Free porn and the lives of ‘porn people’ and their fans: Jon Ronson’s ‘The Butterfly Effect’

(Written for In Plainspeak‘s November issue – read the original here)

The first time I heard the phrase ‘Butterfly Effect’ was in Jurassic Park, when mathematician Ian Malcolm uses it to explain Chaos Theory: ‘A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking, and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine’. Can such seemingly disconnected events actually, when intricately observed, have had some thread of a connection?

Jon Ronson’s fascinating podcast The Butterfly Effect examines in seven parts the effect that a single person’s series of actions has had on the multi-billion porn industry. Set in ‘the Valley’ – San Fernando in the USA, home to this industry – Jon Ronson traces the impact that he believes Fabian Thylmann, who bought PornHub and nearly every other online porn tube, had on the thriving business of pornography. Ronson focuses on different groups of people, including Thylmann himself, directors, actors and even some consumers.

I admit I started the series with some trepidation. Would it take a holier-than-thou approach to porn, blaming the Internet for providing easier access to porn or for enabling ‘amateurs’ – everyday yous and mes, non-actors – to upload porn? Would it talk of adult film actors only as people stuck in this profession for want of something better to do?

The beginning of the series assuaged my concerns somewhat: Ronson shared how the idea for the series came when he saw, in a hotel lobby, a woman he could clearly tell was an adult film actor – she was in a bright blue and tight dress, standing out among everyone else dressed in boring clothes – and observed the look of “total contempt” that the hotel receptionist reserved for this woman. “It made me think that some people are only comfortable with ‘porn people’ when they’re on their computers, and not in their immediate vicinity,” he says.

Indeed, throughout the series, Ronson takes a practical, business-like perspective towards those he calls “porn people”, avoiding steering into murky, moral waters, but maintaining empathy and affect.

Ronson begins by trying to understand what exactly Thylmann did by interviewing him and some of his team members. Thylmann grew from being a geeky teenager in Belgium sharing porn site passwords in the 1990s on CompuServe (then a very popular site with chat rooms and message forums), to buying Porn Hub in 2010 and then buying out most of his competition. Ronson believes that the method used to classify porn on these sites (‘Asian’, ‘blow job’, ‘teen’) affected the porn industry significantly. Directors now not only had to contend with their painstakingly written and directed adult films being uploaded online for free viewing days after they were released, resulting in their incomes plummeting over the years, but they also had to make movies like ‘Cheerleader stepdaughter orgy’ to make sure their films appeared in as many categories as possible!

Ronson moves on to interview adult film actors, thankfully not telling (only) sob stories; some women present strong stories of struggle and hope. He finds that female actors slip between the cracks when they are in their early/mid 20s to early 30s: not young enough to be a ‘teen’ anymore, but not old enough to be a ‘MILF’ either (I was a bit shocked that a female porn actor was already a MILF at 30). If they had a big ass, they could, however, go into the ‘big ass’ category. The ones in between have to try their luck; one such woman talks about moving coasts to come to the Valley for a few months, in the hope of making some money before heading back home to survive the rest of the year. Another woman describes her emotional conversation with her teenage daughter after she found out that her mother was a porn actor, and how the daughter eventually accepted it. Free porn that Thylmann ‘enabled’ hasn’t spared male actors either; one actor who quit porn after it stopped giving him enough money went on to become a nurse, but over time, older videos of his started making the rounds online and he was eventually asked to leave by the hospital.

So what happens to the female actors who do fall between the cracks? Ronson’s exploration of this was the most interesting section of the series for me. Enter the world of custom porn, which employs these women as actors or in production. Thanks to the Internet, people – usually wealthy ones – can anonymously submit requests to custom porn producers with an idea that would be filmed exclusively for them. These requests accommodate any level of detail they want: indeed, some specify the exact type of lighting, angles and locations and reject the final video if any of these are not followed.

Not all of custom porn is technically porn, though, for oftentimes sex is not involved. Some involve women dousing themselves in condiments, while another has a woman dressed like Wonder Woman who wants to go out, but gets attacked by a gremlin. The one that intrigues Ronson the most is of a man from Norway who sends his forty-year-old stamp collection to ‘customs’ producer duo Dan and Rhiannon and asks them to film a group of women setting it to fire. Dan and Rhiannon are, understandably, stumped; they ask the man if he’s sure, and he is. They record it and send it to him, and he emails them regularly for a while, telling them how thankful he is for the video. Ronson tries to reach the man, and he’s unsuccessful for several months, until another custom producer tells him about a very similar ‘bizarre’ request. After multiple requests, the stamp man agrees to be interviewed over email by the second customs producer, and it turns out that his wish to see the stamp collection burnt reflects his emotional trauma from being rebuked for being a ‘nerd’ who collected stamps.

Those commissioning custom films often have some deeper, psychological reasons that they are trying to address, Ronson finds from his interviews. The person who commissioned the Wonder Woman video had his mother leaving him when he was five, and he had tried to stop her from leaving by sitting on her suitcase. While one customs producer said she is never interested in knowing the backgrounds and stories of the people who commission them, others aren’t able to successfully keep themselves from wondering. One person requested a custom film of a woman speaking to the camera to dissuade them from suicide. The woman who acted it out was in tears; the producers wondered if the video had, in fact, helped the person, for they never heard from them again.

I found that Ronson handled this sensitively, trying to get multiple perspectives around customs – of the makers, the actors, the proposers. Where I wish there had been more diversity was in his exploration of the ‘effects’ of porn on its consumers. Much of it focuses on young people, and one ‘expert’ claims that thanks to porn, young men are unable to sustain erections when they’re in bed with a ‘real’ woman, because they’re so used to the picture-perfect porn stars… and that’s why teenage pregnancies are dropping, not because of fewer young people being sexually active or because of sexuality education!

However, there’s one touching – and chilling – story of a young man diagnosed with ADHD and autism who got put on the sex offenders’ registry at 18, because he shared a clip of anime porn with a 17-year-old, his girlfriend of sorts – a type of anime that they had bonded over (and it was easy to find because of the minute categorisation, thanks to, you guessed it, Fabian Thylmann). The man lives with his mother and they talk about his difficulties living as a sex offender, where one isn’t allowed anywhere around a child or any place with children: which means restaurants, supermarkets, parks, localities with parks or schools in them, are all out of bounds. Ronson explores this sensitively, leaving questions in our minds without explicitly asking them. What are the lines of consent? What happens to someone when they turn 18 that they were not a day before? How does one account for neuro developmental disorders in sexual ‘offences’?

As the series rolls on, one wonders whether all of it can be traced back to Fabian Thylmann’s activities, but perhaps it’s a wanton exaggeration employed by Ronson to talk about the staggering but seemingly obvious effects of free porn. Ronson maintains his role as a neutral observer-narrator for the most part, except perhaps when he seems to be goading Thylmann into feeling guilty about what he’s done. Ronson questions Thylmann about his wealth and repeatedly goes back to him with the upsetting stories he’s heard from producers and actors – Thylmann, however, never gives in.

I found The Butterfly Effect fascinating; it was wonderful to see discussions around porn without a singular lens of exploitation, and to tease out the nuances of how porn can be helpful – as in the case of those who request customs – or not. There was so much new to learn, presented effectively over seven episodes. I like to think that I view the subject of pornography objectively, but even so, this was a wonderful insight into the mundane lives and needs of actors and directors, as well as the effort that goes into making the porn clips that we consume without a thought. And for one thing, it made me think about the importance of paying for porn, especially feminist porn.