Another grand evening ahead tonight. Every month you have the opportunity to ask a question regarding anything to do with sexuality, The audience chimes in with their comments along with co-host Walter and me.
Below – great article on interesting new cinematography – customized porn.
Iam on the set of the porn film Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy. There’s a little trouble outside. The director, Mike Quasar, is trying to shoot an establishing scene – cheerleaders arriving home from practice – but even though we’re in a secluded house (in the San Fernando Valley, southern California), some neighbouring teenagers have positioned themselves up on a nearby hill and are catcalling, jeering and hissing. Until now, this had been a happy set, a kind of familial bubble, but these mocking outsiders are making everyone self-conscious. The girls pull on their short skirts and crop tops to cover up. Unsettled, everyone goes back inside, and that’s when I get talking to Nate, the second cameraman.
It is very unusual to find second cameramen on porn sets these days: the internet is killing porn-makers who take pride in production values. It’s because the money is now in the pockets of the tech giants in faraway cities such as Montreal, owners of sites such as PornHub that are crammed with pirated content illegally uploaded by fans; PornHub is currently the world’s 38th most popular site.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve been tracing the consequences of all that free porn. It’s laying waste to the Valley, compelling some actors to take up escorting, and putting crews and production companies out of business. But today nine people are all to have sex simultaneously, so Quasar has needed to hire Nate. They’re old colleagues from the pre-PornHub days, but now barely see each other.
“This is a rare day,” Nate tells me, “working for Mike, shooting real porn.”
“What do you normally do?” I ask.
“Customs,” he says.
I give him a quizzical look.
“Fans write their own scripts and pay us to shoot exactly what they want,” he explains.
He explains that customs – bespoke porn – is a new growth industry in the Valley. In houses all around us, teams of professional porn-makers are staying afloat by conjuring into life entire films for just one viewer.
“What happens in these films?” I ask.
“There was one guy who wanted us to buy a van,” Nate says, “and have my wife and a couple of other girls drive around in it for a week, and smoke cigarettes in the van, and pee in the van, and at the end of the week, we’d drive it out into the desert and blow it up. He sent us pictures of the van.”
“Why that particular van?”
Nate shrugs. “Maybe it was similar to a van he had in high school? Maybe there was a memory attached to it?”
He says he and his wife priced that request at $30,000, given that they’d have to buy the van, acquire a permit to blow it up, hire a fire marshal for the day, and so on. That one proved prohibitively expensive for the client. Even so, “It’s predominantly what I do now,” Nate says.
A few weeks later, I get to view a selection of custom porn films. The producers Dan and Rhiannon of Anatomik Media have brought them to my hotel room in West Hollywood. Dan and Rhiannon are a married couple in their early 40s. She is from LA and he’s from Illinois. They met when they were in a band in the 1990s. The most striking thing about them is how much they love their work.
“It can be really neat,” Rhiannon says. “We end up – especially with our regulars – getting to really know them. We learn more about their fetishes and start to get them down. With most of them, there’s something really endearing.”
“Some of them are crazy, because they’re just so normal,” Dan says. “Like the flyswatter.”
“Oh, yes, the flyswatter!” Rhiannon says.
Dan plays me the flyswatter video. In it, a fully clothed woman becomes exasperated because there’s a fly and, to make matters worse, she’s misplaced her flyswatter. Eventually she finds it and spends the rest of the video swatting flies.
“Did you ask the client what it was about fly-swatting?” I ask.
Rhiannon shakes her head. “Maybe he watched his mom swat flies?”
Next, Dan shows me a film commissioned by a client they call Condiments Man. A woman in a swimsuit sits in a paddling pool. Rhiannon stands above her, out of shot on a ladder, holding industrial-sized tubs of condiments. And she starts to pour them over her head: ketchup, relish…
“Here comes the mustard!” Rhiannon says. “Mustard is probably one of the most difficult condiments for girls to deal with, because of the vinegar.”
Unlike Flyswatter Man, Dan and Rhiannon know something about Condiments Man. Well, they know one thing.
“He owns a restaurant,” Dan says. “In Georgia.”
“He’s a restaurateur?” I say. “Who deals with condiments every day and presumably has to avoid situations like that happening in his restaurant?”
“That’s it,” Rhiannon says.
“You’re really on the coalface of the quirks of human sexuality,” I say.
“We love it,” Rhiannon says.
