Oh god, our sex-negative culture has spawned another work of anti-porn propaganda! In this article we look at what’s wrong with Hot Girls Wanted, an exploitative, slut-shaming documentary that perpetuates negative stereotypes about sex workers. And we even chat to legendary porn star Nina Hartley, yay! Co-authored by Kristen Cochrane and Karley Sciortino
By now, most of us (or at least a lot of us) have seen the porn documentary Hot Girls Wanted, which was released through Netflix in May. Produced by actress Rashida Jones, the film follows a small group of young women getting into the pro-amateur porn business in Miami. The film’s message—surprise, surprise—is that porn is degrading, that the female performers are victims, and that getting into porn is a negative and scarring experience (all of which is soundtracked to comically over-the-top “sad music”).
The doc begins with this horrifically cheesy montage of hyper-sexual media clips—Miley Cyrus crotch-grabbing, Nicki Minaj shaking her ass, etc.—all accompanied by source-less and sensationalized “facts” about pornography that scroll ominously across the screen. It then dives into the stories of these young, aspiring porn actresses, apparently to say that “sexiness” in culture leads young girls down a dark path to porn. Deep thoughts!
Hot Girls Wanted trailer
The film, which reads like a seedy exposé of a very mainstream genre of contemporary pornography, was met with accolades at Sundance when it first screened in January of this year. However, it wasn’t long before the film drew the ire of bloggers, like those at feminist magazine Bitch and VICE’s Susan Elizabeth Shepard, the latter of whom provided an adept debunking of the doc’s various “facts.” All the negative backlash caused Rashida Jones to give a backpedalling interview with VICE, claiming she doesn’t think all porn is bad. Which is interesting, because the film is easily read as an exploitative, slut-shaming documentary that perpetuates negative stereotypes about sex workers that so many people have spent years trying to break.
The ambition of many anti-sex work and anti-porn crusaders like Rashida Jones is to shatter a vision of sex work industries as “glamourous.” The problem here is that—hello— people already think sex work isn’t glamorous. This made Hot Girls Wanted all the more absurd for viewers who are sex workers, or have friends who are sex workers, who are already way too familiar with how the majority of society views them as trashy, victimized sluts. So why perpetuate the disdain that sex workers already face?
A major problem with the doc is that it showcases a tiny fragment of the porn industry and frams it as being representative of a whole—they never bring in outside voices, more experienced porn performers, academics, directors, etc. So we called up Nina Hartley, one of the OGs of the golden age of porn, as well as a talented writer and nurse (who BTW is responsible for countless sex-ed videos that taught women how to have a man submit to them, how to give oral sex to a woman, and how to have multiple orgasms). Unfortunately, the performers who starred in the documentary did not respond to our interview requests.
On Skype, Hartley literally rolled her eyes when we mentioned Hot Girls Wanted. “Ughhh, another clan movie!” she joked. (Well, maybe half-jokingly?) “I’ve been doing this for 30 years now, and the rhetoric of ‘pornography: threat or menace?’ is as old as dirt.” Nina pointed out that anti-porn propaganda always seeks out easily exploitable subjects in order to further its agenda. “[These documentaries] never talk to anybody who says, ‘I like what I do, it’s a great way to make a living.’ They always go for the ones who are the most easily victimized—young women looking for attention, approval, money, travel, something different, and basically to get the fuck out of dodge. The story is always the same: these, poor, poor deluded young girls who are lured into… blah blah blah.”
High-profile American academic Camille Paglia once wrote about how the best sex workers in history have been invisible. She wrote that “moralism and ignorance are responsible for the constant stereotyping of prostitutes by their lowest common denominator—the sick, strung-out addicts, couched on city stoops, who turn tricks for drug money.” You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that these are the stories we’ve heard a million times. These moral panics go all the way back to the black and white teen exploitation films that we now watch ironically and/or laugh at, like The Road to Ruin (1934), Marihuana (1936), One Way Ticket to Hell, or Teenage Devil Dolls (1955), and Teenage Mother (1967)—the list goes on. Fundamentally, they all involve a cautionary tale. The funny (read: dark) thing is, Hot Girls Wanted actually has a lot of aesthetic and cinematic similarities with old school teen exploitation movies! What’s not funny, however, is that a celebrity like Rashida Jones is using her clout to push an anti-sex worker and slutshaming agenda.
