By Alana Massey
Hot Girls Wanted is a documentary of competing narratives before you even push “play” in your Netflix queue. The cover photo of the film features a woman with her face obscured by long dark hair in a dimly lit hotel room, her youth indicated by a pair of tube socks. But the film itself purports to put a human face on the professional amateur porn industry in Miami. It follows young women from small towns to the dark corners of Craigslist where they’re enticed by ads titled “Hot Girls Wanted” that promise quick and easy money.
The sometimes blindingly bright colors of Miami itself and the young women’s clothing both on and off porn sets are in sharp contrast to the mysterious cover girl whose anonymity says either, “This woman could be anyone” or “This woman isn’t anyone anymore.” But the subjects are far less sullen in their day-to-day interactions in the house they share with fellow performers and their manager at Hussie Models. It’s full of gregarious dreamers whose friendship dynamics are similar to what you might find in a college dorm; They stay up talking and joking into the night, justify their life choices and talk about bad days at work just like everyone else does during early adulthood.
It is hard not to fall immediately in love with the women profiled in the film not because they’re angelic kids but because they’re hilarious and self-aware women, despite the filmmakers insistence on calling them “girls” both in the title and throughout the film. Though I’ve never performed in porn, I too meandered to the section of Craigslist that nice girls are not supposed to go to when I was an undergraduate. I also recognized both the thrill of relatively high wages and the regret that followed experiences I would have never participated in had there not been a financial incentive.
Financial incentives come up in the film time and again but the filmmakers insist there are cultural lures as well. In the beginning, there is a pop culture super cut of celebrities who have capitalized on their sexuality like Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian dubiously linking them to the rise of amateur porn. But the women themselves reveal far less glamorous intentions. In a scene when they’re talking about the decision to do porn, a woman named Rachel explains, “I made $900 in five hours. I’m going to go home and make $8.25 an hour? No. No no no no.” Tressa, a performer who had only worked as a waitress and had never been on a plane was desperate to escape her hometown and saw doing porn in Miami as her way out.
These are all-too brief reflections on social class and the limited economic opportunities afforded to young women are soon drowned out by scenes meant to highlight more salacious, exploitive aspects of the industry. Many critical and necessary lessons about the sex industry were left to hide in plain sight. Instead, we get a heavy-handed moral message suffocated issues of gendered labor, class in America, and the uninterrogated sexual desires that inform what kind of porn gets produced. That performing in porn is often difficult work, that it requires talent and skills, and is heavily stigmatized are truths that several scenes in the film highlight but you have to be really looking to see. What could have been an examination of personal and economic decision-making in a society that undervalues female labor and overvalues youth is instead, to borrow a term, paternalistic trauma porn about little girls lost.
One of the most uncomfortable scenes is of Rachel performing with a much older costar in a film where the lines of consent are meant to be blurred between a teen girl and her neighbor. She appears clearly checked out during filming and afterwards looks to the documentary camera and says, “This is so just work right now.” A woman named Jade (who frankly gets a criminally short amount of screen time) also explains some of the more degrading scenes she’s done in her career: “I’m here to put on a show, I’m not here to be comfortable. I come and put on a show and be uncomfortable so you can get off and I can get paid and be comfortable on my own time.”
These raw moments with the performers blow the lid off the idea that porn is some kind of a fun sexual romp through the cash fields of Miami. When the fantasies being portrayed in porn involve a negotiation of one’s own sexual boundaries in return for payment, there is going to be difficult decision making and discomfort. But these must be differentiated from exploitation if we are to respect the agency of the women who made these decisions and so that true exploitation can be recognized in the cases where it does happen. Rachel also reports a job being advertised as a standard blow job scene and it turns out to be a forced blow job scene with one man and one camera, a considerably more laborious task and a clear bait-and-switch by the advertiser. This kind of exploitive business practice is portrayed as part and parcel of the industry rather than as an abusive practice for which the man involved should be held accountable. By failing to draw distinctions between ethically made porn and bad actors, there is no opportunity created for dialogue about how porn might be improved. In this depiction, it can only be condemned.
And while the yucky, leather-faced Miami ghouls of the porn industry are meant to play the primary villains in Hot Girls Wanted, for me the vilest people in the film are easily Tressa’s boyfriend Kendall and her parents. Kendall starts out as a good sport that you want to root for, calling Tressa a hustler who is making her dreams come true. But as the judgments of his friends seep into his conscious or when Tressa is at all stressed by work, he devolves into a jealous and petty little shit. The poor dear can’t watch porn anymore without thinking that the woman therein might be someone’s “girlfriend or daughter”. It doesn’t help that when he meets Tressa’s mother, she asks him, “How can you date a person like this?” reducing her own flesh and blood to “a person like this.” Her decisions are portrayed as the impetus for tearing relationships apart when it is in fact the stigma and shame they heap upon her that creates the conflict. When Tressa eventually tells her father about her work, he says that it will take a long time to build his trust back but that she’s still his daughter and will always be his daughter. But Tressa didn’t take anything from her father unless you believe that a woman’s virtue is the perpetual property of her male caregivers.
The filmmakers are complicit in this sick sense of permanent male ownership over a woman’s sexual and economy autonomy by offering a platform for these entitled grievances. There is even a slow-motion montage set to somber acoustic music showing photos of promising high school students followed by images of the women profiled in the film now dressed up as their porn personas a few years later. Casting them as the lost daughters from families and small towns instead of as workers in an industry makes the film about their moral identities rather than their rights as laborers. These women are not dead and they are also not alone. “I will never run out,” says their manager Riley. “Every day a new girl turns 18.”
It is an old custom of media professionals who cover any aspect of sex work to believe they’re Christopher fucking Columbus discovering and documenting the monsters of the sex industry. But it’s doubly injurious when these particular filmmakers do so under the banner of women’s empowerment. An ethically made documentary about porn would have us disappointed that there are opportunities for exploitation in porn rather than concluding that the industry itself is inherently exploitative. The cover of such a film might have the decency to show us a young woman’s face, staring down the often impossible choices that girls becoming adults must make in the face of limited opportunities. She knows that she’s a whole lot more than just a hot girl, but until our economic systems, social norms and voracious gazes can see her as more, she might as well play along.
Illustration by Devin Washburn. Source Image: CSA Images.