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All the Free Porn You Watch Is Destroying the Industry

We chat with writer Jon Ronson about his new audio drama and the changing porn industry.

J. W. McCormack

Audible

Jon Ronson has made a career out of following absurdity to its natural limits, resulting in a kind of gonzo investigative journalism. In The Men Who Stare At Goats, he examined the U.S. Military effort to tap into people's latent psychic powers; The Psychopath Test used the 20-part checklist of the title to expose biases in the mental health industry; and even Okja, co-written by director Bong Joon-ho, applies the excesses of the meat industry to a fantastic story about a CGI-generated super pig. In this sense, The Butterfly Effect , the new audiobook just out from Audible Originals, is pure Ronson.

The Butterfly Effect begins with the story of Fabian Thylmann, the Brussels-raised multi-millionaire behind PornHub, the site where visitors can stream porn videos without paying for them. From there, Ronson traces the devastating effect of Fabian's entrepreneurship on what he calls "the porn people" of California's San Fernando Valley who direct, film, and star in the kind of productions that PornHub effectively steals from. In the course of the audiobook, we meet a fascinating cross-section of individuals transformed by the digitization of porn, from actresses who have turned to "designer porn," to an Oklahoma teenager with autism who winds up on a sex-offender registry after texting a crush dialogue from a porn film. Following an exhibition of The Butterfly Effect at Brooklyn's Bell House, I spoke to Ronson about the camaraderie of porn stars, the effect of streamable porn on the sex doll industry, and the evolving market for made-on-demand, or "bespoke," porn.

VICE: The Butterfly Effect is quite simply about what happens to an American industry—its entrepreneurs, labor people, infrastructure—when the good it produces is co-opted or provided for free by the internet. The good in question is porn. What are the variables in this industry that differ from the case with something like Napster and the music industry?
Jon Ronson: When I started researching this close to two years ago I was having a talk with my friend, the singer Emmy the Great. I had just discovered that one of the consequences of PornHub's dominance of the industry was that porn women were going into escorting. I said to Emmy, "At least you don't have to have sex with your fans," and she said, "Well, not yet."

That's the difference. Not many people care about the intellectual properties of musicians, but nobody cares about porn people. They're victims of hypocrisy. The public doesn't want to think about porn people, which means that the abuses are even worse. Nobody advocates for them. Porn people are on their own.

Is the internet really to blame for all the dysfunction in porn? Isn't this supposed to be a fairly corrupt industry?
That documentary Hot Girls Wanted found a sleazy exploitative corner of porn in Miami. The performers I got to know in the Valley were very unhappy with it because this sleazy agent doesn't represent the mainstream porn community, where everyone is respectful and professional and is nice to each other. They're a family of outsiders and for me that's lovely. I find the idea of a family of outsiders helping each other in this shabby world romantic. That really appeals to me. But I feel very akin to porn people because I've always considered myself a bit of an outsider, so I always empathize with outsiders.

What about the consumer of free streaming porn? What are they losing?
Well, some medical people will say that streaming is creating psychological carnage. Erectile dysfunction has gone up about a thousand percent because the ubiquitous way people watch PornHub makes it much harder for them to have sex with actual humans. We covered cases where very young children think the way to impress a girl is to text her dialogue from porn films and, of course, the sex doll industry is becoming more successful. So things seem to be having a really significant effect on the consumer.

How does the cultural scorn accorded to porn performers have an economic impact?
It's kind of all connected. When I first started researching the site, I talked to a gay porn star named Conner Habib and he answered me that "Every bad thing that happens to porn people happens because of the outside world looking in." I'm sure that there's certain corners of the porn industry where you have exploitive directors, but we certainly didn't see any of that.

When I was on the set of Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy, we were outside and they were shooting the scene where the cheerleaders come home from practice, and these kids amassed on a nearby hill were catcalling them. For the first time, everybody looked self-conscious and embarrassed. Within the bubble of the porn community, it's a supportive familial professional atmosphere. It's when outsiders get involved that everything fucks up, and that's a good metaphor for the book as a whole: Tech people get involved and don't even set foot on a porn set because they think it's unsavory. A porn star can't get a checking account in a bank, they're considered disreputable. But Fabian can take out a $362 million dollar loan.

