Jon Ronson (Photo: Rex Features)


Why Jon Ronson has been hanging out on porn sets

Jon Ronson (Photo: Rex Features)

The Welsh author talks to Kate Leaver about Donald Trump and a man who made millions and millions from free porn

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By Kate Leaver on

Jon Ronson is sitting in a plump armchair in a London hotel. He’s wearing his trademark round, thin-rimmed glasses. When he smiles from underneath a black flat cap, I can see immediately how this man has convinced racists, psychopaths, military men, spies and porn stars to talk to him. He’s instantly, enormously likeable. 

The author of The Men Who Stare At Goats, The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed has been busy recently. He’s been travelling the world for two brand-new journalistic projects: a new podcast series about the porn industry for Audible and a 15,000-word essay about Donald Trump for Kindle. Which means that, for the past few months, he’s been either hanging out on set with porn stars, following the campaign trail with Trump or at his desk at home in New York, writing feverishly. 

“One minute, it’s Bad Babysitters Volume Two; the next minute, it’s the national Republican convention,” he says. “That’s how I’ve spent my summer.” 

The Trump essay is available on Amazon now and the first episode of the podcast is online. Jon is still working on the rest of the series and he’s just come fresh from a meeting with his long-time radio producer. He’s clearly excited about it – in that lovely, inimitable way that creative people get excited about the release of their hard-worked-upon projects. 

“It’s called The Butterfly Effect,” he says. “The idea is that I trace the butterfly effect – from somebody having a tiny idea to it spreading and spreading and spreading until chaos happens, until both amazing and terrible things happen. People die and people make fortunes! Well, I say people die… Certainly, people are ruined and lives are destroyed, but I can’t think of anyone who died. On the other hand, amazing things happened, too.”

The "butterfly effect" is a phrase coined in 1972 by a meteorologist called Edward Lorenz. He wanted to know if the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas, but we use it colloquially to talk about any small thing setting off a cavalcade of consequence. Ronson’s series starts with a teenage boy in Brussels with a tiny idea – and traces that idea to its ultimate conclusion. 

“It’s about a man called Fabian. He was a bit of an introvert and a nerd as a teenager. Instead of going to the youth club, he’d go online, he’d get on his computer. When he was 13 or 14, he and his online friends would swap passwords for porn accounts, so they could get porn for free. It was as simple as that – guys watching porn for free online.

It’s too far to say that he invented the concept of free porn for everyone, but he basically became the king of free porn for everybody

“Then, when Fabian got older, he decided that he could make millions from giving free porn to the world. It’s too far to say that he invented the concept of free porn for everyone, but he basically became the king of free porn for everybody. Fabian got so rich and successful that he ended up with his own aquarium with his own diver. As someone said to me, that’s next level, to have your own diver! Not like a live-in diver, but a diver who comes every couple of weeks to clean the coral reef. A large amount of money went from the San Fernando Valley [the centre of the porn industry in California] into Fabian’s pocket, so this story is really about the movement of money.”

As Ronson tells it, Fabian became the porn industry’s first great entrepreneur. He took the simple idea of swapping porn passwords with mates – and created a staggering empire. His story is captivating. 

“What Fabian basically did was invent YouTube for porn. It was always going to happen, but Fabian actually did it. The consequences are just extraordinary. We’re digging and digging and digging into the consequences of this butterfly effect and it’s amazing. I don’t want to give any more away, really, but it’s not what people would expect. Episode one is already online. It’s basically Fabian telling his story, including an interview with Brandon, who was head of Pornhub’s mobile division. And they’re interesting people because they weren’t interested in porn at all – they were interested in tech. You know, these are people who never set foot on a porn site.”

Ronson has, though. A few of them.   

“I’ve been spending a lot of time on porn sites recently,” he says, grinning. “Bad Babysitters Volume Two! Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy! At least, I think I’ve got the words in the right order. It could be Cheerleader Stepdaughter Orgy, to be fair. I kind of like porn sets. There’s a collegiate atmosphere.”

He must see the incredulity in my eyes. “There is!” he says, grinning even more broadly. “It’s showbusiness. There’s a family atmosphere on these sets. I definitely wouldn’t want to do a dark story about porn. There are enough anti-porn stories in the world.”

And, somehow, between his lilting Welsh voice and irreverent smile, I believe him. If there’s anyone in the world who can find a modern capitalist fable on the set of a porn film, it’s Jon Ronson.

The first episode of The Butterfly Effect is available on Audible.


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Jon Ronson (Photo: Rex Features)
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