The Current

From support lines to 'bespoke' fan films: How the porn industry is opening up about mental health

Journalist Jon Ronson spoke to us about what he learned by making two podcasts about the people in the adult entertainment industry.

Journalist discovered mental health conversations and some heartwarming projects in the porn world

Jon Ronson has made two podcasts looking at the real lives of people in the porn industry. (Courtesy of Jon Ronson.)
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Journalist Jon Ronson vividly remembers the look of contempt on a hotel receptionist's face when the writer went to meet a porn star in the lobby of L.A.'s Chateau Marmont.

"He was looking at her with disgust," he told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

Ronson, the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, was interviewing the actress, Princess Donna, for a book about public shaming. While most people in that hotel lobby were dressed in drab, grey clothes like him, Princess Donna stood out in a bright dress and high heels, like a "great mad peacock."

Ronson's podcast The Butterfly Effect looks at the impact of the shift to free online pornography on porn performers and creators. (Submitted by Hot Docs)

"I presume that [the receptionist] would be fine with a porn star when she was safely on his laptop, but put her in his vicinity and he felt contemptuous," he said. 

"Which made me think, 'wow, people don't want to know about the real lives of porn performers.' And so I wanted to know."

That encounter spurred him to create two podcasts about the highly stigmatized industry: The Butterfly Effect, about the performers and creators impacted by the shift to free online pornography, and The Last Days of August, about the suicide of a young Canadian porn star.

"If The Butterfly Effect shows a really kind-hearted side of the industry, then The Last Days of August shows a much more troubled side," he said.

Ronson is speaking about both series this weekend at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in Toronto. 

A growing conversation about mental health

Ronson said that there's been a growing call to change how the industry addresses mental health issues since the suicide of August Ames, the subject of Ronson's latest podcast.

"Porn people are always complaining [that] they'll go to a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist will say, 'what you do for a living?' And they'll say, 'I'm a porn performer,' and then a psychiatrist will think, 'well, all of their problems must be to do with that,'" said Ronson.

"There are very few therapists … who can deal with porn performers in a nuanced way."

Ronson says the death of Canadian adult film star August Ames has sparked a much-needed conversation about mental health in the porn industry. (Submitted by Hot Docs)

Ronson said Ames's death sparked an industry-wide conversation around mental health, with many people saying, "we can't we can't do this anymore. There's a lot of deaths in the industry. There's a lot of mental health issues. And we have to try and do something."

Those conversations have spurred real changes, he said, including the creation of a non-profit organization called Pineapple Support which provides mental health services specifically for people in the adult entertainment industry.

"I'm really happy to see that there really has been some positive steps forward lately," he said.

Working through traumas with 'custom' films

Another way in which Ronson discovered an industry navigating mental health was in the growing world of bespoke films known as "customs."

As the rise of free online pornography guts the livelihoods of many adult entertainment performers and creators, Ronson discovered, more and more are turning to commissioned content. 

In "customs," fans write scripts around their own fantasies, and pay teams of professional porn-makers to create the films for them. Many of the films are not overtly pornographic in nature — "very PG rated," Ronson said.

Ronson found that many custom films were an outlet for the writers to work out their own traumas.

The porn world can be, at times, dark and troubled and exploitative. But this little corner of it ... is so sweet.- Jon Ronson

He interviewed one Norwegian man, known in the adult entertainment world as "Stamp Man," who had paid porn creators to make 10 different films in which performers destroyed his once-prized stamp collections.

In an interview, Stamp Man told Ronson that when he was growing up in Norway, stamp collecting was a fashionable, bohemian activity, and stamp shops were bustling with avant-garde thinkers. 

Then the internet gutted the stamp world, "just like it did the porn world," said Ronson.

Ronson will be speaking about his two podcasts on the pornography industry at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in Toronto this weekend. (Submitted by Hot Docs)

Stamps lost their value, the shops closed down, and Stamp Man became depressed and isolated. Finally, a therapist told him that he was wasting his time on a ridiculous hobby, one that was only contributing to his isolation. 

So he decided to have them destroyed — on film, with the help of porn performers.

Another man, dubbed Gremlins Man, commissioned a film of a tiny gremlin creature stopping a woman, dressed as a bikini-clad Wonder Woman, from leaving her house. He explained to Ronson that it was a way for him to grapple with the childhood trauma he experienced after his mother left when he was five years old.

"The porn world can be, at times, dark and troubled and exploitative," said Ronson. "But this little corner of it, which is actually growing and growing, is so sweet."

"It's like the clients and the producers are coming together to work out all of their issues together."


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Ben Jamieson.

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