The new Netflix series explores the complexities of sex in the modern age.
In 2015, Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus premiered their documentary Hot Girls Wanted at the Sundance Film Festival, to mostly positive reviews. The film profiles a talent agent named and the 18- and 19-year-old girls he recruits into the porn industry. Mike Hale of the New York Times writes that the film’s uncertain tone vacillates between weary outrage and motherly concern. He notes the filmmakers faced the challenge of respecting their subjects’ decisions while also abhorring them. It is a challenging subject to document. These women enthusiastically claim they are choosing to be part of the porn industry but face many hardships and heartbreaks along the way. Hale’s review says it seems to be a reality television-style slice of life, the camera intimately focusing on the young women, their possessions, and the spaces they inhabit. The film does not come across as judgmental, but it does point out the potential dangers for young women entering the adult entertainment business.
Liz Shannon Miller of Indiewire writes that it has become common for films acquired by Netflix to become follow-up or spinoff series — for example, Wet Hot American Summer became First Day of Camp, and now Hot Girls Wanted has become Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On. This new series takes what the film does and expands it further. Gradus and Bauer use the same intimate style wherein the camera lingers on faces and lets its subjects talk at length about their deepest personal feelings. But this time, they explore a number of different aspects of sex in our modern age. The first season has six episodes, and most of them focus on the adult entertainment industry and the different career paths people have chosen within porn. One episode focuses on dating apps, and the final episode centers on a young woman who filmed a sexual assault on the Periscope app. The episodes cover a wide range of topics and feature a wide range of perspectives on sex and technology.
The series and the original film are important to consider because they represent a new way of looking at pornography through the medium of documentary. Ed Power of the Telegraph notes that pornography has long been a favorite subject of documentarians, since it is such a fascinating and complex topic. Films such as After Porn Ends and Aroused allow adult performers to share their experiences within the industry and how it affects them on a daily basis even after their careers are finished. These films are similar to Hot Girls Wanted in that they humanize performers by letting them speak directly to the camera about their careers. However, what sets Turned On apart is that it takes a more positive, pro-porn view of the subject. Of course it is a complex topic, and as with any industry there are dangers and hardships. But the series mostly focuses on people who love their work and who are self-aware and intelligent regarding their decisions. Rather than taking on a completely anti-porn stance, Turned On shows how there are lots of positive aspects to this particular cultural phenomena.
Scholar Laura Kipnis writes that pornography is central to our culture, because it is intensely and relentlessly about us , about the roots of our culture and the deepest corners of ourselves. She claims that whether one is shocked, excited, titillated, or revolted by pornography, these reactions represent two opposing sides of the same coin — intense, visceral reactions to it. What porn documentaries do is complicate these reactions. One may be turned on by pornography but be turned off to see the performers in “real life.” One may be disgusted by pornography but interested in what the actors and actresses have to say about it.
These reactions are deeply embedded in what scholar and feminist Gayle Rubin refers to as the “hierarchical valuation of sex.” In our North American society, morally “good” sex refers to heterosexual monogamous sex, typically for the purpose of reproduction. There are things society sees as “contested,” such as monogamous homosexuality and promiscuous heterosexuality. And then, of course, there are things considered morally wrong, or “bad”: prostitution and any kind of sexual act in exchange for money, various fetishes, and sadomasochistic sex. Of course, society’s judgment on these sexual acts has changed over time and people are a lot more accepting of non-heterosexual sex today than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. However, sex work is still frequently seen as “dirty” and “wrong,” and documentaries like Turned On work against these judgments.
Radical feminist/scholar/lawyer Catherine MacKinnon argued in the 1980s and 1990s that all pornography represents violence against women, and that porn should be a legal category so that female performers can seek compensation for any damage that has been done to them. Anti-porn feminists such as MacKinnon believe that no women actually choose to perform in porn and that pornography should be completely eliminated from society. The strong rhetoric used by anti-porn feminists is manipulative and alarmist and does not account for any nuance within the adult entertainment industry. Many female performers (such as those portrayed in Hot Girls Wanted) make all of their own career decisions, from who they perform with and how frequently they perform to what props and lubricants they wish to use in certain scenes.
Anti-porn feminists do not consider female agency, nor do they support onscreen sex between two or more women, or with gender non-binary individuals. Not all porn is between one man and one woman; there are infinite variations to consider, from different genders, body types, bodily abilities, and different sexual acts other than penetrative intercourse. Heterosexual pornography does frequently appear to be violent and aggressive, but the appearance of aggression does not account for the negotiated nature of these scenes. While these scenes arguably promote violent patriarchal domination of women, they are also fantasies that do not represent how people truly treat each other. Sexual fantasies are not real life, and they often focus on taboos and acts that people would not perform in their real lives. Pornographic scenes are also frequently highly negotiated, with both parties giving their full consent to the acts they take part in. For example, in the episode “Money Shot,” two of the performers state on camera that they completely consent to what they are about to take part in before they start filming.
While Turned On is not a perfect series, it does provide an interesting exploration of human nature, and the different ways sex and pornography affect different people’s’ lives, especially in a world where technology makes pornography a lot more widespread than it once was.