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Why Rashida Jones wants America to have smarter conversations about pornography

A conversation with the producer of Hot Girls Wanted.

John Parra/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter

There are more pornography users than users of Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.

Actress Rashida Jones has produced an excellent Netflix documentary and follow-up series to examine the ramifications of such widespread pornography use. Hot Girls Wanted and Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On explore important, under-asked questions about porn, sexual socialization, feminism, labor rights, relationships, loneliness, and technology.

The point of view in both the film and the series is multitudinous and nuanced; there’s no catharsis via facile conclusions.

Jones worked with Kinsey Institute-affiliated researchers Debby Herbenick and Bryant Paul, who conducted a study on sexual socialization from kids to teens to adults. Nearly half of teen girls who have seen porn said they felt at least “a little scared” when seeing it. And more than one in three teen girls who have seen porn say they were bothered by the way women are treated in pornography.

“There’s things [in porn] that we would never accept from our mainstream media,” Jones told me. “Really, really bad racial slurs, racial stereotypes, terrible treatment of women — things that are protected because it turns somebody on.”

Our conversation (which has been edited and condensed) includes porn labor rights, e-dating, and what Jones likes about modern porn.

Alexander Bisley

Whatever people may think, porn is obviously here to stay, its good qualities and its less good qualities. One of the points you make is that there’s not enough of a conversation about all this.

Rashida Jones

We have this hypocritical tension, especially in the States. There’s this real puritanical, religious restriction in terms of sex being something that really only should happen between a married couple and should really only be for the sake of procreation. But we know that’s probably not the case for most people in the country and the world. We’re inherently sexual beings. Plus, we use sexuality for mass media and perversity in marketing, and we have for a very long time. We fetishize sexuality, and we fetishize women’s sexuality and young girls’ sexuality. We have the tension between those two things.

Then, personally and individually, people have a lot of shame around sex and their sexual habits, the things that turn them on. And it’s not something that people feel necessarily comfortable to talk about publicly, amongst each other, or with their children, which to me is the most important piece that we’re missing here. So I think the vacuum of that is only intensifying the tension between the puritanism and the objectification obsession.

Alexander Bisley

You worked with Kinsey Institute-affiliated researchers like Dr. Debby Herbenick. One of the notable statistics that came out of that was that nearly half of teen girls who have seen porn said they felt at least “a little scared” when seeing it. And more than one in three teen girls who have seen porn say they were bothered by the way women are treated in pornography.

Rashida Jones

It was the first study of its kind post-internet: We collected data from teenagers and then got their media usage, their porn usage, their sexual habits. Then we collected data from their parents. And as you can imagine, the findings were that the parents didn’t really know what the kids were up to.

But, as you said, the other part of that was to gauge how teenagers were taking in what they were seeing online. It gives me hope that young women who are sexually active look at porn and a third of them don’t like the way women are treated. That gives me hope because there is this weird struggle that porn is protected by this bubble of fantasy and there’s a lot of really problematic representation in porn, racially, gender-wise, politically. There’s things that we would never accept from our mainstream media: really, really bad racial slurs, racial stereotypes, terrible treatment of women, and things that are protected because it turns somebody on.

Unfortunately, we have so little sex education in this country and most kids happen upon porn accidentally for the first time — 80 percent of them — that we have to assume they’re learning a lot about sex from a place that’s not really interested in teaching any lessons to children. It’s considered adult entertainment. There’s not a ton of ways to protect kids from porn. Yes, individual parents can do their best, but most kids come to it accidentally, so that really is the problem — exposure to young minds who might not have seen the experience of sex and may have never even had their first kiss.

Alexander Bisley

The average age kids are first watching hardcore porn is 11. Even James Deen — whatever he is, he’s not a prude — said recently that he was concerned about porn’s impact on underage kids, and how kids are learning about sex.

