Hot Girls Wanted: every kind of sexual behaviour and no type of intimacy

A new documentary series on technology and sex depicts a fascinating, horrible achievement: we have finally managed to take the people out of sex

Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On explores how technology has changed the sex industry and even sexuality, normalising porn and supercharging desire

Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On explores how technology has changed the sex industry and even sexuality, normalising porn and supercharging desire

 

As you watch Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On (now streaming on Netflix), which, as the ironic panting of its title clearly implies, is a documentary on how technology is reshaping human desire, a unifying theme begins to emerge. This is not so much about trends in the porn industry (the programme’s chief focus), with its widening reach and lurching extremes. Nor is it about the effect of the digital revolution on hooking up and morality (a significant subplot), or even the latest upgrades to the world’s oldest profession (which provides the substance for a tragicomic standout). The real connection here is a more fascinatingly horrible achievement: how we have finally managed to take the people out of sex.

In an early episode, Love Me Tinder, a man addicted to the dating app swipes compulsively through a stream of images. “It’s taken the humanity of people away, a little bit,” he says. “You’re literally a thing.” In a later episode, a young woman who works as a porn scout and a webcam model asserts, “I know I’m a sex object, but I control everything,” while repeating the mantra of “a successful, empowering, positive career” in porn against all evidence to the contrary.

If technology has changed the sex industry and even sexuality, normalising porn and supercharging desire, it has also had serious implications for sex documentaries. Hot Girls Wanted began as a grimly disturbing film on how amateur pornstars – drawn by naivety, damage or delusion – are generally chewed up and spat out by a ravenous industry. It has now widened its optic to make a six-part series about sex and technology that attempts to be neither titillating nor priggish: an admirable and almost unachievable balance.

But the fault line between liberation and exploitation is a source of productive friction. The standout episodes are Owning It, which follows a similar path to the original film; Take Me Private, a mortifyingly entertaining and crushingly disillusioning real-life encounter between a webcam model and her besotted customer, and – most harrowing of all – Don’t Stop Filming, the story of a teenager who livestreamed the rape of her friend on Periscope, dizzied by booze and the “likes” she received. All are connected stories of dehumanisation and depersonalisation in depressingly understandable circumstances.

The documentaries, on the other hand, retrieve the real people from behind the online fantasies, the dating app swipes or the suburban horror stories, often finding them confused, caught up in a swirl of justifications, or on the difficult cusp of self-insight. (In other words, human.)

You can argue that they have been exploited here in other ways, exposed by more canny documentary makers for our judgment, alarm or empathy. But the handling is gimlet eyed, generously expanding the context, providing enough material to learn from. “We can’t ignore that porn today is sex education,” argues Erika Lust, a filmmaker who brings “a feminine touch” to an industry that – with rivals titled Fetish F**k Dolls and Teens Get Destroyed – is squeezing it out with infinitely more degrading content.

The series too is a kind of education, lensing grim realities behind the manufacture of online fantasies, from which you can either make a dire prognosis for the final corruption of human desire, or, more likely, envisage a culture familiar with every kind of sexual behaviour and no type of intimacy. That, hopefully, should be a real turn off.

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