Dan used to work on traditional porn sets as a photographer and graphic designer. Rhiannon worked in non-porn animation. When they started noticing a market for customs, they created their company; now it’s all they do. Rhiannon is the producer, manager and booker. She handles almost all the correspondence, the “outward-facing” stuff, while the more introverted Dan directs and edits. Unlike most other customs producers, they never appear in their films. Instead, they give clients a list of “model options” – available performers who fit the customers’ specifications – and let them choose.
Next they show me a video commissioned by Towels Man. Two women wrapped in towels are talking. There are towels on their heads, too. That’s the important part. Because, after a while, the towels fall from their heads.
“It was very important that the towels fall in a certain way,” Dan says. “They couldn’t push them off. Total turn-off! They had to accidentally fall off. It was very difficult to make it happen.”
“He described it as ‘disturbing the towels,’” Rhiannon says.
On the video, one woman says: “Oh, my towel’s falling down.” The other woman replies: “Just let it slip and fall down your back like a beautiful, dark waterfall.”
I stop the interview for a quick toilet break, but something happens in the bathroom. The lock gets stuck. I am locked in the bathroom. It lasts only a few moments, but I can’t help thinking that, had that happened to me when I was eight, 40 years later I might be commissioning Dan and Rhiannon to make a video about it.
When I return, Rhiannon says: “We must show you Stamps Man.”
Her look is clear: Stamps Man is their most unexpected commission ever.
Stamps Man, Dan says, is from Norway. He spent 40 years assiduously amassing a stamp collection, which he mailed to them for the purposes of the video.
Dan presses play. It fades in on a book of stamps lying on a living room floor. Three young women enter. They complain about it being hot outside and wonder if they should take a shower. But then they notice the stamp collection. They pick up the book and leaf through it.
“He would rather look at this stamp collection than have sex with me,” one of the women says.
“All the more reason to get rid of it,” her friend replies.
So the girls stomp on the stamps, twisting their heels into the pages. Stamps rip and tear. Then they throw the remaining stamps into the fire.
“Burn! Burn! Burn!” they chant. “This is so fucking awesome.”
“In real life, the girls felt bad about it,” Rhiannon says. “We kept trying to assure them, ‘No, this is really what he wants.’” She pauses. “He’s such a sweet guy. I’m very curious to know what he’s like in real life.”
For a while, Stamps Man regularly emailed Dan and Rhiannon to say how happy he was with the video, but several months ago he stopped contacting them.
After they leave my hotel room, Dan and Rhiannon email Stamps Man once more, on my behalf, to request an interview. He doesn’t reply.
The woman from the flyswatter video, Kym Jane, is herself a customs producer. A few weeks later, I watch her film a scene in the backyard of a suburban house in Long Beach, California. She’s dressed as a Baywatch lifeguard and is giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to another producer and performer, Star Nine: “Star! You’re alive! Oh no! She’s choking on the water. Let’s get her in that recovery position!”
Kym is in her late 20s. She doesn’t perform in traditional porn, only customs and fetish videos. Later, when we get talking in Star’s living room, I discover a difference between her and Dan and Rhiannon. While they enjoy speculating on their clients’ lives, intrigued to learn what led them to commission their films, Kym does not.
“I’m not interested in why,” she says. “It’s a little callous to say, but I don’t care why. I’d rather not know why.”
This does sounds slightly callous to me, but I don’t say anything. But then she explains.
“Two years ago, there was a Catholic priest who killed someone in Italy,” she says. “They searched his house to figure out why. And on his computer they found nothing but religious porn of mine.”
“Of yours?” I say.
“All my anti-religious, ripping up the Bible, being a nun porn,” Kym says. “So, to know that…” She trails off. “That’s why I don’t want to know my fans, because I don’t know if it’s hurting them or helping them. I don’t know. I don’t care.”
Kym is trying to sound disengaged, but I can tell it is haunting her.
Later, I find the report that links Kym’s nun porn to the priest’s computer. It’s from the online edition of the Italian paper, Il Messaggero. In the photo spread, there’s a big, striking photograph of Kym dressed as a nun, and a much smaller inset of the victim, Guerrina Piscaglia. The caption reads: “Missing woman. A priest investigated. On his computer, pictures of naked nuns.”
The murder took place in the tiny Tuscan mountain village of Cà Raffaello, on 1 May 2014. According to prosecutors, the priest, Father Gratien Alabi, was secretly having an affair with Guerrina, a congregant. The theory is that she threatened to reveal it. Her body has never been found, but in 2016 Alabi was convicted of murder and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Casey Calvert is the only porn star I’ve met who lives in a house befitting a porn star. Everyone else seems to live in very modest suburban homes or apartments in the Valley, but Casey lives in a giant converted industrial unit. She’s very successful.
