Hot Girls Wanted is about as solid a documentary on the “amateur” porn industry and sex work as we could possibly expect. But I can’t really blame the filmmakers, even though I should. That statement says more about our culture and its relationship with sex and sex work than it does about the documentary, produced by Rashida Jones of Parks & Rec and distributed by Netflix. I could hate Hot Girls Wanted, but I don’t. I could be offended by it, but I’m not. Why? Because this was an opportunity that was so easy to miss that it’s hard to hold it against one single, softball movie.
Many writers have, though. Here and here are two good examples. And it’s true. Hot Girls Wanted is an exploitation documentary not a cause doc. It’s not the safe, overly outraged, ignorantly liberal-minded picture I was expecting from the likes of Ms. Jones and Netflix. It’s kind of skeevy, kind of sensational, and generally does more harm than good, not unlike NBC’s To Catch a Predator, MSNBC’s Sex Slaves: Fighting Human Trafficking or the countless similar docs on Netflix. Which is to say, it’s about par for the course when it comes to sex documentaries in America.
The film mostly follows a 19-year-old woman named Tressa as she moves from New Braunfels, Texas, to Miami, Florida, for fame and fortune in adult films. Tressa connects with a 23-year-old Miami man who acts as her agent through the company “Hussie Models,” which specializes in finding fresh-faced girls-next-door for what it calls “amateur” porn, despite being as professional and industrialized a production as you could anticipate.
Tressa has a boyfriend, which is kind of touched on, and her mom figures out what she’s been doing, which again isn’t really unpacked. Instead, Hot Girls Wanted spends a good portion of the picture showing her struggle to tell her dad that his “princess” is a porn actor. The anguish is there for a reason, but the documentary never manages to say why.
Tressa’s moments are poignant, but intermixed with exploitative scenes of her and the other girls who live in the same house as Tressa and her agent. I don’t think slut-shaming is exactly what happens here, but it’s certainly damn close. (Why else would we even need to know about Tressa’s Bartholin gland cysts?)
Tressa, like many of the young women who do amateur porn, leaves the industry after a few months. And we the viewers, despite being unsettled, can be somewhat relieved. Not only do we not really have to care about what we just watched, but we have a happy-ish ending to boot. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s a damn fine job.
Yet nothing is going to change because of Hot Girls Wanted, not unlike a Michael Moore film and completely unlike an Errol Morris picture. It’s too broad to make a point and too dumb to contribute anything new. In fact, the only reason I watched it, the only reason me or anyone else is writing about it, is because it’s on Netflix. The fact that Hot Girls Wanted is so inconsequential—when more women are buying sex, more young women are turning to sex work to make ends meet, one in five American men have purchased sex and sex workers are having festivals to fight the stigma associated with their profession—means it misses the point entirely… mostly because we don’t really know what the point should be.
There’s a moment in the film where Tressa asks her boyfriend after a tough conversation, “Are you saying that I’m a prostitute?” He replies, “It’s pretty fucking close.” Got that? It’s one type of sex worker demeaning another type of sex worker, and it shows just how complicated and irrational the whole conversation is, which pretty much defines our relationship with sex in a nutshell.
That’s not to say we’re alone in America. Canada’s Buying Sex, also on Netflix, is just as dumb as albeit slightly less exploitative than Hot Girls Wanted. If someone pointed me to a BBC documentary on sex work, I’d probably end up saying the same thing. Hot Girls Wanted and most other films on sex work never really make any substantive arguments because we’re not ready to hear them. Individuals might be. Even some communities. But America and Western culture as a whole, just doesn’t seem to know how to even enter the conversation. In truth, as much as those individuals, bloggers and communities like to believe they do, they don’t. I know I don’t, for sure.
I imagine someday we’ll see a definitive, groundbreaking portrait of sex and sex work in Western culture. It’s only a matter of time. But today’s not the day. Tomorrow likely won’t be either. Instead, for now, we have Hot Girls Wanted. And if you have 83 minutes to burn when you’re not binge-watching Friends, there could be worse things to spend your time on. You know, like porn.
Actually, you’re probably better off watching porn.