Exploring 'The Butterfly Effect' Of Free Online Porn With Jon Ronson

The author and journalist discusses his new Audible series, and why he chose to focus on the unexpected results of the democratization of porn.

Jon Ronson would like to talk about the porn industry for a moment. The 50-year-old British author has made a career of enthusiastically exploring topics most people won’t touch — public shaming, dark personality disorders, and paranormal military operation. But his new Audible Original series, The Butterfly Effect, tackles a topic that nearly everyone is familiar with, but few will discuss: online pornography. Specifically, how tech is changing the way porn is made and consumed … and the unexpected consequences both are having, for better or worse. While such a thorny topic might prove problematic for others, Ronson, with his gentle Welsh dialect and inquistive, non-judgmental reporting style — has started an authentic and thoughtful conversation. Audible Editor Benjamin Korman sat down with Ronson to discuss his approach and what he hopes you’ll take away from the show.

 

Benjamin Korman: You’ve covered all sorts of taboo topics in your career, psychopathy, public shaming, and secret cabals. What drew you to the subject of pornography? 

Jon Ronson: I want to tell stories about mysterious worlds. What drew me to the porn world is actually really similar to what drew me to the story about public shaming, which is that people act badly towards porn people. They watch their porn for free, they watch pirated porn and don’t think about the consequences. There’s a line where I ask a porn fan if she ever thinks about or knows the names of the porn stars that she watches, and she says, “No, I don’t. I don’t know their names. It’s like when you kill a deer — you don’t name it, because then you can’t eat it.”

I’m always interested in destigmatizing people. For all the sex-positive people out there and all the anti-slut-shaming people out there, there’s still a hell of a lot of stigma when it comes to porn stars. People don’t want to think of them as humans, and I always like to portray people as humans. Especially [the kinds of] people other people don’t.

BK: How would you define a “butterfly effect”?

JR: Edward Lorenz was the man who coined the phrase “the butterfly effect.” He was a meteorologist and he posed a question at a conference, which then became very famous: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil create a tornado in Texas?” Whether it was an actual meteorological phenomenon, I don’t know. But it’s the idea of a small [action] — when you throw a stone in a pond — and consequences grow wider and wider and wider. I think some of the places that we end up are huge, from such a tiny idea. An idea being, you know, this kid Fabian coming up with a business plan to get rich from providing free online porn.

BK : How do you think that creation, Pornhub, is going to change peoples’ relationship with pornography?

JR: It’s done one positive thing, which is make a generation of young people feel less ashamed about sex, because it’s normalized porn for a lot of people. I think a lot of young people are less screwed up about sex and porn than people of my generation.

But there are an awful lot of negative consequences as well. One is that it’s how [essentially] every child in the world learns about sex these days. Pornhub is educating a generation of people, and not necessarily in the best way; these days, if you’re not a “teen” and you’re not a “MILF,” you can’t get work. It’s a long, fallow period between “teens” and “MILFs.” 

BK: Speaking of negative consequences, what story devastated you the most? 

JR: There’s really only one dark story in this series. And that was deliberate. I didn’t want [the show] to be a gut-wrenching story of revenge porn. But the story of the boy in Oklahoma with autism who was trying to impress a girl — the way he did it was to send a text of dialogue he had seen in porn films. And, as you can imagine, that went down very, very badly, and now he’s stuck on the sex offenders’ registry for the next 23 years, which turns out to limit what you can do in your life quite extraordinarily.

BK: Did any stories pleasantly surprise you?

JR: My favorite story in the series is the “bespoke porn” series. Traditional porn is dying because of all the piracy on Pornhub, but out of the ashes, there’s this new industry rising in the valley, and it’s bespoke porn: teams of professional porn people who will make an entire film for just one viewer. What an amazing way to see inside peoples’ souls! To see the bespoke porn films they commission. And it was very sweet. It was a really sweet relationship between the producers of these custom porn films and the people who were commissioning them.

BK: The idea of following ripple effects: How does this method of chasing a story differ from the other writing and reporting work you do?

JR: This is the first time that the narrative structure, the narrative conceit, superseded the story itself. I’ve noticed over the past few years that on the internet, nobody thinks about consequences. I thought a butterfly effect would be a sort of interesting way of telling a story about consequences. I like to think of parameters for whatever I’m doing. I like to think of a structure and set of rules. 

In my book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I had a set of rules that I would only tell shaming stories of private individuals who I felt had been disproportionately punished for not particularly serious offenses. So that immediately cuts out a million shaming stories: It cuts out every celebrity who gets publicly shamed, it cuts out everybody who’s been publicly shamed for serious offenses like sexual harassment, and so on. 

BK: Do you think that The Butterfly Effect will help destigmatize porn and the people who make it?

JR: Yes, I do. We did a live version [of The Butterfly Effect] and invited some porn people to the show. And at the end of the show, someone said to me: “You know, this could be the first time anyone’s ever treated us as humans, the first time any mainstream journalist has come in and hasn’t pitied us or attacked us, or come in with some kind of ideological baggage.” [Journalists] always feel this kind of urge to portray [porn stars] in some objectifying way. Either pitying them or portraying them as victims, or portraying them as bad. Or if they’re not bad, the porn viewers are bad … but something’sbad. And our show doesn’t do that. And I think it’s really rare and I think they’re really pleased that they trusted us and we didn’t betray their trust.

Listen now to The Butterfly Effect, available at audible.com/butterfly.

Tags

More From Jon Ronson

Up Next

When Should Writers Narrate Their Own Work?

It's one thing to be a gifted author, it's quite another to give life to those words in a way listeners will love. How often can an "authorrator" do both?