Writer and podcaster Jon Ronson will be in Ireland to talk about his immersion in the adult film industry, writes
Ever the podcaster, Jon Ronson is scene-setting for his own interview, over the phone from New York. “I’m walking around the reservoir in Central Park on a lovely spring day,” he says. “I have the most beautiful panoramic view of the city.”
The Welsh-born author, broadcaster and screenwriter has lived in the Big Apple for seven years now. Simultaneously, he’s also spent three of those years immersed in the world of porn.
Ronson, best known for writing The Men Who Stare At Goats and for his work on the This American Life podcast, is something of a polymath: his screenplays include the Lenny Abrahamson directed Frank, which he wrote having enjoyed a stint in the real-life Frank Sidebottom’s band.
He also has the dubious claim to fame of having inadvertently helped to popularise US talk show host Alex Jones, he of the lizard-people rants, in a series he made on conspiracy theorists in 2001, before Jones’ Infowars site blossomed into the go-to “alternative media” of the American alt-right.
Whatever Ronson turns his hand to, the common thread is his eye for the incongruous and his affectionate regard for the nuanced inner workings of the human animal.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that in the world of porn, Ronson found rich pickings: an entire industry that he says the wider world is “studiously uninterested” in. The Butterfly Effect, Ronson’s seven-part 2017 podcast series, was his first foray into the world of the adult film industry.
In it, he unravelled the “butterfly effect” of the title: the myriad unforeseen ways that the emergence of free porn-streaming giant Pornhub threatened the adult film industry and changed society. He explored everything from booming rates of young male impotence to the emergence of a thriving trade in so-called “custom” videos, where porn stars make ends meet by performing in bespoke films for wealthy clients, who pay thousands of dollars for their private fantasies to be enacted.
The directors and actors Ronson spent time with for the podcast suffered the same spiralling incomes experienced by all media makers impacted by digitisation. But while film and music piracy have generated outcries, the public’s shame-based blind spot has created a moral landscape where no-one bats an eyelid about stolen porn, Ronson argued.
The Butterfly Effect was often playful and funny, but Ronson’s second podcasting foray into porn is anything but; The Last Days Of August investigates the suicide of Canadian adult film star August Ames, who took her own life a day after being subjected to a Twitter pile-on for tweeting that she had refused to shoot a scene with a male co-star who also worked in gay porn.
“The Last Days of August definitely goes into a darker side of the industry,” Ronson says.
Because most people don’t want to know about the porn world, that means exploitation can flourish. There’s not enough mental health care: even though the San Fernando Valley has a lot of porn people in it, no therapists specialise in porn.
“There’s also lot of bigotry: when August went to a therapist, they asked her what she did. When she told them she was in porn, they assumed all her troubles in life came from what she did for a living. But August’s troubles ran deeper than that.”
Ames’ troubles also ran far deeper than Ronson had suspected, the podcast reveals. Having written a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in 2015, Ronson initially became interested in her sad tale because he believed, as her husband, porn producer Kevin Moore claimed, that Ames’ online bullying was the direct cause of her decision to end her life.
But what he discovered was that 23-year-old Ames, whose real name was Mercedes Grabowski, had a history of depression, self-medication and childhood sexual abuse, a tale, Ronson says, that bears a commonality with a lot of young women in an industry he describes as a “ferocious, rancorous, tribal business.”
“You have a lot of girls who are 18 or 19 who have gravitated towards porn because something happened to them in their own childhood — some kind of sexual abuse,” he says. “The porn world is full of charismatic older men. Maybe the young women see these older men as father figures, but they have their own damage and issues. As a result, you end up with somewhat toxic relationships: you can get a young woman who wants something out of the relationship that the older man is psychologically incapable of giving.”
On top of all this, Ronson discovered cracks in the original narrative around her death and revealed that Ames had filmed a sex scene that left her bruised and traumatised months before her death.
It’s a dark tale indeed, but Ronson is still not keen to portray the world of porn through the black and white lens of a moralist.
“Anyone who just says the porn world is bad, or the opposite, that the porn world is great, anyone who puts ideology over human experience is someone I naturally disagree with,” he says.
Because both those things are true; you can have a great life in porn and some people do, and you can have a terrible life in porn and some people do.
The long-form medium of podcasting is, he says, the perfect place to explore such nuance, but it’s also time-consuming. In total, Ronson and his producer, Lina Misitzis, spent three years delving into the world of porn for both series.
Ronson’s family life with his wife, Elaine Patterson, and their son, is in New York, but he travelled numerous times to the San Fernando valley in California, the hub of US porn production, to interview actors and directors and spend time on porn shoots.
Spending so much time immersed in the world of on-camera sex, Ronson has said in the past that the sex “quickly becomes unsexy.”
Did all that time in the porn world take a personal toll?
“Not in terms of my relationship with my wife,” he says. “I remember once saying to her, ‘I think I need to spend more time on porn sets,’ and she gave me a look as if to say, ‘you seem to be doing a lot more research for this particular project that you normally do.’
“But Elaine is a very unjealous person and we’ve been together a very long time, so that wasn’t an issue at all.”
What was an issue was the realisation that I had an enormous responsibility with The Last Days of August, a much bigger one than with The Butterfly Effect. August died a month before we started recording.
“Here we were, digging around in the lives of grieving people. I cared about getting that right
and that had an impact on my own well-being, because it was such a weight and such a burden.”