At the beginning of this year, news circulated that Rashida Jones, Meryl Streep, and Laverne Cox had all signed on to produce a “documentary adaptation” of Sell/Buy/Date, a one-woman play about the sex industry written and performed by Sarah Jones. A few days later, Cox announced that she would no longer be involved, since she was “not in an emotional place to deal with the outrage by some around my participation in this project.”
What happened? Between the two announcements, prominent voices in the world of sex work launched a wave of protest around Streep and Rashida Jones’s involvement. Both have a dubious reputation within the sex-work community, and the latter in particular has been dogged by criticism ever since she co-produced the 2015 documentary Hot Girls Wanted.
The movie and its docuseries sequel, Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, were meant to be sympathetic portrayals of sex workers. But as I reported in 2017, Jones and her co-producers, Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, alienated their subjects by carelessly exposing private information and recycling content without their full consent. After that piece came out, Gradus and Bauer gave multiple interviews attacking the subjects’ concerns, while Jones has never made amends with the community she continues to document.
In one instance, Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On featured a nine-second Periscope clip of the performers AutumnKayy and EffyElizabeth, scraped from their accounts and edited into a montage without their permission. “It’s been almost four years, and I still have people come up to me or Tweet at me asking if I know that I’m on Netflix,” AutumnKayy told me over email. In another instance, the series showed the Facebook page of the performer Gia Paige, including most of her legal name. “I didn’t even know that I was in the documentary until a ‘fan’ messaged me telling me they knew my real name and personal information,” she told me. “Do you understand how scary that is? Nobody called me to warn me.” Paige says she continues to experience targeted harassment and that “weird internet trolls” mailed her porn to her extended family. The debacle made her “realize how precious anonymity in this industry is,” she says.
In some ways, Cox’s abrupt departure is about an old scandal that was never put to bed. While Jones has expressed some sympathy for these sex workers’ concerns, the other producers maintain they never did anything wrong. “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 in an interview with Variety.
Gradus added, “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.’ … 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.” The interviewer then implied that the Periscope performers were seeking to capitalize from the publicity. “I don’t think we can make a comment on their intentions,” Gradus replied. “But that’s a fair question that I think the public should think about.”
For her part, Paige would have appreciated a simple admission of fault, but “nobody has ever reached out to apologize or correct the mistakes that were made,” she said. “I was treated like I didn’t even exist.” AutumnKayy agreed: “Instead of apologizing, they all shit-talk us. It doesn’t seem like they care about us at all.”
But this old scandal has, in the past four years, also taken on new shape, thanks to increased scrutiny of who wields power on the internet. Cox quit because of pressure from her core fanbase, who took up and amplified the performers’ concerns on Twitter. If they hadn’t, the complaints would probably have sunk without a trace. It’s harder now than ever for sex workers to be heard on social media, but even easier for producers like Rashida Jones to tell their stories on mega-streaming platforms like Netflix. The marginalization of sex workers online is a window into the ways Big Tech, Hollywood power brokers, and the U.S. government are conspiring to make the internet less free.
Big platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok use proprietary algorithms and shadow banning (a form of partial blocking deployed to minimize a user’s reach to the community without alerting them) to filter out content they deem inappropriate or otherwise undesirable. “Approved” voices rise to the top of the feed as if by magic.
The collective Hacking//Hustling published a report last fall titled “Posting Into the Void: Studying the Impact of Shadowbanning on Sex Workers and Activists,” which shows how the moderation process disproportionately affects content published by sex workers and their advocates. “Rashida Jones can post to her two million followers without worrying about her posts being invisibilized by a platform,” Danielle Blunt, dominatrix and Hacking//Hustling member explained. “Sex workers can’t. Jones can buy ads to promote her movie. Sex workers can’t.”
Making that gap wider are new laws controlling who is legally liable for what on the internet. Under the guise of combatting sex trafficking, recent legislation like 2018’s SESTA/FOSTA punishes websites deemed to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” Sites like Backpage and Craigslist Personals have already fallen afoul of the law’s remit, removing sex workers’ ability to advertise their own services. More recent laws like SISEA and the EARN IT Act, as well the proposed repealing of Section 230 in general, have turned up the heat further.
Hollywood studios are in favor of these regulatory efforts, with all their potential for greater censorship and filtering, and they have the money to make it difficult to counter their narratives in the digital space. Danielle Blunt, for example, received targeted pro-SESTA messaging on social media even while campaigning against it, she said. These bad new laws are connected, as Melissa Gira Grant has argued, to a powerful strain of anti–sex work sentiment running through Hollywood’s liberal feminism. Back in 2015, for example, Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, and Anne Hathaway signed a letter opposing Amnesty International’s proposal for decriminalizing sex work. Ashley Judd, a #MeToo leader, calls sex work “paid rape.” It’s also the company line: Disney and Twentieth Century Fox both pledged their support to SESTA/FOSTA.
That Rashida Jones has never apologized for her involvement in Hot Girls Wanted and its sequel, but can return to documentary-making on sex work anyway, reads like final proof that powerful interests have all aligned to silence an already marginalized population. By the same token, what appeared to be a passing Netflix scandal in 2017 turns out to have contained the seeds for what, almost four years later, has become a full-scale legal campaign against Americans’ ability to make themselves heard on the internet.