“Whatever you’re doing at any point in your life you can rest assured that Mike Quasar is probably shooting porn,” Jon Ronson tells me during a candid discussion on the impact free ‘tube’ sites are having on the porn industry.
At one point Quasar – a self-titled “Reluctant Pornographer” – lived the life of Riley in LA’s San Fernando Valley, cashing in lucrative pay cheques that rolled in on the back of pricey DVD sales and hotel pay-per-view royalties.
But a group of young techies in Montreal lay siege to all that. Mansef, as it was known before it became Manwin and then MindGeek, created the internet porn that we know today by setting up free-to-view sites that digitised the industry and ransacked companies who had become reliant on paying punters.
Overnight the power shifted from porn people with cameras to web people with laptops who knew how to make porn searchable and easily accessible. Quasar was forced to work three times as hard for a lot less money and the stars had to watch by as their videos garnered hundreds of millions of views on sites such as PornHub for no additional income whatsoever.
It also created a moral dilemma for most average people who were forced to make choices about what their life looks like online versus the people they are in real life. Following the success of The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, this is where Ronson’s latest works The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August pick up.
Ronson had travelled out to a church school in New Orleans to explore the impact of a teacher’s death who had committed suicide after his name had been exposed as part of the Ashley Madison data leak. The girls decided to create a ‘radical honesty group’ to help people confess their most shameful secrets in a safe space, which is where inspiration for the show arose.
Speaking to The London Economic, Ronson said: “One girl’s secret was that she watched PornHub, a lot, and afterwards I asked her whether she had ever got so into it that she learned the names of the porn stars.
“She said, “no I never learned the names. It’s like when you kill a deer – you don’t name it because then you can’t eat it.
“What the young girl was saying was that she had to make a big effort to not be curious about the lives of porn people because if she was curious about them it would humanise them too much and if that happened she would feel bad about herself.”
Porn people aren’t supposed to be real people. They’re supposed to live behind a screen and perform our most devilish fantasies, but not show emotion or act like real people. It is this bid to dehumanise people that makes them most interesting to Ronson.
“I’m always interested in trying to humanise people who other people demonise,” he said, reflecting on a scene from the Butterfly Effect in which one star discusses how she was advised to stop posting honest updates on Twitter and instead take pictures of her butt in order to please her fans. “There’s a weird conspiracy between porn viewers, porn producers and social media in general to dehumanise performers”, largely because the online world has mutated from the utopia it set out to be to the Orwellian dystopia it is now.
The stark reputational divide is depicted particularly well through the eyes of a banker. While the tech entrepreneurs that set up Mansef were able to secure in excess of $300 million in loans to fund a business that essentially rips off the work of porn performers, many stars struggle to even open a checking account because of the perceived negative connotations that surround their profession. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Ronson says: “What this story shows is that maybe we should think who we consider to be reputable and who we consider to be disreputable.
“Because I found the delightful, supportive, light-hearted porn people more reputable than the tech bros who were getting rich off their stolen content.”
“Yet if you ask most people they will say tech people are more reputable than porn people”.
These form some of the good-natured, sweet stories that you get to hear in The Butterfly Effect, but there is a dark side that comes to light in The Last Days of August, which investigates the death of 23-year-old August – real name Mercedes Grabowski – who killed herself after being publicly shamed on social media. The show highlights that while there are “happy, sweet, moving, emotional stories to be told in the porn world there are also dark, melancholic, tragic, terrible stories to be told too”.
The key to telling them, Ronson says, is to be truthful and honest, human and not ideological. The upcoming live shows are about that arch, and how taking a fresh look at the industry impacted his own mental health too.
Catch Tales from The Last Days of August and The Butterfly Effect in the UK from 6th May.
Monday 6th May Cambridge Corn Exchange
Wednesday 7th May Bath Forum
Sunday 12th May London Palladium
Thursday 16th May Cardiff St David’s Hall
Friday 17th May Birmingham 02 Academy
Saturday 18th May Liverpool Philharmonic
Sunday 19th May Leeds Town Hall
Tuesday 21th May Newcastle Tyne Theatre
Wednesday 22th May Manchester Albert Hall
Saturday 25th May Glasgow Grand Hall
Monday 27th May Edinburgh Assembly Rooms