Sex workers are split on the Netflix documentary ‘Hot Girls Wanted’

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The documentary Hot Girls Wanted, an expose of the world of amateur porn produced by Parks and Recreation star Rashida Jones, has rattled some sex workers’ rights advocates and porn industry workers who feel the film is a negative and inaccurate portrayal of the industry. Though the documentary originally premiered in January at the Sundance Film […]

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The documentary Hot Girls Wanted, an expose of the world of amateur porn produced by Parks and Recreation star Rashida Jones, has rattled some sex workers’ rights advocates and porn industry workers who feel the film is a negative and inaccurate portrayal of the industry.

Though the documentary originally premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, it was just released on Netflix in late May. Sex worker advocates began criticizing the film and its producers shortly after it premiered, with op-eds in VICE and Tits and Sass railing against the “exploitative” and “paternalistic” angle of the film.

“The film’s central mission is to highlight the impact that working in porn has on the women who participate in it,” Susan Elizabeth Shepard wrote for VICE. “But while there is a need for thoughtful critique of porn and the working conditions its performers face, it won’t be found here. Instead,Hot Girls Wanted offers unexamined statements and vague intimations about how doing porn harms women and watching it warps men.”

It’s certainly not the first time the sex workers rights community has criticized the media for its portrayal of the sex and porn industries. Sex workers were so vocal about their opposition to the A&E show 8 Minutes that it was taken off the air after a few short weeks. 

But the sex worker advocates the Daily Dot spoke to said it’s not all media portrayals of sex workers and porn stars that are inaccurate, just those that they feel make workers look like helpless victims trapped in a horribly exploitative industry.

Hot Girls Wanted was not made by anyone who’s actually in the sex industry, and it was very obviously planned to fulfill an agenda, and that agenda is to make the sex industry look bad,” said writer and activist Mistress Matisse.

Matisse was referring in part to a long history of comments about porn and prostitution made by producer Rashida Jones. In 2013, Jones was criticized for tweeting that pop stars banking on their sexuality were “acting like whores.”

Jones has been criticized further for comments she made while promoting the film to the media, referring to porn as a negative experience for actresses that “aren’t getting any joy from it.”

“This would be a whole different conversation if women were like ‘we were having sex, we love it so much. We want more of it. We feel so good about our bodies and ourselves,'” Jones said during a panel at Sundance in January. “[But] it’s performative. It’s fulfilling a male fantasy.” 

In response to Jones’ comments, sex workers and sex worker advocates have taken to social media to compare porn to other professions, asking whether we hold workers in other fields to the same standards of enjoyment that we do our sex and porn workers.

Award-winning porn star Casey Calvert, who has been an outspoken advocate for feminism as well as the porn industry, says that her issue with Hot Girls Wanted lies with the fact that the film blames the porn industry for the struggles the film’s central characters face.

“These amateur girls are being exploited, yes. The film suggests that it’s because pornography exists in the first place. But I don’t blame porn,” Calvert told the Daily Dot. “I blame ‘agents’ and companies who don’t see these teenagers as human beings, but as dollar signs. I mean, if you wave a couple grand in front of an eighteen-year-old who’s run away from home, of course she’s not going to say no.”

Hot Girls Wanted centers on a single Miami-based porn management agency called Hussie Models (NSFW). The small agency is run by Riley Reynolds, a porn actor in his early 20s who recruits actresses looking to break into the business through Craigslist ads.

One of those ads attracted a new girl named Brooklyn Daniels (NSFW), who is seen in the film responding to one of the Hussie ads and moving to Miami to embark on a porn career. While much of the documentary focuses more on Tressa, another performer who is unhappy in porn and leaves the business after being pressured by her family and boyfriend to do so, Daniels is still happily working in porn more than a year later.

“I am very happy with my job,” Daniels told the Daily Dot. “I believe there are ugly aspects of every job, including the industry.”

