The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I often find myself championing strange, even unpopular, causes. Prostitution, for instance, is something I’d like to see un-demonized. Not because of some perverse predilection of mine (I’ve simply never found the idea of ‘stranger sex’ appealing) but because of following the blogs of one or two ‘sex workers’ and finding there is a human and intelligent side to that work which is often dismissed by the very society which keeps these people in employment.
For that reason, when Audible (a platform I use a great deal as I can listen to a book while doing other tasks such as housework) offered me a free copy of Jon Ronson’s audio book of interviews about the rise of free internet porn, I accepted it with my interest piqued.
But even I – with my foreknowledge that the stories behind these kind of industries are interesting and rarely what you are expecting – even I was surprised by how deeply this ‘book’ affected me. There were times when I actually cried tears, and others when I was surprised by joy.
The premise of Ronson’s book is that of one man (a boy really), Fabian Thylmann, decided to get rich by giving the world free internet porn. He bought Pornhub in 2010 and, from the vast sums he made, bought up pretty much every other porn site too. In effect, Thylmann created a ‘YouTube of porn’ where anyone and everyone could download their porn videos – home ones as well as bought ones.
The ‘Butterfly effect’ of this was that the traditional porn industry was all but wiped out. Film producers making a new video would find that within weeks or months of its release it was available to watch for free on Pornhub. Ronson goes on to look at several other surprising knock-on effects of Thylmann’s legacy.
Many of the stories were touching. We are told that pornstars now have short lifespans in the traditional industry. Either they need to look like teenagers or like ‘MILFS’ (older women acting the role of ‘mom’). In between, the industry is closed to them. So the rise of the ‘bespoke’ custom-made porn industry has been the result. Now production companies make videos for fans, following scripts and fetishes desired by fans, for cash.
While, of course, much of this is kinky and pervserse, some are bizarre for more sympathetic reasons. Take, for instance, the man who wanted pornstars to set fire to his stamp collection. I won’t reveal too much, but in researching the reasons for this, Ronson uncovers not only the sad story of this one fan but those of others too. There’s some truly heart-wrenching stories here.
Other results are more complex to figure. Because of internet porn men are suffering erectile dysfunction at younger and younger ages. But at the same time, teenage pregnancies are dropping –
and for the same reasons. Is free porn then, a good thing or bad?
Oddly, I find myself asking this more than Ronson does of his interviewees. Although he presents quite a balanced view, it is to Thylmann that he puts the evidence and asks him if he feels bad or responsible for the havoc he’s wreaked on the traditional porn industry. I found myself thinking that the complaints of the porn industry are themselves hypocritical. After all, the video makers stole the market from the magazine peddlers of decades ago. I remember as a teenager being warned of the dangers of porn by evangelistic religious zealots because ‘porn makes it harder to get erections’ – long before porn was easily available in animated form. While that was propaganda, it was true to an extent though about erectile dysfunction. Thylmann’s work has merely accelerated it a little (and as he points out, this can be rectified medically and, hey! Teenage pregnancies are down!). I doubt these film makers gave much thought to the loss of income suffered by the previous generation. To an extent, all it should mean is that the industry finds other ways to generate income and shrinks until it is economically sustainable. After all, Pornhub can’t exist without porn being made. There is a balance somewhere.
What matters more to me is the spotlight Ronson throws onto society in general. There are heartrending stories of male nurses sacked, good Christian fathers committing suicide, autistic kids given virtual life sentences, and even wives doing their best to support seriously disabled husbands who are wrongly tarred with a brush that society does not deserve to wield.
At least one statistic suggests that around 40% of the UK watches porn online. Other researchers have found similar results around the world. Some suggest even higher figures. When looking at such figures, there is no longer room for disgust and condemnation of the porn industry. Instead, it is increasingly important to embrace the inevitable and appreciate that online porn is here to stay and it is acceptable to watch it if you choose to.
Perhaps the most important reason for this acceptance is that it is probably teenagers who are watching porn the most and there really is no way to prevent this happening. Nothing has changed. I used to steal my brother’s porn mags from his bedroom as a nine-year-old when he was in his late teens. My first experiences of the female body were informed by those early viewings (until our mum found them and the magazines promptly trashed). It is the same today only kids look on their phones rather than on paper. Teen sex education really occurs online.
Rather than attempt to keep them away (which will fail), it is better to teach kids to safeguard themselves – both in their online habits and in their interactions with the opposite sex. Certainly in the UK the reaction has been to both infantalise teenagers and make them responsible adults in a mix which is catastrophic and inappropriate. So now we have the absurd situation where two 17-year-olds can freely and legally engage in sex together but as soon as one sends a naked image of themselves to the other, they have broken the law by supplying porn to a ‘minor’ and face being placed on the sex offender’s register, potentially for life. They are treated both as ‘child’ and as ‘responsible adult’. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so horrific.
Similarly, the rise of crying rape and abuse as a weapon for revenge is alarming. This is not to dismiss the very real cases of abuse which occur every day but such cases will soon stop being listened to, I predict, because more and more enraged and aggrieved ex-spouses, partners and dates are seeking retribution in their upset and laying claims which ruin lives. This is especially true of teenagers and those in their early 20s. Soon, the tide will change and authorities will stop listening to genuine cases because of the wealth of false ones. I would go so far as to guesstimate that, of cases where someone claims a partner or someone known to them has raped them, around 50% of these claims are false. This is not a situation which can be allowed to continue for long.
Ronson’s book throws up the need for us to re-evaluate porn in the life of society today. Gone are the days where it was seedy men in macs buying top shelf ‘Men’s magazines’. Now it is fashionable, trendy even, and needs discussing for right and appropriate use rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.
The one thing Ronson’s book does not cover is that of the reputation that girls are forced into appearing in porn films and lead wretched lives of coercion and abuse. This is perhaps because, as his interviews show, this is the exception rather than the rule. The majority of those starring in porn movies do so because they enjoy it and choose to make money this way. In a sense, Fabian Thylmann’s legacy proves this. Gone are the days when you could become a rich and famous pornstar. It’s a struggle to make money at all and even then, only for a short few years. Yet the girls keep coming – more and more every year – and many love getting into the somewhat ‘odd’ world of the custom-made movie industry. Thus is the change in life. We all need to get used to it.
Get Ronson’s book, be challenged, be amused and be ready to have your mind blown. This is perhaps the best book I’ve listened to thus far this year.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
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Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
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