Jon Ronson’s podcast The Butterfly Effect—which largely concerns the pornography industry—features, in one episode, a story about a couple named Dan and Rhiannon who run a company that provides what Ronson calls “bespoke porn.” People who have some extra money and who want a particular scene or set of scenes played out provide a description, possibly a very detailed description, to this company, which then rents sets, hires actors, films the requested acts, and turns over the finished product to the customer.
All very straightforward. But that’s not what Ronson’s story is about. He’s interested in something he learns from Dan and Rhiannon: that, quite regularly, people contact them who want scenes filmed, and want porn actors to perform in those scenes—but aren’t interested in sex. One man whose therapist had (for unclear reasons) condemned his stamp-collecting hobby wanted a film in which beautiful, but fully clothed, young women mocked his stamp collection and then destroyed it—as though, I suppose, to inflict a humiliation that would make collecting stamps permanently shameful to him.
I may eventually forget that peculiar story, but I’m not likely to forget the one that followed it. Once in the waning hours of the night Dan received an email from a man who made this request: He wanted a porn actress to sit, fully clothed, cross-legged on a floor, and then look into the camera and say: “You are loved. Things are bad now, but they won’t always be. Suicide is not the answer.”
Dan and Rhiannon wrote back, but did not hear again from the man. They decided to make the film anyway, and make it as beautifully as they could, in hopes that he would still want it—still be able to benefit from it. And they did. But if they ever heard back from the man, Ronson doesn’t say so. It is hard not to fear the worst. The actress they hired to speak those words can’t talk about the situation without tears, and as I walked through my neighbourhood listening to the podcast I caught myself murmuring, over and over, “Lord have mercy.”
Long ago we all learned from Freud or Freud’s followers to see sexual desire as the most powerful force acting on the human will, and though almost everything Freud taught has been thoroughly discredited, that idea still holds sway—the idea that beneath our multitude of impulses lurks eros, that desire with a thousand masks. And yet as I reflect on this story I see that eros itself is at least sometimes also a mask.
Why might a man, suffering as this nameless man was suffering, turn for help to people who make pornography? Perhaps because porn is fantasy, in the sense of a dream world in which your desires are fulfilled. But at least sometimes what we want is not sex as such but rather to live out a dream of human connection, a dream of warmth stronger and more comforting even than the warmth of bodies.
Read more stories of hope and heartbreak in the Summer 2018 symposium on social isolation here.