Rashida Jones

Oh, interesting, I didn’t know that. Yeah. I think it’s such a giant industry, and there’s so many levels of power that people have within it. And I’ve talked to sex workers, former sex workers, who are concerned about that, and also want to pursue their own careers. And I think both things are possible. The porn industry is here to stay. There doesn’t have to be an inherent problem with that. But the idea that porn is used as sex education, which is just the truth, is something we should consider and be concerned about.

Alexander Bisley

You’ve had some criticism over Hot Girls Wanted. What do you say to your haters?

Rashida Jones

If you take any kind of position, especially against a very powerful industry, you’re going to have critics. I don’t have criticism of what any adult wishes and desires sexually. What worries me is the disconnect between the materials that are made and who’s watching the materials that are made.

I know people within the industry are concerned that if you start to limit who’s seeing it, then you further stigmatize the industry, which I completely understand. It’s already such a marginalized industry, and that was not our intent. Our intent is to have a conversation about how to let adults feel free about their own sexuality. And also, [for] people under 18, the chance to discover sexuality in a way that’s not made by people just trying to make money. And that’s nobody’s fault, but it’s something that we have to talk about. I hope that, if anything, the series creates conversation. If I’m criticized and it increases conversation, I’m fine with that.

Alexander Bisley

Could you elaborate more on your critique: the distinction you make between sexuality and sexualization, and America’s pornified imagination in general?

Rashida Jones

We live in a time now where the performance of identity is king. If we look at social media, everyone is self-branding. But I think it’s particularly intensified when it comes to sex and when it comes to how important it becomes to perform sexuality publicly.

These are just questions I’m asking: Does one perform their sexuality in a way that actually is true to what their real sexuality is? Does one perform sexuality as a way to have somebody else define what makes them attractive, and sexy, and what turns them on? There’s this issue of objectification. If you’re self-objectifying and that turns you on, great. If you’re self-objectifying for a reaction, then maybe it’s not actually turning you on? Is there a tension between that and what really turns you on?

They’re all psychological questions, but they seem to be relevant because there’s so many platforms now to express your “sexuality.” And I think sometimes what I see is an expression of sexualization, because it all feels somewhat uniform to me. I don’t know if that’s just because I’m in a media bubble. But what it looks like to be sexy feels kind of all on the same track, and it makes me wonder if it can feel that good, that particular brand of sexuality through everybody who’s performing it. I think sexuality is such an individual thing and the idea that everybody would like the same things and the same things would turn them on, it just doesn’t, for me, necessarily ring true.

Alexander Bisley

Modern dating is one of Turned On’s engaging episodes, focusing on James, a 40-year-old, all over the dating apps, disappointing multiple 20-something women simultaneously. What do you think of modern dating, apps, etc.?

Rashida Jones

Everybody goes into those apps with completely different intentions. When you have somebody who’s just gaming the system and then you have somebody that’s looking for true love, and we live in a time where self-branding is not necessarily about being your authentic self, it’s about being the version you think somebody else wants you to be because you think that’s going to attract the right person to you; that’s the problem.

We’re having this moment where we’re disconnected on who we want to be seen as and who we actually are. And then we end up feeling disappointed like a lot of the girls on that episode. But every app, whether it’s dating or shopping or food or whatever, they’re all designed to keep you hooked. So that means you’re either browsing on a shopping site forever, you’re looking through Instagram, you’re looking through all the possibilities of people that you could go out with that night, and it takes the humanity out of all of it. And it’s fine if it’s just clothes, or it’s shopping on Amazon, but it’s not as fine when there’s actual people on the other side of that photo. The weight of choices and options and accessibility and efficiency [make] you forget that there’s actually a whole complicated person behind that image.

Alexander Bisley

Your work, both in Hot Girls Wanted and [in] the Black Mirror episode you co-wrote, explores the dark side of social media and technology.

Rashida Jones

We won’t know [the full impact] for a very long time. But I think the enthusiasm and the money that could be made in technology has prohibited us from really taking a hard look at what it’s changing about humanity. And we haven’t really studied what it’s done to our brains, to our emotions, to our relationships, which is part of the reason I wanted to do the series. We haven’t taken a lot of time to stop and ponder because everybody’s so excited about the innovation.

