Jon Ronson on porn: what he learned making new audiobook ‘The Butterfly Effect’

'You know you're getting old when people rub your back with concern on a porn set,' says the celebrated author

Porn; everyone watches it, but how many actually pay for it? And what kind of effect does that have on the people involved in the industry? That is essentially the premise for journalist and author Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test, Okja), whose new audio series The Butterfly Effect traces the effect that free porn has had on the world – from the people who made it happen, those who star in it and to those who watch it.

It starts by introducing us to Fabian Thylmann, a German tech-guru who turned Pornhub into the biggest provider of free porn in the world. He went on to become a super-rich media mogul, but not everyone benefitted from the proliferation of free porn like he did. In the series, Ronson travels to the San Fernando Valley, California to meet performers, producers and more to discover the real ‘Butterfly Effect’ that came from Fabian’s empire. As you can imagine, it doesn’t really work out for many people.

The series is available for free on Audible now, but before that we spoke to Ronson about performer shaming, the prevalence of custom porn and the mysterious ‘Stamps Man’.

Why did you decide to start this deep-dive into the porn industry?

“Everyone’s watching their porn for free on Pornhub and nobody is thinking about the consequences. A lot of people are so contentious of porn people, but they’re perfectly happy to watch their pirated porn. I’m always looking for a mystery, and I wondered what the consequences of the tech takeover of porn would be. At it’s heart, the aim of this series is; ‘maybe you should rethink who should be judged as respectable and who shouldn’t be’. But there’s still so much stigma attached to porn performers.”

Were you disheartened by the way tech people like Fabian spoke about performers and people making them the money?

“Definitely. One guy in the series, Brandon, basically said to me; ‘I’m not a porn-person or a piece of garbage peddling smut – I’m a tech person’. They get to do whatever they want in this world – they’re the new oligarchs and nobody cares because they’re giving the world what we want; free porn. So they go unchecked. One example of that in Episode 1, a porn performer can’t get a current account because they’re judged as disreputable, whereas Fabian got a $362m loan to build this empire, which is based upon the handling of those people’s stolen porn.”

The Butterfly Effect

It’s not just people in the industry though, is it?

“No. I was at this Radical Odyssey church group in New Orleans where the kids confessed their most shameful secrets. One of them was this girl called Dakota and her secret was that she watched Pornhub. I said to her ‘so did you ever get so into it you could recognise the performers?’ She replied ‘no, ‘it’s like when you kill a deer, you don’t name it because then you can’t eat it.”

You travelled to the US to visit some porn sets – that must have been awkward for you?

“No not really, I’m always interested by outsiders and porn is a family of outsiders to an extent, so I feel very comfortable in places like that. I also went on my first porn set when I was writing So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed [Ronson’s last book] and I remember everyone was rubbing my back to make sure I was OK. You know you’re getting old when people rub your back with concern on a porn set.”

Custom Porn – where consumers can pay producers to make bespoke, one-off porn videos just for them – became a huge part of the series. Did you expect that?

“No, it was a great moment when I was on the set of Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy and the second camera man just happened to mention the existence of custom porn. It was such a treasure trove and unexpected insight into people’s inner-lives.”

There’s one featured in the series from someone you all call ‘Stamps Man’ – who asked two girls to refrain from doing anything sexual, but to just destroy his stamp collection of 40 years on video.

“Stamps Man is so mysterious, I love him. I know there’s a lot of predictable bespoke porn. Like there’s a lot of foot fetish, but we wanted the most unexpected, like the weirdest, most unusual ones like Stamps Man. You can’t get more mysterious than that.”

The Butterfly Effect is available to listen to on Audible now.