In the course of the story, you explore designer porn, where a person can hire porn productions for a particular scenario that caters to their fetish. What does a fetish tell us about these strangers?
As a writer, you're always thinking about people's inner life, their imagination. Bespoke porn—that is, custom porn—is such an extraordinary window to people's inner life. One of the first ones we heard about was where a guy wanted the porn people to buy a particular van, drive it around for a week smoking cigarettes, then blow up the van. You just have so many questions. What happened in this man's life, what did that one particular van do to him? And how does it feel to be a professional porn person who is now making porn for just one viewer?

And the people designing these productions aren't professional writers, so they're writing odd dialogue, directing strange camera angles and strange outfits, and the professional porn people then have to make it work given these instructions. It's like an upbeat, sex-angle remake of The Act of Killing. What more can anyone ask for? And then you've got the guy who pays the porn actresses to burn his stamp collection or the one about a gremlin who yells at Wonder Woman. So specific! It's a dream for one person, a work of art that only matters to one person.

Let's talk about the sex offenders registry. You highlight how unmediated these laws are, to the point that we have six year-olds who use inappropriate language or people who suffer from autism or learning disabilities ending up on these lists.
I never thought much about the sex offenders' registry, so I had no idea there were children having their lives destroyed by it. No one wants to look into it because they're "sex offenders." I think there's something peculiarly American about the way puberty is being criminalized. There's this misapprehension among judges and prosecutors that if you start acting weird when you're eight or nine, you're going to be weird throughout your life. And it just isn't true, and the punishments are incredible. For a child who's been branded a sex offender, you can't go to where other children are. You have to stay two thousand feet away from public parks, you can't play basketball, you can't take the bus, can't go to the arcade. You're just permanently grounded. I like to think of myself as someone that knows about these things, but until we stumbled on this story, I had no idea that this existed. That's how incurious the world is.

In your discussion of the fallout from Ashley Madison, in which hundreds of people pursuing extramarital affairs were exposed, you highlight people coming to terms with the idea that "everyone has struggles, everyone is broken." How can we encourage this tendency?
That's what my book So You've Been Publicly Shamed is about as well. One of the last lines of the book is "We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age." We're defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of them. For some reason, social media is creating a more judgmental world, where everybody is trying to show everyone else up as good people. I thought Glenn Greenwald made a really interesting point when he observed that, in the old days it would have been the political right that tore up the people compromised by Ashley Madison. But now it's the left. In fact, if anything, the right, the Christian right is more forgiving and may have something to show us about being more compassionate and accepting.

Do you hope to effect reform with the pointed critiques in The Butterfly Effect and Okja ?
I think I am becoming a bit of a moralist as I get older. I think So You've Been Publicly Shamed, The Butterfly Effect, and Okja all have a moralist quality to them. Honestly, not to be too pious, but we're living in very dehumanizing times when everyone hates one another and retreats to their corners, and are staring fiercely at the other side. The best thing about The Butterfly Effect is that it's humanist and it's about people liking each other, and doing good for each other. Maligned, marginalized people are being lovely and sweet and endearing and helpful. It's a weird world where you have to remind everybody that people are nice. People are good.

I suppose Okja inevitably is going to make people eat less meat. Google searches for the word "vegan" went up 56% after Okja. Unfortunately, there isn't a vegan equivalent of free porn. If you want to effect change in the porn world, then don't watch streaming porn. That has a real-world impact on people, putting people out of business, putting camera people out of business, forcing women to go into escorting. There's all these negative consequences that cut away at the Valley when people try to get all their porn for free, without a thought for the labor involved. Within that hypocrisy lies exploitation. As one former porn addict told me, "I never learned [the performers' names] because when you kill a deer, you don't learn its name." And then there's the fact that people are now consuming clips instead of narratives. The porn director Mike Quasar said to me that when he started in porn, he worked on movies with names like Women of Influence. And now he's directing films with titles like Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy. Of course, I've never seen Women of Influence, so for all I know it might be about the dangers of women having influence. But the way that porn has been reduced to keywords—which is so similar to the way we've reduced each other to keywords on Twitter—is another surprising and baffling consequence of the tech takeover of porn.