In their documentary “Hot Girls Wanted,” filmmakers Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus exposed the amateur porn industry in Miami as they documented a group of young women and their entry into sex work.
Now, the filmmakers are widening the lens.
In the new series “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On,” available now on Netflix, Bauer, Gradus and co-creator Rashida Jones turn their cameras on other aspects of the pornography industry with an eye toward examining the complicated modern crossroads of sex, technology and the Internet. Episodes include segments on the women directors who strive (and struggle) to bring a sense of female empowerment to the making of erotic films; the “cam girls” who interact with their customers via web cameras from their homes; and a young female recruiter who mentors other young women hoping to become porn stars. There’s also an episode on dating app culture and another that explores how young audiences have grown desensitized to sexual content and violence.
“Being given an opportunity to do an anthology and tell six different stories was really a treat,” says Gradus, who, like Bauer, is a former journalist (both worked at the Miami Herald before moving to New York). “There’s only so much you can do in one film. Our intention with the first film was just to say: We’re looking at this one sliver of the industry. ... Now we can go further. We can explore. This subject matter is endless.”
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Bauer agrees: “There was so much more story left on the cutting room floor.”
Bauer and Gradus met Jones at a panel discussion of their first documentary, “Sexy Baby,” about pop culture’s obsession with sexuality. Jones went on to produce “Hot Girls Wanted” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. The film, picked up for distribution by Netflix, depicts a group of fun-loving young women whose infectious camaraderie seems at odds with their work in the sex industry. They laugh, and they bond. They don’t have drug habits; they see their work as a better-paying alternative to minimum wage fast food jobs (one points out that she’s going to be having sex anyway, so why not get paid for it?). They’re happy to be away from home, eager to boost their social media following, unconcerned about the stigma of having sex on film. They’re the girls next door — with a twist.
The story eventually takes a bit of a dark turn, one that questions the violence toward women in some amateur pornography.
“We would leave North Miami every day during filming, and it was so much fun,” Bauer says. “The girls were having fun and were free and liberated and enjoying each other. But what played out is what really played out.”
When the film debuted on Netflix, social media exploded with conversations about porn, empowerment, sex and feminism. Some members of the industry complained about what they saw as a negative view of pornography. Keeping the discussions alive, Bauer and Gradus realized, was exactly what they wanted to do.
“One criticism was, ‘How dare you as women judge other women who have agency and control over their lives? Who are you to say what they’re doing is wrong?’ ” Gradus says. “It was frustrating, because that wasn’t our intent. We were letting the stories unfold and showing poor working conditions in an industry that lacks safeguards and regulations. It wasn’t casting judgment on their choices — it was showing the experiences.”
By contrast, the first episode of “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On,” directed by Jones and entitled “Women on Top,” depicts an entirely different aspect of the industry. Instead of shooting cheap amateur videos with such jarring titles as “ Exploited Teens” and “Facial Abuse,” directors Holly Randall and Erika Lust focus on erotic stories that appeal more to women, with greater production values. There’s still sex, but with an element of fantasy (Lust is crowdsourcing a series of short movies, for example, asking subscribers to send their fantasies, which she then films).
Like they did in “Hot Girls Wanted,” the filmmakers use statistics to back up their anecdotes. They have commissioned a study with help from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and continue to put the statistics to good use. Like this one cited in “Women on Top”: With only three percent of porn consumers visiting pay sites — why pay when you can watch for free? — what does the future hold for filmmakers like Randall and Lust, who rely on paid subscribers?
Exploring the complicated marketplace of the internet is one of the goals for the filmmakers. But their interests range further. What are the repercussions of teens having unlimited access to online sites? Eighty percent of the teens in the filmmakers’ study report that they stumbled across their first pornography by accident, and 40 percent of sexually active teens between 14 and 18 say they learned more about sex from porn than at school.
Bauer and Gradus have questions about adults as well. How are the internet and rapidly changing technology shaping our social and private interactions? Are we closer or further apart as a result of this brave new world?
A little bit of both, maybe.
“What’s so surprising to me is how unguarded people are with strangers,” Gradus says. “But when you think about porn, people are posing themselves to virtual strangers. It’s the same thing with app dating. People put themselves out there in a bold way. ... But in other ways we’re more protected. I took an Uber from JFK, I did the Uber pool, and a girl got into the Uber at the next terminal. She was literally sitting next to me, and I said, ‘Hi,’ and she completely ignored me the whole drive! I couldn’t get over it. I’d imagine we’d chit chat, say, ‘Where’d you come from?’ or ‘Where are you going?’ But we interface online all the time, and it dehumanizes us in a way.”
Examining such complex issues in our culture is the most important part of their work, Bauer says.
“We’re always after the bigger story,” she says. “We know there’s a bigger picture here — anthropological, psychological, sociological.”
As of now, the verdict is out on a second season of “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On” — that will depend on the ratings for season one. But Bauer and Gradus say they want to continue the series. After all, the subject is something we all have in common.
“Basically, sex is something we all do, and nobody talks about it,” Bauer says. “So that’s kind of why we like to do this work. We want to make people talk about it.”