Jon Ronson walks onto the stage in his home city in an ill-fitting suit that has, colour wise, been taken from the worst parts of green, brown and grey. Like camouflage in a blender. He has the permanent stoop of someone always wishing to be unnoticed. He carries his head at least 6 inches lower, and 6 inches forward, of where even the most poorly trained, negligent physiotherapist would suggest it should be. Everything about him screams “journalist with self-esteem issues”.
Tonight’s show is a mix of reading, narration, video, and audio from his two recent podcast series which explore the modern porn industry. But throughout his 2 hours on stage Ronson never once questions the morality of the performers, producers, or crew who work in the industry. It’s clear that through the several years of research that it took to create the podcasts, Ronson developed a genuine affection for his subjects. He regularly refers to them as “porn people”, making them sound like illicit Borrowers that live in the seedier parts of your laptop. But just as often he refers to them as friends.
And while it’s clear that this industry often attracts broken and unhappy people, he never suggests that they’re anything other than ordinary people trying to earn a living, struggling with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us. They just often do that while naked. On the internet.
During one particularly touching moment, we hear from Rhiannon, a custom porn producer who makes films for clients whose preferences don’t fit into the myriad categories that exist on any of the other free porn sites. She talks through her tears as she tells the tale of one customer who had requested a video featuring her, fully-clothed, telling him through the lens that it was all going to be ok, and that he didn’t have to take his own life. She and her partner produced and sent the video but never heard from the customer again.
While the first half of Ronson’s show concentrates on the impact of ubiquitous free online porn on the economics of the industry itself, the second half focuses on the subject of Ronson’s most recent podcast series, porn superstar August Ames. He talks through all the potential elements, including a dysfunctional marriage, that could have led to her tragic suicide, following an arguably ill-judged tweet.
Ronson, who has literally written the book on public shaming, follows the two days after the tweet and how the “internet pile-on” may (or may not) have contributed to her final, fatal decision to take her own life at just 23 years of age.
He narrates his adventures in porn land with a well-judged mix of solemnity and self-deprecating humour and regularly diverts into side tales from his colourful history. At one point, he addresses his own mental health issues, specifically as it relates to the period when he was researching these podcasts. However, the short few minutes devoted to this topic feel tacked on. Ronson is smart and comfortable talking about his own feelings and failings, so it’s frustrating for this important subject to only be given a cursory few moments.
There are so many questions begged by this show, not least the social impact of freely available porn. Ronson points out that erectile dysfunction in young men has increased by 1000 per cent, and talks about how young women are subjected to awful situations where inexperienced men are expecting the scenarios they have grown up with on their laptop screens. How porn affects us in the future, with or without the incoming “porn block” on UK internet, remains to be seen. But Ronson shows us that these “porn people”, who we are sometimes all too keen to look down upon, are usually just a reflection of ourselves.