How the Internet Changed Porn

Author Jon Ronson on his 'Butterfly Effect' podcast, PornHub and pornography's adaptation to the digital age

Jon Ronson felt badly about the way he'd described Parisian orgies – and set out to make a different kind of story about sex. Credit: Jesse Dittmar/Redux

Years ago, the author and filmmaker Jon Ronson reported on Parisian orgies: elaborate high-society fuckfests with beautiful people packed into palatial apartments. Today, Ronson has a reputation for sympathetically portraying outsiders in his work, like the George Clooney film The Men Who Stare at Goats (based on his book of the same name), Netflix's vegetarianism parable Okja (for which he wrote the screenplay), books like So You've Been Publicly Shamed (about the victims online humiliation) and countless appearances on This American Life, including the frequently re-run "The Psychopath Test," about a man possibly unjustly committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Back then, though, he didn't have the maturity to write fairly about something that seemed to him a little out of the ordinary. "I felt a bit ashamed to say I thought [the orgies were] really cool," Ronson tells Rolling Stone over the phone on a recent afternoon. He was working with a photographer at the time, who he remembers turning to him and saying, "Please don't be mean about this."

"I was a bit mean about it," Ronson says regretfully. "I was wrong to be mean about it. And it was because of my own fucked-upness, nothing to do with the thing I was reporting on. It was like I was positing myself as a kind of representative of writing society who was disapproving of this thing that I'd seen."

Ronson's new seven-part Audible podcast, The Butterfly Effect, is a chance to make up for his mistake all those years ago. It's a sympathetic look at performers and producers in the porn industry, that's never once purient or judgmental. It's mostly concerned with answering one question: how can anyone today make a living in porn, if everyone who watches it gets it for free?

There's lots of ways to get free porn, but by far the most common is the website PornHub. It's currently the biggest porn portal on the Internet, serving a massive audience of 75 million people every day. It was guided to market dominance by Fabian Thylmann, who first got the idea to create an easy-to-use site for free pornography as a teenager trading nude .jpgs on Compuserve in 1994. 

While Pornhub owns several production companies, including relatively big names like Brazzers, many of the videos on its site are professionally produced films which have been uploaded illegally by individual users of the site. (PornHub VP Corey Price defended the business model in an emailed statement to Rolling Stone, noting that they work with content providers to put clips of longer features on their site, and in doing so often bring new paying customers to other paid sites. "Should someone upload content that is illegal, we have a team in place to remove such content immediately once we are made aware of it.") Yet for Ronson, PornHub represents all the forces of technological change in the porn world.

The Butterfly Effect talks to the people involved in making porn, to see how the total domination of Pornhub has changed their lives. Some producers make movies differently, giving them easily searchable titles that let a viewer know exactly what's coming, like Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy. This keyword dominance has the odd side effect of making porn performers almost unemployable between categories; the gap between "teen" and "MILF," roughly 22 to 30, is a common fallow period. Others produce custom porn, idiosyncratic videos commissioned specifically for the consumption of one client only.

Rolling Stone spoke to Ronson about what he learned during more than a year talking with professionals about the challenges of making porn today.

The podcast starts with the idea that the founding of Pornhub has massively changed what it means to make porn. What were some changes that you found particularly distressing?
Well, I mean, it's changed everything. I don't want to couch this as an entirely a negative story, because it's not. But, as I say at one point in the show, nobody cares when it's music being pirated. And this is porn, so nobody cares. Within that hypocrisy lies the capacity for exploitation.

So when Fabian and tech took over porn, this huge flow of money occurred from the San Fernando Valley into Fabian's pockets and nobody cared because they had just given the world what it wanted: free porn.

A lot of people went out of business. There's a market escalation in porn where women go into escorting to pay the rent. And then these kind of extraordinary consequences like the fact that everything has to be keyword searchable now, which means if you're not a teen, if you're not a MILF, if you're not a keyword, you're fucked. You have to be an extreme version of this or an extreme version of that because if you're just sort of a hard-to-define thing in the middle, like the 25-year-old adult porn actor, then you're screwed.

The show paints a picture of being a porn performer as a job where you have to be on social media all the time building your brand. And you can't even say, "Oh I'm depressed today," on Twitter because then it might turn off your fans, and some producers might not want to hire you.

It’s so psychologically unhealthy. This is something I was getting at in So You've Been Publicly Shamed, as well. I prefer a world where people could be unself-conscious and admit shameful secrets about themselves and be open and honest about their flaws. And in some ways social media is allowing people to be more honest than they used to be. Certainly, people talk about sex more openly than they used to, and that's good. But you still have to keep certain things secret at risk of being, you know, kind of broken by the machine. And in the porn world, a woman like [porn performer] Maci May can’t admit that she’s feeling depressed or not having a good day. Everybody has to be a fucking brand. We're all like corporations at risk of suffering PR disasters. That’s a dreadful way to live. 

I got the sense that custom porn – videos commissioned by one person, and for that person only – really fascinated you. Why?
It's because it's such an insight into people's inner lives. Even one of the less interesting customs – like the restaurateur who wants industrial size tubs of condiments poured over a woman's head [as described in the podcast] – is such an insight. Here, somewhere in Georgia, is a restaurateur who's plagued or upset or, you know, has this sort of unhealthy relationship with condiments, and he has to deal with condiments every day.

What evolved from that story was a really unexpectedly tender and beautiful relationship between the person producing the porn and their client. The best compliment that we got – I did like 10 minutes onstage at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, and we invited a bunch of our porn people to watch it. And one of them – I can't remember if it was [porn performer] Casey Calvert or [Anatomik Media custom producers] Dan and Rhiannon – but one of them said, no one's ever nice about us, and you were nice about us. And on the kind of rare occasion that somebody's nice about us, then they go after the clients, and you didn't do that, either.

Your show isn't exactly about the downside of porn, but there are some bits here and there than come close. Were you concerned about coming across as anti-porn or anti-sex?
I was really aware of that. I was quite happy to be critical of the tech takeover of porn. At the very beginning of the process, a gay porn star friend of mine called Conner Habib said to me, all the bad things that happened to us in porn happened because of outsiders, not because of what happened inside the industry. You know, the tech people coming in and taking over. I didn't want to be critical of the porn community, especially because the people I was with were not the kind of sleazy end of porn that you see in a show like Hot Girls Wanted. They were a respectful, kindhearted community.

The people I met were nice people. I really enjoyed their company. They're really nice people to be around, and they're sort of outsiders, and I like outsiders. All Jews feel like outsiders, and as a result sympathize with other outsiders.

That's the reason I made the show the way that I did. [The way I covered the Parisian orgies] was a sign of immaturity. I didn't want to do that again, now that I'm a mature gentleman.