Who's Afraid of Hot Girls?

06/26/2015 08:46 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

Hot Girls Wanted, a documentary that explores the "professional amateur" porn industry, has hit a nerve. The documentary tracks the experiences of five young women recruited by a talent agent in Miami who specializes in youthful performers for hardcore porn productions.

Hot Girls Wanted explores what goes on behind the scenes of porn shoots but also presents the scenes themselves, including sequences from popular "facial abuse" sites that many audience members have found hard to watch. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to many positive reviews and responses from media outlets (as well as from porn performers like Lisa Ann). It has also sparked a number of hostile reactions. Much of the defensiveness has come, perhaps unsurprisingly, from individuals currently active in the adult industry. They and others have taken it upon themselves to gravely warn the viewing public that the real threat of exploitation comes not from a multi-billion dollar industry fueled in large part by the bodies of teenaged girls, but documentaries like Hot Girls Wanted.

What exactly is so frightening about the film? The porn industry is both massively profitable and massively influential, and yet it is defended as if it were a struggling startup. The average age at which children first encounter Internet porn is 11, making porn de facto sex education. Forty million Americans are regular visitors to Internet porn sites. One in three Internet downloads is pornographic. Given the profitability of porn and high levels of porn consumption, it is not surprising that many people are defensive about porn. Consumers don't like to feel guilty about the products they enjoy, and producers don't like being scrutinized about the products they sell.

Whether it's the tobacco industry, the fast food industry, or nail salons, the people who benefit from the status quo will do their best to silence and discredit those who call it into question, and it's always possible to find people willing to reassure the public that there are no problems with either the labor conditions or the products themselves. Fortunately, when it comes to these industries, the public has developed a more critical perspective, due in no small part to investigative work by documentary filmmakers and journalists. The general public understands that criticizing labor conditions and product quality in the fast food industry doesn't make you anti-food or anti-fast food worker; in fact, examining an industry with a questioning eye expresses respect and concern for both workers and products.

And that is what Hot Girls Wanted does -- it examines the "pro-am" porn industry with a questioning eye. Rather than talking for or about the women in the industry, it lets the women tell their own stories. Those stories, it turns out, include coercive and dangerous working conditions, physical injuries, and complex psychological motivations. They often include unscrupulous agents, unconscionable contracts, "performances" that fit legal definitions of sexual assault, and productions that are explicitly violent, sexist, and racist. They include feeling powerless to halt scenes or walk away from sets even when they are frightened or in pain. None of this is easy to watch, and all of it complicates the comforting fantasy indulged by so many producers, performers, and consumers: that porn isn't "real," that all the acts are consensual, and that what looks like exploitation is in fact liberation.

Some critics take issue with the fact that non-sex workers were behind the camera documenting the story, but journalism and documentary filmmaking would not exist if stories could only be told by the people featured in them. Barbara Kopple was not a coal miner, T.J Martin & Daniel Lindsay were not high school football players, and Kirby Dick was not a woman in the military, but the films they produced offered important and illuminating perspectives on their subjects.

Critics of the film claim, without evidence, that "pro-am" is only a fraction of the porn business and that the experiences of the young women featured in the film are not representative of the industry as a whole (they also make clumsy attempts to dispute the statistics cited in the film which they are then forced to walk back, as the New York Times had to do here). No doubt there are porn performers who enjoy their work and companies who provide clean, safe, and respectful working conditions, just as there are undoubtedly fast food employees and nail technicians who like what they do and whose daily work experience isn't unrelenting misery. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't shine a light on the darker practices of those industries or pay attention to the experiences of those who aren't as fortunate.

It is a sad irony that many of the film's harshest critics, in accusing the filmmakers of not respecting the agency of the women featured in the film, effectively silence and disrespect those very women. Despite their concern that the filmmakers have made the women into "victims" or turned them into alarmist morality tales, these critics have no problem rewriting these women's stories for them, portraying them as sad dupes not of the porn industry, but of conniving documentary filmmakers. What is more, the same critics who have accused the filmmakers of slut-shaming and whorephobia have attacked and insulted (NSFW link) the women portrayed in the film, gleefully "investigating" their claims to have left the industry and "exposing" their supposed continuing ties to it. They criticize the women's choices when it comes to agents, boyfriends, when to leave the industry, and agreeing to be featured in the documentary, apparently believing that the only unassailable choice a woman can make is to work in porn. These critics, in taking the film to task for being "anti-feminist," expose their deep contempt for the women featured in the film.

These critics like to claim the porn industry is unfairly singled out for criticism, arguing that every industry has a dark side and there are unhappy workers in every profession. Sex work, so the argument goes, is a "job like any other." But if this claim is sincere, those who make it should welcome attempts to expose and critique exploitative working conditions. It is hard to imagine another industry that routinely exposes workers to such dangerous conditions, including hazardous fluids, physical injury, pregnancy, harassment, and sexual assault, while providing little or no safeguards against these risks. The only federal regulation taken seriously by the porn industry involves age-verification recordkeeping. The porn industry has largely ignored or managed to work around the handful of labor regulations that explicitly address health, safety, and discrimination issues facing porn performers, such as Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations for exposure bloodborne pathogens such as HIV. While Los Angeles County, California, now mandates condom use on porn sets, this measure passed over the strenuous objections of many in the porn industry and only applies to L.A. Florida, for example, where Hot Girls Wanted was filmed, does not have a state OSHA, and state health officials so far have been reluctant to attempt to regulate the industry.

What is more, the same people who claim that porn is "a job like any other" also insist that porn is special, that porn work is uniquely "empowering." No one claims that being a fast-food worker or nail technician is "empowering." Porn work is lauded as an exercise in liberation, even hailed as "feminist," in a way that other professions are not. If there is any merit to this claim, there is all the more reason to hold the porn industry to higher -- not lower -- standards. In addition to exposing and improving the health and safety conditions for porn workers, advocates for the porn industry should look carefully at the fact that the industry is fueled in large part by a labor force of extremely young, mostly female, individuals with a limited range of economic options. An eighteen-year-old's brain has not yet fully developed, in particular the part of the brain that controls impulses and decision-making. The average 18-year-old has limited education, few economic prospects, and little life experience. In the U.S, an 18-year-old cannot legally consume alcohol, rent a car, or obtain a credit card without a co-signer. But she can legally have unprotected sex with multiple partners on camera for money, and be considered "empowered" in the process.

Hot Girls Wanted is, more than anything, an invitation to reflect on how well porn's rhetoric of empowerment stacks up against the reality of its practices and products. If it is true that the vast majority of porn lives up to the promise of liberating, consensual fantasy, there is nothing to fear in this invitation.

Author's Note: I am a co-producer of Hot Girls Wanted, which was directed by filmmakers Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, and produced by the actress Rashida Jones.