Brooklyn Daniels/Twitter

Daniels, now 21, is shown in the documentary posing for her first promotional photos while a photographer subtly insults her by telling her that her facial expression is making his erection disappear. 

It’s an awkward scene, but one that says more about the photographer’s inability to properly and professionally communicate with young models than it does about Daniels’s ability to endure a passing annoyance.

In an email exchange with the Daily Dot, Daniels articulated the complexity of working in porn, saying that there are some good and not-so-good people in the business. She said the documentary accurately captured certain aspects of the industry and “did exactly what was needed to raise awareness.”

“I don’t feel like [the directors] were trying to make the industry sound worse,” Daniels said. “I believe that all they did was shine a little bit of light on the amateur side of porn, not talking about the big time producers and shooters because lets face it, they honestly have their stuff together way better than amateur producers. This documentary just showed people what really happens to most girls in the industry. Not all of them.”

“This documentary just showed people what really happens to most girls in the industry. Not all of them.”

The different reactions to Hot Girls Wanted from different segments of the porn and sex industries illustrate just how varied people’s jobs and experiences of the industry can be. It’s impossible for any one person, it seems, to accurately claim that the sex industry or porn is “good” or “bad” when there are millions of people working thousands of different jobs, each one navigating a deeply personal set of values, reactions, intimate relationships, and economic backgrounds. 

While public discourse rests on the idea of a single monolithic “sex industry,” there’s actually no way to compare the experience of say, an 11-year-old child sold by her family into prostitution, with a 29-year-old finishing her dissertation while living in an expensive Paris apartment and paying the bills by “camming” with online strangers.

And that’s what is so puzzling about the reactions to a film like Hot Girls Wanted. Some sex workers are exhausted by the negative portrayals of the industry they love and take pride in, while others are desperate to get the word out about the horrific experiences they may have had in the business. 

But how can one draw attention to the ugly sides of the porn business without adding yet another layer of stigmatizing shame? Matisse says it’s as simple as keeping an open mind to the realities of the individual women living and working in the industry.

“This film was not a call to strengthen the rights of porn models, it was a scary story to tell them about what would—what must, inevitably—happen to them if they dared try to take this path to economic freedom,” said Matisse. “There was nothing in the film that I saw that even hinted it was possible the industry could change.”

Matisse said her ideal sex work documentary would involve a film crew following around a group of veteran sex workers who show a newbie the ropes, teaching her the skills needed to make the best of her career in a safe and profitable manner.

“What I and other sex workers would like is realistic coverage of our industry,” said Endza, a college student and actress in BDSM porn films who said she thought Hot Girls Wanted was inaccurate and biased. “We have some amazingly smart, educated, and articulate people who enjoy being in this industry.  I would like to see coverage of the positive influences the sex industry has.” 

“We have some amazingly smart, educated, and articulate people who enjoy being in this industry.  I would like to see coverage of the positive influences the sex industry has.” 

Sex workers and porn stars have, of course, been making their own media for years. Documentaries like Live Nude Girls Unite! displayed the sex industry from the inside out, portraying the women who work there as heroines fighting for positive change. Blogs like Tits and Sass and writer-porn stars like Stoya, Asa Akira, and Kitty Stryker write in glowing terms about their work, balancing out the rubbernecking documentary producers that helicopter in from Hollywood. 

But there are still those in the business who feel like it’s important to highlight all aspects of porn and the sex industry. Daniels, for one, said she frequently gets emails from young girls who have seen Hot Girls Wanted and want to know if they should be cautious about future plans to enter the industry.  These young women are flooding an already over-saturated industry, hoping to find fame and fortune. The truth is, what they find may not always be as simple as expected.

“I feel like a lot of women in the industry took this personally  and shouldn’t have, because it was in no way intended to hurt or offend any one,” said Daniels. “It was about us 5 girls and our stories—so that other women can understand they aren’t alone and that everyone has been exposed to the dark side of the industry in some way at some point in time.” 

Screengrab via Netflix/YouTube

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.