’’ and ‘‘forced’’ on Pornhub.

“When I was looking around for interesting custom videos to chronicle, the stuff I filtered out wasn’t abusive stuff, it was boring stuff like toe-sucking,” Ronson says. “What’s so lovely is that the creators and their clients are connecting in a kind-hearted, mutually therapeutic way.”

And, he adds, “I never would have found that delightful story if I’d done the story about the dark, seedy side of the industry.” I’ve asked him why he chose not to go near misogynistic porn in his series; the type that moves beyond the fetish of degradation, and is more obviously porn made by men who hate women, for men who hate women.

The stuff I filtered out wasn’t abusive stuff, it was boring stuff like toe-sucking.

“I deliberately stayed away from that stuff,” he says. “That documentary Hot Girls Wanted had come out on Netflix, which was all about that sleazy, misogynistic side of the industry. When you include coercive, unpleasant porn, you can’t really tell any other story, you know what I mean?”

It drowns out everything else.

“Exactly. And abusive porn tends to ebb and flow.”

He’s right – two big-name pornographers from the '90s, Max Hardcore and Rob ‘‘Black’’ Zicari, wound up going to jail, and while young girls can become cannon fodder in movies these days, they’re also more likely – post #MeToo – to call out abuse on Twitter.

Pornhub set up a pop-up store in Manhattan in 2017 as a reminder of how sanitised New York has become since the lurid heyday of peep shows and sex shops. Credit:New York Times

Each episode of The Butterfly Effect meets a new character affected by Pornhub, such as autistic teenager Nathan, who had texted his girlfriend that he wanted to rape her – it was dialogue from porn he’d watched and not fully understood – and was put on a sex offender register for the rest of his life. And the students of Southern Baptist preacher John Gibson, who took his own life when his name was one of millions leaked as a member of adultery website Ashley Madison (an advertiser on Pornhub), despite the fact that it turned out most male members had been talking to bots, not women.

One such student, Dakota, admits to Ronson that she herself uses Pornhub, despite it being against her Christian values. When Ronson asks her if she ever thinks about the lives of the performers, Dakota responds, rather chillingly: “When you kill a deer you don’t name it, because then you can’t eat it.”

Ronson feels performers are discriminated against by everyone from bank managers, to future employers once they exit the industry, to the tech companies destroying their livelihoods – and statistically by those who would have no problem watching them on screen.

“I remember talking to Brandon,” Ronson says of Brandon Reti, the former director of mobile at Pornhub, “and he was totally wanting to distance himself. He actually said he didn’t want people to think of him as a piece of ‘garbage-peddling smut’, and I think that’s very common in the tech world. They only want to think of porn as pixels on the screen. They don’t want to think of it in human terms because then they’d have to confront the consequences of their business models.”

Ronson has become so interested in the amorality of big tech that he plans on investigating it further. “I want to do a Great Gatsby of the modern tech world,” he says. “Uber, you could argue, are just as troublesome as Pornhub – there’s a spate of Yellow Cab drivers in New York who have committed suicide in the last couple of years. When I said that to Brandon he immediately shot back with, ‘You don’t think YouTube should exist?’ And obviously that’s not the point. You can’t turn back the clock. But I think it’s important to consider the seismic consequences.”

I ask Ronson how he sees the industry surviving. “There’s always going to be a market for highly produced, glossy hotel porn, but people will be working much harder than they had to work when they first entered the industry, to make way less money than they used to make,” he says.

And for Ronson himself? His depression alleviated when the response to The Last Days of August was very positive within the industry and he felt satisfied that he’d conducted himself ethically. For now, he remains enamoured by podcasts.

“I get so absorbed in the minutiae – should the silence be a second or a mini-second?” he says. “Whereas I always think every book needs to be everything I’ve learned in life, so when you deliver it you’re a spent husk.”

While unintentional, it’s a fitting metaphor for the industry to which he’s devoted the past few years.

Jon Ronson: The Butterfly Effect is at St Kilda Town Hall, April 1, for the Wheeler Centre and Sydney Town Hall, April 5, for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.,

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