Film

Rashida Jones’ Porn Documentary ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ Only Tells Half The Story

The porn industry may be in crisis, but there is a way forward.

Warning: some links contained in this article are NSFW. 

When I was a reckless teen, I thought amateur porn was a viable career option. Of course this pipe dream came with a lot of caveats: I’d do it if I lost enough weight, if I got a boob job, if I could choose the kind of porn I would feature in (no anal), and, of course, if I could guarantee my parents would never find out.

I assumed, without question, that with porn came piles of money and the kind of attention my raging hormones demanded. And the truth is that I found a sense of empowerment in the idea of it: utilising my body to do what I wanted with it, totally free from shame.

In my flushed young mind I failed see the pitfalls of an industry that sifts women into categories such as ‘busty’, ‘petite’ or ‘Asian’, and lines them up like cattle at auction to be inspected and clicked on at will. I was a little naive.

I see very little difference between this younger, wilder version of myself and, say, 18-year-old Tressa (A.K.A. Stella May), one of the central figures in the new Rashida Jones-produced documentary Hot Girls Wanted, which follows the careers of five working amateur porn stars.

Tressa grew up in a middle class family, with parents who seem loving and kind. She did alright at school and had ambitions to attend college in her home state of Texas. Her other ambitions, though, caught up with her. Like many 18-year-old women, she aspired to travel, to have a disposable income, and to achieve independence from her family. In an all-too-relatable moment, she says, “I just don’t want to end up like my parents.”

The differences between Tressa and I are somewhat arbitrary, but might explain why we veered down different life paths. These include an inclination to take initiative (I am forever guarded by my cat-like shiftlessness); our parents’ differing levels of internet savviness; and, of course, our body issues. Perhaps the most significant reason for Tressa joining an industry that I remain outside of, though, was access.

When I was 18, the internet was all Livejournal and MSN chatrooms. I was aware that girls sold their naked photos online, but had no idea how this was accomplished using dial-up speeds. I understood that I could commodify my body, sell it in bits to the highest bidder, but I didn’t know how to go about it.

All it took for Tressa, though, was a few clicks on Craigslist: the next day, she was on a plane to Miami, where she would star in an adult film. The ease with which she was able to enter the pro-amateur porn industry is perhaps one of the more horrifying revelations directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus capture on screen (which, in a film that documents a young woman lapping up her own vomit for the sexual gratification of her male viewers, is certainly saying something).

Once Tressa makes the choice to enter the porn industry, Hot Girls Wanted follows her into a wasteland where feminist dreams go to die. Dreams of female empowerment, sexual liberation and bodily autonomy are all compromised, as the cameras cut from barely-of-age women talking about their goals of long-term fame and fortune, to men stamping them with expiry dates. According to Riley, the girls’ talent scout and manager, three months is the average career span of a pro-amateur porn star in Florida, unless they turn to “weird stuff” like BDSM.

In this world, young women who are degraded on camera by their male counterparts insist that they are “treated like a princess” behind the scenes. This is evidently subjective: the girls reside in what appears to be a five bedroom low-rent hostel, forced to pay room, board and a cut of their earnings to the man who ‘discovered’ them.

Most disturbing for me was watching 18-year-old Rachel, another girl in the house, talk to her friend about an encounter with a porn director who made her give him a “forced” blow job on camera. “I was scared,” she says, “I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I could tell him no… Then I understand that that is how rape victims feel.”

But while Hot Girls Wanted does contain a compelling argument against the American pro-am porn industry, it is no morality tale. The film-makers instead attempt to give voice to an industry that is remarkably clandestine, with creators, agents and talent speaking frankly about their experiences in both positive and negative lights. By the end, the documentary presents itself merely as the beginning of a very important conversation.

This is a conversation about an industry that is broken, overwhelmed by a chain of supply and demand that compromises the rights of the vulnerable, especially women. It is a conversation about how we value women’s bodies — and by we, I mean men and women both. If we women are going to choose to commodify ourselves, we must first determine what we are worth.

But while Hot Girls Wanted presents a damning portrayal of an industry in crisis, the wider issues at play are more complicated and nuanced than a 90-minute documentary allows for. We’re presented with only a small pocket of a very large industry; in Australia, for instance, it is a slightly different story. Here, in recognition of female viewers as the largest growing market for pornography, we are producing an increasing amount of so-called “feminist porn” [NSFW]. In fact, Australia is world famous for developing an ‘art porn’ industry run almost exclusively by women [NSFW].

This is a trend echoed in other parts of the world, such as Sweden, where Erika Lust creates some of the most critically acclaimed feminist porn around. And, as Sean Dunne — director of the documentary Cam Girlz — argues, the rise of webcamming has instigated a kind of democratisation of porn, empowering women to take control of their sexuality and become their own directors. One of the young women featured in Hot Girls Wanted leaves the pro-am industry in favour of camming, citing these exact reasons.

As declared at the beginning of Hot Girls Wanted, porn has gone mainstream. More and more, young women in particular are being taught that their bodies are powerful sexual commodities. And more and more, women around the world are taking full advantage of this, reinvigorating the porn industry by empowering women to play active roles within it. The way forward for the industry is a story woefully absent from Hot Girls Wanted, and one that should be added to the conversation if real change is to occur.

Hot Girls Wanted is streaming now on Netflix.

Kara Eva Schlegl is a freelance writer, known for ‘News in Brief’ on FBi Radio’s Backchat, Ghost Stories at Giant Dwarf, Stop the Posts podcast and her own blog Kara Nation. She runs diversity driven Sydney comedy room Wolf Comedy and tweets from @kara_nation