Jon Ronson got the idea for his unexpectedly moving audio series about pornography, The Butterfly Effect, when, while working on another story, he met with a porn actress in a hotel lobby. Everyone else in the lobby was dressed in drab, ordinary clothes, and her skin-tight, bright blue dress made her appear to him, he relates in The Butterfly Effect, “otherworldly, like a great, mad peacock.” He also noticed the hotel receptionist glance at the woman with an expression of “total contempt.” The man’s reaction made Ronson “realize that some people are only comfortable with porn people when they’re in their computers and not in their immediate vicinity.” Ronson has made a career out of profiling unusual subcultures in such books as Them: Adventures With Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats, about a secret U.S. Army unit investigating mind control. So his curiosity was piqued.
The Butterfly Effect—a seven-part, four-hour podcast documentary currently available exclusively from Audible and to be released on iTunes on Nov. 3—springs from Ronson’s interest in the belief that a small or seemingly isolated action can have unanticipated large-scale consequences.* (The series may continue for another season, focusing on a different manifestation of this effect.) Here, he chooses to focus on Fabian Thylmann, who in the 1990s was a German teenager living in Brussels, obsessed with swapping porn-site passwords with fellow CompuServe users. By his 20s, Thylmann realized that the porn industry had failed to grasp the internet’s potential. “They were very, very happy,” he tells Ronson, “if they made, like, a quarter-million dollars a year in profits, if that, because before that they worked in some grocery store.” In 2010, Thylmann bought a Montreal company that seemed particularly forward-thinking; it had just launched Pornhub, a YouTube-style venue for user-uploaded videos. Many of those videos were pirated. Thylmann now owns a home aquarium so huge it must be cleaned by a professional diver.
Ronson presents Thylmann as being single-handedly responsible for the explosion of “free porn on the internet,” a bit of poetic license so flagrant it’s meant to be understood as metaphoric. (If Thylmann hadn’t done it, of course, someone else would have.) Nevertheless, he was the one who got rich off Pornhub and a variety of other online adult sites that he bought and conglomerated under the rubric Manwin. Thylmann insists the original name had no particular significance—it has since been changed to MindGeek—but Ronson points out that although it can be difficult for a porn actress simply to open a checking account, Thylmann easily secured a $32 million loan to buy sites that profit off stolen content made by and starring those women.
Porn performers get saddled with the rest of society’s sexual shame, a stigma made more difficult to scrub off by the unwillingness of many of us to admit that we feel that shame in the first place. Meanwhile, more and more internet users consume more and more porn, usually without paying for it. A counterpoint to HBO’s new drama The Deuce, which depicts a handful of scrappy strivers participating in the birth of the adult movie industry in the early 1970s, The Butterfly Effect offers snapshots of what looks to be the demise of the business as it has existed for the past four decades. One of the characters Ronson meets, director Mike Quasar, tells him that the videos he makes will be streaming for free on sites like Pornhub within days after their commercial release. Takedown notices can’t be issued fast enough to stem illegal user uploads. Like many musicians and journalists, porn producers and performers are working longer hours for much less money than they made only a few years ago, but they also lack the ability to appeal to their audience’s conscience, since most porn consumers prefer not to think of those who make it as real people with bills and problems much like their own. Ronson interviews a woman in a Baptist church who confesses to having suffered from an online “pornography addiction” in her youth. He asked her if she ever thought about the lives of people who made the videos, and she replied, “I didn’t really care about them. I just cared about myself. … It’s like when you kill a deer. You don’t name it because then you can’t eat it.”
The internet has changed the industry in other weirder ways as well. According to one of the producers Ronson interviews, consumer preferences have become so meticulously pinpointed and catered to that women who fall between the keywords “teen” and “MILF” can expect to see job offers dry up from the ages of 22 through 30. “If you’re just the standard, run-of-the-mill, attractive 26-year-old,” a director tells him, “it’s gonna be tough for you. You’re going to need a second job.”
Ronson’s refreshingly matter-of-fact curiosity about the practical lives and problems of what he calls “porn people” leads him to the heart of The Butterfly Effect. He asked how the industry’s twentysomething actresses make ends meet while they ripen into MILFs and learned that several of these performers have opened small custom shops producing videos to the specifications of solitary clients. These, typically, involve exotic fetishes, such as seeing women doused in condiments. (Actually, that one is common enough that a producer has identified mustard as the most challenging substance—the vinegar in it can sting.) One man wants to see a woman put on a sweatshirt backward and hit herself in the face with a pie. Another provides a scenario in which Wonder Woman, sitting on a sofa and contemplating going outside, is overpowered by a gremlin who restrains her.
Unlike the banal lechery that results in such target-marketed Quasar productions as Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy, these kinks reveal desire itself to be the ultimate playing out of the butterfly effect, a lifetime of fear or longing hitched to a single formative event. In the back and forth between client and producers, an intimacy can blossom that erodes the illusion of a barrier between porn’s fantasies and the fears and anxieties of real life. The man with a thing for Wonder Woman told the producers of his video that his mother abandoned his family when he and his brothers were small, but he remembers sitting on her suitcase to try to prevent her from leaving. “So it’s a narrative,” Ronson says of the custom video this man commissioned, “that revolves around the idea of a small creature controlling an older woman.”
Kim, one of the custom-porn producers Ronson interviews, maintains that she has no interest in the roots of her clients’ erotic obsessions. This indifference, it turns out, is willed, ever since she learned that an Italian priest convicted of murdering one of his parishioners was found to have pornographic images of her, posing in a nun’s habit, on his computer. The images were splashed across a two-page story in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero. Ronson digs deeper, ultimately learning from the prosecutor that the images on the priest’s computer were not pictures of Kim at all. “I think some overworked researcher just needed to get some nun porn fast and found one of Kim’s pictures through Google and put it on the news report,” Ronson figures. Off the record, employees at the paper confirmed his theory. Forty percent of the staff was laid off in the early 2010s (why? The internet!), and the struggling remnant often has to cut corners. “It matters a great deal to me to know that it wasn’t my fault,” Kim tells Ronson when he conveys the truth to her.
Eileen, the Times Square streetwalker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce, seems set to become the 1970s equivalent of Fabian Thylmann: a shrewd observer who sees how a penny-ante version of commodified sex can, in a changing world, be turned to much bigger profits. But Eileen won’t have the luxury of detaching herself from the sex industry by putting laptops and sleek Montreal offices between herself and the very analog activities that pay her bills. Porn, as everyone in The Butterfly Effect keeps reiterating, is everywhere these days, a ho-hum element of contemporary life, and at the same time more confined and relegated, the humanity of its makers all the easier to forget. Eileen’s Times Square is grimy, dangerous, and often cruel, but to anyone who sets foot in it, it’s real, and so is she. The staff at Il Messaggero, on the other hand, probably assumed it made little difference whose nun-porn photo they used to illustrate their story. It’s just porn, after all.
Correction, Sept. 28, 2017: This article originally misstated that The Butterfly Effect would be released on iTunes on Oct. 12. It will be release on iTunes on Nov. 3. (Return.)