Trailer for teen exploitation film Teenage Mother (1967), “A film about a girl who went ‘all the way”
Hot Girls Wanted’s filmmakers Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus were clearly excited about having Netflix as the platform for their controversial documentary. As of April 2015, there were 40 million Netflix subscribers in the US, and 20 million abroad. Basically, people love Netflix, and people love porn, which means that a lot of people saw this movie. Sadly, Bauer and Gradus had this amazing opportunity to educate people about realities of the porn industry. Instead, we’re once again being fed poorly researched, anti-porn propaganda.
To think about this, we spoke with Rachel Liberman, Visiting Teaching Assistant Professor at the University of Denver. “Netflix is such a powerhouse, and here you have the release of a documentary about pornography. People are hungry for this information, right?” Liberman said. “We don’t get to talk to porn performers and directors, so we rely on documentaries like these. So that’s why it’s so important that you get information out in a way that’s complex and nuanced, rather than so so narrow.”
She explained that today, “porn studies has evolved to become much more sophisticated and nuanced than what this documentary captured. There’s now even an academic journal, Porn Studies, as well as publications, for instance Duke University Press, that support an important push toward a progressive and complex analysis of pornography,” she said. “It’s a step back, it’s sad for the field of porn studies, and it’s a missed opportunity to answer deeper questions.”
“It’s a step back, it’s sad for the field of porn studies, and it’s a missed opportunity to answer deeper questions.” -Dr. Rachael Liberman, Visiting Teaching Assistant Professor at the University of Denver
One part of the doc that’s particularly hard to watch is a scene when one of the young performers is shooting a scene for a site called Latina Abuse, which features “facial abuse” porn, where girls are violently face-fucked until they vomit. It does seem awful, and the film effectively makes you feel bad for the performer involved. We asked Nina Hartley for her opinion on these darker corners of pornography.
“Degradation is a subjective experience,” Hartley told us. “Just because you don’t find what’s happening in a scene arousing doesn’t mean the performers in the scene aren’t having a great time.” To illustrate this, Hartley brought up the category of extreme BDSM porn, in which the porn actresses, in their post-scene interviews, wear huge, genuine smiles and talk about how they love being submissive.
“We have to remember that pornography is a paid professional performance of a fantasy scenario. We know that Brad Pitt’s head didn’t really explode in the action movie,” Hartley explained. “But because porn is sex, and our culture is uncomfortable with sex, we have difficulty separating a performance from reality. So we watch these [facial abuse] scenes and we become outraged for her, we become concerned for her, and we become angry at her. But we don’t know what is going on in her head. She may be going, “It’s so fucking weird and cool that I’m getting paid for this.”
Exploitation films have traditionally focused on issues of “sexual hygiene.” Author Eric Schaeffer details this in his book Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Sexual or sex hygiene refers to the guidelines of purity and cleanliness, but it has a deeper, moralizing side to it. In 1942, the famous Western filmmaker John Ford co-directed a film called Sex Hygiene where a soldier at a base contracts syphilis from a prostitute. The purpose of this film, along with other “social guideline films” was to instruct citizens on how to conduct themselves sexually; or else you’ll be dirty, literally and figuratively. The literal uncleanliness of sex is especially significant in one scene of Hot Girls Wanted, where new performer Tressa discovers that she has a Bartholin’s Cyst on her labium. We don’t hear very much factual information about what a Bartholin’s Cyst is, or how it occurs, other than Tressa explaining that she got it from “having too much sex.” A quick Google search will tell you that a Bartholin’s Cyst occurs from bacteria, such as E. Coli, which enters the glands that secrete the fluid that lubricates the vagina during sex. They are common—whether you’re having a lot of sex or not. When we asked Nina Hartley about this irresponsible statement in the film, Hartley told us that she once had a Bartholin’s Cyst when she was a virgin.
