“The narrative has kind of become hijacked, that we exposed sex workers and that we put them in danger by telling the world that they were sex workers, when in fact we never ever did that,” Gradus said.
Released to largely positive reviews April 21, “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On” explores intersections of sex, commerce, and technology. Netflix commissioned the series after acquiring and releasing Bauer and Gradus’ feature documentary about the porn industry, “Hot Girls Wanted,” in 2015. Both projects were produced by Bauer and Gradus, as well as actor Rashida Jones.
Shortly after its premiere, several women and men featured in “Turned On” took to Twitter to denounce the series. One porn actress claimed that filmmakers had promised her that she would not be featured in the series. Two other women said that footage from their Periscope feed was used without their permission.
Bauer and Gradus dismissed the former claim as false and the latter as misleading.
Criticism against the series began mounting April 22, after two female webcam performers known online as Effy Elizabeth and Autumn Kay said on Twitter that they were shown in one episode without being notified ahead of time or providing consent.
“It is real, we weren’t even told it was happening,” Elizabeth wrote. Kay later posted a screenshot from a Twitter direct-message conversation with the series’ official account — a message offering to put Kay in touch with producers “to explain fair use.”
The footage of Elizabeth and Kay is shown near the beginning of the series’ sixth episode, “Don’t Stop Filming,” which tells the story of a woman who allegedly broadcast the rape of her friend on Twitter-owned live-streaming service Periscope. Elizabeth and Kay are featured in a segment at the beginning of the episode that explains how Periscope works and what type of content is available to view on it. They are onscreen for nine seconds.
Bauer and Gradus argue that because Elizabeth and Kay broadcast the footage on Periscope, fair-use doctrine and the app’s terms of service protect its inclusion in a documentary. Nowhere in the episode are Elizabeth and Kay identified.
“They saw themselves, and then on Twitter, as themselves, using their own handles, tweeted out, ‘Oh my God, we’re on Netflix. Oh my God nobody told us. Oh my God, we’re sex workers and they’ve just shown us on Netflix,'” Gradus said. “So the great irony here is that they identified themselves as sex workers. And really that is a key piece of information that has been lost in this story.” She added, “We didn’t know who they were. We never would have known, the viewers never would have known, unless they themselves identified themselves.”
Asked whether she felt that Elizabeth and Kay may be using their inclusion in the series to grow their profiles as performers, Gradus said, “I don’t think we can make a comment on their intentions. But that’s a fair question that I think the public should think about.”
After Elizabeth and Kay took to Twitter, other porn performers began to speak out against the series. One woman featured prominently in the series, performer Gia Paige, wrote on Twitter, “HEY @hotgirlswanted REMEMBER WHEN YOU PROMISED TO CUT MY PART BC YOU WERE TRYING TO MAKE ME TALK ABOUT MY FAMILY AND I WAS UNCOMFORTABLE.” She added in a follow-up tweet, “BECAUSE I DO. THANKS FOR KEEPING YOUR WORD. SNAKES.”
Other performers have complained that they would not have agreed to be filmed for the series had they known it was connected to the original “Hot Girls Wanted.”
Bauer rebutted those claims, saying that Paige, like all performers filmed for the series, signed a release form and that she never expressed to filmmakers a desire to be cut out of the final product. “Nobody was coerced,” Bauer said.
“The bottom line is that everyone in the series was completely aware that this was a ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ offshoot and that we were involved,” she added. “All of those allegations are false.”
Free Speech Coalition, a porn-industry trade association, issued an open letter to Netflix and series producers Friday.
“It is ironic — and disturbing — that a mainstream series which purports to address workplace ethics among adult film performers and focus on issues of empowerment appears to exploit them for its own gain,” the organization wrote. “If the allegations against this project are substantiated, the producers may be perpetuating unfair labor practices against adult performers on their own production.”
The original “Hot Girls Wanted” was criticized by some in the porn business who claimed that it portrayed the industry in too negative a light. Gradus said that in the “Turned On” series, “We tell a lot of positive stories and we show women who are happy sex workers, we show women who tell the viewers that they are empowered.”
Criticism of the series, she said, is likely fueled by sensitivity over how the industry is often portrayed in mainstream media — and that performers who have spoken out against the show may be doing so because they feel they have to.
“The industry is very defensive about people coming in and shining a light on the industry and doing stories about it,” she said, adding, “The allegations that have come out are probably the result of pressure they are feeling to stand in solidarity with the industry.”