Jon Ronson: 'I really like being a twig in the river of the story without pre-judgment and just totally open to curiosity'
- Brian Donaldson
- 28 May 2019
Peeking behind the curtain of the US adult entertainment industry, the investigative journalist found things that were delightful as well as disturbing
In 2017, a number of deaths rocked the American porn industry. In particular, the suicide of 23-year-old August Ames (real name Mercedes Grabowski) led people to assume that there was something rotten in the adult entertainment world, a business that was already struggling with its product now being made widely available for free on the internet. In two new podcasts, The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August Ames, investigative journalist and Cardiff-born humourist Jon Ronson explores an industry that, like many of its practitioners, appears to be on its knees.
What he found there was to greatly surprise the man behind books such as Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Psychopath Test, and So You've Been Publicly Shamed. 'I was very struck by how good-natured porn people were and that there was this nice supportive atmosphere,' Ronson recalls. 'It reminded me of theatrical people, these smart young outsiders supporting each other within this flawed industry. People consider techy people to be reputable and porn people to be disreputable, but I think our stories turn that theory on its head. We were lucky that we were embedded with a porn director who would not allow any badness to happen on his sets; no one was ever asked to do anything they wouldn't want to do, so as a consequence it was a fun time. I enjoyed my porn times on the set of, you know, Step-Daughter Cheerleader Orgy. It was sweet.'
These sweet times ended up on The Butterfly Effect (one memorable section was devoted to 'bespoke porn' where, for example, people got off watching someone go through their stamp collection), which featured old-school video and DVD porn-makers bemoaning the direction their industry has gone. Eventually they were able to confront the dudes in Silicon Valley who had contributed to their work drying up. But bleak times were round the corner for Ronson when he investigated the death of August Ames who, if you believe one side (mainly her widower Kevin Moore), took her own life due to an online pile-on after she made comments that were deemed to be homophobic. The other side of the coin came through veiled accusations that Moore may have had some dark secrets to hide. Ronson never comes down on one side or the other.
'There's a huge shift between the two podcasts; what it shows is that the porn industry has this unexpectedly delightful part but also this complicated darker one. Another more ideological writer wouldn't be happy with showing both sides in that way, because they want to take a position and stick with it. For me, it's really important to be completely open to the story going wherever it goes. I really like being a twig in the river of the story without pre-judgment and just totally open to curiosity. I remember going to Channel 4 and pitching a documentary and they would say, "so what's going to happen in it?" And I'd say, "I dunno" and they wouldn't commission it. I've always been against that attitude, because what's the point of knowing the full story before you do it?'
For his upcoming live shows, Ronson is still trying to work out exactly how he'll adapt the podcast material, but he's fairly certain they'll include screened footage and maybe even a game. 'I'm going to show some obscure bespoke porn clips,' he reveals cautiously. 'I think I might play a game with the audience with some new clips of bespoke porn, and ask them to try and figure out what exactly was going on. Bespoke porn is a goldmine of sweet human absurdity with a tinge of sad darkness. But, you know what, sweet human absurdity with a tinge of sad darkness is my can of paint. That's always what I'm looking for.'