These kinds of statements in the film are troubling, and are part of cinematic tactics that attempt to convey a tone of factuality rather than opinion. Trina Joyce Sajo, a PhD candidate at Western University, confirmed that the film’s editing was used in an “informational” way. That is, it tries to render a documentary, PBS-style narrative that is devoid of any subjectivity. For Sajo, the film’s attempt at connecting the so-called pornification of culture with the girls’ stories was also flimsy.
“We have to remember that pornography is a paid professional performance of a fantasy scenario. We know that Brad Pitt’s head didn’t really explode in the action movie. But because porn is sex, and our culture is uncomfortable with sex, we have difficulty separating a performance from reality.” -Nina Hartley, adult performer, nurse, and author.
When we spoke to her on the phone, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Laura Helen Marks from Tulane University noted that there are the two separate stories occurring simultaneously in Hot Girls Wanted. First, there’s the filmmakers’ message, which asserts condescendingly that the production side of porn is degrading and that the women are victims. However, Marks said, this message was different from the actual stories the girls were telling, which proved more complex and nuanced than the victimizing narratives pushed by the filmmakers and producers. For the viewer, this can produce different responses, according to Marks. If you watch this film and you already thought porn was morally wrong, your view will be substantiated. However, if you watch this film with a certain degree of media literacy, you will be aware that the performers in the film are not without agency or control of themselves. Instead, they employ critical thinking, understanding the benefits and shortcomings of the industry, like any other job.
Gawker Media’s feminist blog Jezebel argued that the issue Hot Girls Wanted was actually addressing (seemingly unknown to the filmmakers) was exploitative labour, given that most of the unfortunate stories in the film are textbook examples of labour issues. A prominent feature in the documentary is the girls’ agent, Riley, an indifferent, young, male porn performer-turned-talent-agent. He’s portrayed as a sleazy, careless, semi-predator who lures girls to Miami with Craigslist ads, and he’s clearly not great at this job. Unfortunately, unsavoury agents (and “agents”) are part of the entertainment world. “There are good agents and not-so-good agents,” Hartley says. “Getting agents to not be assholes—that is still a work in progress.”
But so, if one of the key concerns with modern porn are shady agents, then why the slut-shaming vibes on the filmmakers’ part? Shouldn’t it have focused on the perennial drive that agents and managers have in peddling in as much cash as possible, irrespective of whose toes you step on? When are we going to start talking about how the problem here is is late capitalism, and that sexual services are not inherently immoral and polluted?
“But because porn is sex, and our culture is uncomfortable with sex, we have difficulty separating a performance from reality. So we watch these [facial abuse] scenes and we become outraged for her, we become concerned for her, and we become angry at her. But we don’t know what is going on in her head. She may be going, “This is so fucking weird and cool that I’m getting paid for this.”
In Hot Girls Wanted, like any exploitation film of any era, entertainment and tenuous information are blended to form the ideal political message. Generally, the political message conforms to traditional, Abrahamic, puritanical rhetoric: have sex with one person for the rest of your life, don’t use your body to sell any kind of service, beware of the big, bad city. Hot Girls Wanted works so well because its cinematic aesthetics are made like a good thriller. Unfortunately, when you take fiction and use a “factual” format, i.e. what we consider the documentary right now, most informed people are going to find this dishonest and harmful. It’s harmful because sex workers are already treated badly. So why keep twisting the knife?
Ultimately, for an experienced, empowered, and sexually literate person like Nina Hartley, if a woman is consenting to something—be it extreme porn, or having group sex in the privacy of her own home, or whatever—that is her decision to make. “I have done a lot of things in my life that I didn’t like, and then I didn’t do them again,” she said. “And just because I had a bad experience doesn’t mean that I’m broken. It means, okay, I learned that’s not for me. As a woman and as a feminist I have to give you the dignity of making your own choices, learning your own lessons, and not rushing in to save you from yourself. Because how patronizing is it of me —or of a group of filmmakers, for that matter—to rush in and say, “Oh no sweetheart, you don’t want that.’ It’s like, Fuck you!”