Not many of us can say we’ve had the opportunity to sit in on an adult movie set, but Jon Ronson has certainly encountered a fair few. Recalling his very first porn set experience, Jon said: “The night just dragged on for so long. I was so tired, and I was just desperate for the guy to ejaculate so I could go to bed,” he laughed as he remembers those moments in the San Fernando Valley, California, home to the multi-billion dollar pornography industry.
“You know you’re getting old when people considerately rub your back on a porn set.” His visit was in preparation for his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an insight into online shaming and shame in pornography. Jon’s initial encounter led to years of meetings with influential figures of the porn community for two podcast series: The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August.
Ronson has built a robust career as an author, screen-writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker on an abundance of topics. Most recently, with his eye-opening investigations of the porn industry. Although Shamed only touches the surface of the porn world, 2017 saw the release of The Butterfly Effect, a podcast series focusing on how technological advancements in porn have affected the business. The series centres around Fabian Thylmann, the man behind online streaming site, Pornhub.
Six months into the project, it was suggested Jon should have some assistance from producer Lina Misitzis. The pair quickly earned the trust of key figures within the industry, including top agent, Mark Spiegler: “He gave us the seal of approval, then he introduced us to [porn producer] Mike Quasar, and Mike gave us the seal of approval because we had Mark Spiegler’s endorsement.” Jon tells me about the delightfulness to the story in The Butterfly Effect. The listener is exposed to an incredibly humanising portrayal of the porn industry, including an astounding ‘custom porn’ request in which a woman is asked to burn a man’s vast and expensive stamp collection.
Conversely, Jon’s most recent venture into the adult entertainment industry has taken a much darker approach with The Last Days of August. The podcast series traces the events leading up to the suicide of porn star, Mercedes Grabowski, known in the industry as August Ames. After August tweeted she did not want to work with a crossover actor who had shot gay porn to not put “her body at risk”, she was accused of homophobia and met with a tidal wave of online abuse. Jon describes this as a ‘Twitter pile-on’. The series is composed of an emotional collection of interviews from family members, friends, and colleagues of August to piece together the final moments before the 23-year-old ended her life.
The series closely follows adult film producer and August’s widower, Kevin Moore. When rumours come to Jon and Lina’s attention about Kevin’s character, the podcast takes an unexpected turn: “We really didn’t know what to make of Kevin. We kept on hearing these terrible things, then we’d see him and he would seem so emotionally distant.”
I admit this alternative information led me to some unanswered questions about August’s death and with Kevin. Jon contested he felt differently about The Last Days of August. He confesses in his previous work he sometimes found it difficult to be absolutely certain about something, but it was different for August: “Think of me as the opposite of Piers Morgan. Where he has absolute certainty, I tend to have uncertainty. In The Last Days of August, I kind of feel pretty clear.”
His closeness with the porn community paired with the bleak subject matter meant this podcast series was very delicate. Jon has spoken openly about his own struggles with his finding in August’s story: “You lose yourself in the maze of the story, which makes the story better, richer, and deeper. It’s also so much harder.” He emphasises this was particularly hard because the story revolves around grieving loved ones that were hurt.
Jon tells me about the relief he felt when Kevin became a humanised figure by the end of August: “You don’t want to use people’s tragedies in that way as a narrative device to keep people hooked. That’s the kind of thing you might be lying on your death bed regretting in 40 years’ time.” Like in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the podcast analyses the catastrophic effects of social media bullying from several perspectives. Jon’s work emphasises how one wrong Tweet should not lead to complete character decimation of the ‘wrong-sayer’, and to think about the ethics of public condemnation.
What does the future hold for our online interaction? Jon was frustrated how, since Shamed, lots of Internet users come to him to ask for answers on how to approach online abuse. Although his career predates the book by 25 years, he became wrapped up in the sphere of online shaming for some time: “People would come to me as the wise shaming guru on top of the mountain, and it was a nightmare. I didn’t want to become Mr Shame.” Jon emphasised how he thought it was crucial for journalists to keep moving into new areas of interest.
Both podcast series will be revisited in Jon’s UK tour in May, which arrives at the Brighton Dome as part of Brighton Festival. “People who’ve read the book or listened to the podcasts will still get something out of it, but it will still work for people who haven’t.” His ambitious one-man show combines anecdotes from his encounters in the porn industry along with previously unheard audio/visual material. Jon teased: “It’s going to be the most ambitious show that’s been at the Brighton Dome since Pink Floyd premiered the Dark Side of the Moon there.”
Jon Ronson comes to Brighton Dome on Fri 10 May, as part of Brighton Festival. You can hear The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August on Audible now.