She grew up in Florida and is – and this is rare for porn stars – Jewish. For fun in college (she was a film major), she got involved in the kink scene and eventually began charging for shoots. The porn agent Mark Spiegler noticed her, took her to dinner while she was in LA for a shoot, and added her to his roster. Spiegler tries to represent no more than 25 women at any time (although he currently has 31). His clients are known for being professional, business-minded – they rarely show up late or miss shoots – and willing to perform extreme sex acts. Casey has shot more than 300 customs since she branched out in 2014. Her fans commission her in part because of how she looks, and also because of what she’s willing to do. And her most unexpected custom? She doesn’t need to think.
“Yesterday,” she says, “I shot a video for a guy who sent me his stamp collection. He sent me a book full of stamps from all over the world, and the video he wanted me to make was of me setting fire to his stamp collection.”
I am astonished. I tell Casey about Stamps Man’s other film – the one produced by Dan and Rhiannon. She had no idea. “It’s one of the strangest coincidences I’ve ever encountered,” she says.
Casey was already intrigued by Stamps Man – “The more unusual the request, the more I really want to know” – but now so even more.
“Something happened,” she says. “Something was so impressionable that it altered this person’s sexuality.”
“What’s your guess?” I ask.
“That at some point someone threw away his stamp collection,” she says.
She looks through her inbox and finds an email from when he first commissioned her a few weeks earlier: “Hi, dear Casey. Today I sent you the payment and posted the stamp collection. I couldn’t resist the temptation to add some extra valuable stamps. Good luck with the production. Please send me a message when I have lost my stamp collection.”
In the pre-internet days, porn makers tended to lead lives that were comparatively remote from their fans. “The porn stars of the 90s all had PO boxes,” Casey says, “and fans would send in letters, but there definitely wasn’t this commerce back and forth.”
I ask if her relationships with her customers ever get complicated, and she says just once: “One man felt very angry with me after I delivered his video.”
“I ‘ruined it’,” she says. “It was so good and then I did this one little thing and ruined it. I might as well have made him a video of the grossest thing.”
“What did you do?” I ask.
“It was an angle the video was shot from,” Casey says. “He wanted it all shot from the front, and I shot a segment from the back.”
She shows me the video. It’s an “arm-holding fetish”. A woman leads Casey down a corridor, clutching her arm. “It’s all about the fingertips going into the biceps,” Casey explains.
Sure enough, a segment is shot from the back.
Casey emails Stamps Man on my behalf. He emails her back later: “I don’t think I’m ready for an interview.”
A few weeks after talking to Casey, I manage to speak with a client who is ready. But he won’t meet me. He’s too self-conscious. And too worried to do a phone interview in case somebody recognises him, even with his voice distorted. So, instead, I email him a series of questions, such as: what happened in your life to compel you to commission a custom that involves bondage and gremlins?
He writes back: “My mom left when I was five. I only have two memories of her: my younger brother and I sitting on her luggage in the closet, trying to keep her from picking it up, and shortly after, being in a neighbour’s front yard, watching my mother walk up the street with a suitcase in her hand. My youngest brother told me years later that he always felt it was his fault that Mom left. He would have been 18 months old at the time. I do know now that she had some sort of mental disorder that led her to believe that she was a bad person and not capable of being a mother.”
In Gremlin Man’s video, Wonder Woman, played by the custom producer and porn performer Christina Carter, is about to leave the house when a tiny gremlin pops out from behind the sofa and hits her over the head. Stunned, she stays put.
Bespoke porn, it’s obvious, can be a therapy for its customers. But I wonder if the story of the Italian murder shows that it can be something darker, too? How did Kym’s pictures end up on the priest’s computer? Had he commissioned a custom from her? Or had he simply found her photos online? I telephone the victim’s family lawyer, Nicola Addetti.
“There were three photographs on the priest’s computer of a nun pulling up her tunic and showing her intimate parts,” he tells me.
“Did they form a big part of the trial?” I ask.
“They had a great importance,” he says, “because it really showed the sexual nature of the priest.”
I tell him how I heard of the murder, via Kym, and he asks me to describe her. “She’s in her late 20s,” I say. “She’s white. She’s got dark hair…”
He interrupts me. “On the priest’s computer, the nun, or the woman dressed as a nun, was definitely black.”
I pause. “Huh?” I say.
“I don’t think any of the images would have been released to the press,” he adds.
Everything Kym knew about the priest, she learned from the online edition of Il Messaggero.
“Maybe some overworked researcher on the Il Messaggero picture desk needed to get some nun porn fast and found one of Kym’s pictures on Google?” I suggest.
“I agree, that’s very possible,” he replies.
Later, I talk to some Il Messaggero employees. They say the internet laid waste to the publication in the early 2010s, just as it did to the porn community in the San Fernando Valley. Like most publications, there have been layoffs, and the staff who are left are overstretched. So it’s possible that if they needed to illustrate a story of a murderous Italian priest obsessed with nun porn, say, they might just grab some picture from the internet and make do with that. And who would have imagined that a consequence would be that Kym has spent the past three years plagued by the idea that she contributed to a killer’s sexual fantasy?
I email Kym with the good news. “I never wanted anyone hurt,” she emails back. “It matters a great deal to me to know that situation wasn’t my fault.”
Dan and Rhiannon get in touch to tell me they’ve received an email from a man I’ll call Milo. They think Milo contacted them because of the FAQs on their site: “Nothing is too weird. We will consider all requests.” Milo wrote to them, ‘I would like a girl sitting cross-legged on the floor, talking into the camera about how I am loved, and things are bad now but they won’t always be, and suicide is not the answer.’
“It’ll stick in my mind for ever,” Rhiannon says. She starts to cry. “I just want to know he’s OK.”
They decided to handle it like a normal request. “We gave him model options,” Dan says, “and told him we could shoot it really soon. And we haven’t heard back.”
“We’ve decided to film it anyway,” Rhiannon says. “And send it to him.”
On the day of the shoot, Dan, Rhiannon and the porn performer Riley convene at the location. It’s a sitting room in a rented mansion in the Valley. There’s a window facing a mountain and, probably because of all the recent rain in Los Angeles, everything outside is verdant. It looks like heaven in a film. Dan and Rhiannon aren’t charging Milo, not least because he still hasn’t responded, but they are paying Riley, just as they would in a normal custom.
Riley is nervous. “You can fluff a jerk-off instruction,” she tells Rhiannon. “You can’t fluff this.”
Rhiannon gives Riley direction: “The idea is: ‘It’s OK, I love you, lots of people do, all of your friends are always by your side, things are tough now, that’s OK, it’ll get better, don’t give up, keep on living, suicide is not the answer, ever…”
Rhiannon starts to cry again. The more time I spend in the world of custom porn, the more I see how much the producers and their clients have in common. They’re all working out their issues together by producing these strange, sweet films. The internet may be tearing apart some communities, but it is bringing others together.
“OK,” says Rhiannon. “Action.”
And Riley says, “You’re going to be OK. Life has its ups and downs. I’ve been low. I’ve been really low. I’ve thought about dying in the past. And at the time it seemed like the only thing that made any sense. But I came back out of the ashes, and I came back stronger, and every day now I’m able to see little bits of beauty in the world around me.”
Soon, Dan and Rhiannon will send this video to Milo, even though they’ve heard nothing from him. It is a leap of faith. Everyone is hoping that the reason he’s gone quiet is just because he feels embarrassed to have made the request. But then the video will arrive and he will watch it and hopefully things will start to get better for him.
At the end of the video, Riley says “Stick with us”, and she blows a kiss at the camera.
Just as I think my days in the world of custom porn are over, Stamps Man gets in touch. He is ready to tell his story. He grew up in Iceland, he says, where stamp collecting was a hugely popular hobby in the 1970s and 80s. There were 10 stamp shops in his small city. They were bustling: a beguiling crowd of intellectuals, obsessives and introverts. “The shop owners would tell people: ‘If you buy this stamp, it will be expensive in 20 years,’” he says. “‘You can sell it for lots of money.’” He felt captivated by this community and the promise of future riches. “I was just obsessed with it,” he says. “I spent much time and money collecting stamps.”
But then came the internet. It cut a swath through the stamp world. Stamp fans found different ways to occupy their time. His stamps lost their value. The stores closed down. He began to feel depressed, isolated. So he went to see a psychologist, who laughed at him and said: “Stamp collecting is a ridiculous hobby.”
“I got the feeling that it had been foolish of me to have this hobby,” he says. “It was useless to have the stamps just lying around at home. And I began to think how extremely exciting it would be to let sexy girls destroy them.”
So now he pays porn stars to burn his stamps. He has commissioned 10 videos in all: one a year since 2007. He destroys them in a manner that’s beneficial to him, and intriguing to a lot of people in the Valley. He gave the Valley something valuable: a mystery.
He has one book of stamps left. He’s deciding which custom producer to send it to. After that, he’s all done.
• Listen to Jon Ronson’s new podcast series, The Butterfly Effect, at audible.co.uk/ButterflyEffect