Alexander Bisley

I wish I could quit Twitter, as you did.

Rashida Jones

Oh, you can! You can do it too! Why not?

Alexander Bisley

Are there further aspects of pornography or modern romance you’d like to explore?

Rashida Jones

There’s so many more stories to tell. Now I’m more interested in sex and technology, and intimacy and technology. Regardless if it’s sex or not, there’s something about connecting online that’s inherently a bit lonely and isolating. And there’s a world in which you can stay in your house, and you can order Amazon, and you can order your food online, and you can watch your programs in your house, and get your sex online, and you don’t really have to leave. And then the question becomes: Are you living a fulfilled life? I don’t know the answer, but I want to continue to explore those topics because it will be the thing that defines this era, probably.

How [do] we reckon with this new tool, as it came with absolutely no rules, whatsoever? What do we do now? Do we create rules individually based on how we feel? Do we self-regulate? Do we just say “screw it” and just go for it? Is it making us numb? Is it making us more connected? Is it making us more isolated? I don’t know. But it is something I will continue to be fascinated by.

Alexander Bisley

What’s something nice you have to say about porn?

Rashida Jones

Oh, there’s a lot of stories to tell with that too. We had one subject in Turned On — unfortunately he dropped out — a young guy, teenager, who discovered his own sexuality through porn. He came out as gay about two years ago. And it was really only through the discovery of gay porn that he was able to come to terms with his own sexuality. And that to me is great. How lucky it is to be able to have that tool when you don’t feel like you can ask somebody or talk to somebody, you can go online in private and find out who you are. That’s wonderful.

I know a lot of people who use it in a relationship. In the episode I directed for the series, women claiming their own sexuality and making their own porn; I love that movement. It’s been happening for a while, but it really feels like more women are taking to it, that there’s not shame around female sexuality. There’s such a stigma around women wanting, and there shouldn’t be. And I think the more they stand up and ask to see what they want and to be actual consumers, there will be a supply and demand chain that will continue to thrive and to grow. I hope it does.

Alexander Bisley

In Turned On, you profiled Suze Randall, a female feminist pornographer, and her director daughter, Holly. They detail how the industry’s new economic conditions are much more challenging.

Rashida Jones

They’re both so wonderful. And I think because Holly came up in this really artistic, free bubble of her mom’s work, she had a very specific eye and specific aesthetic. … I know it’s frustrating for Holly, and I hope that as much as this industry’s growing that it leaves room for people who really appreciate and respect the art form of making porn. Because they still have an audience.

Alexander Bisley

Holly says there’s less freedom for making more artistic content, more pressure for “harder” content, and generally not the money and fame some younger girls think.

Rashida Jones

It’s such a decentralized industry that because anybody can do it, and they can do it from anywhere they want, there’s just a lot less money to be made by any one individual, except for the three guys who own all the tube sites. They make a shit-ton of money, and then everybody else sort of does the best they can.

Which is, by the way, another reason, understandably, that people who work within the industry feel so stigmatized: There’s so many people making porn now that it’s really hard to make a living doing so. They feel very protective and defensive of the business that they work within because they want to continue to work. And it makes perfect sense. But to me, the way to do that is to talk about it, not just keep it secret.

The fact that Holly was brave enough just to talk about her experience in the industry and how it’s changed, and how she is for hire, and she does great work, and the people who hire her know she does great work, but they give her these tiny, tiny budgets. They’d rather make more product than less product of quality. It’s great that she said that, because now we all know that, and maybe people who do demand a higher-quality product, or the kinds of aesthetic that Holly wants to offer, will find her and let her make the films she wants to make.

Alexander Bisley

Is there any further impact that you hope people Hot Girls Wanted and Turned On has?

Rashida Jones

We’ve had a lot of parents ask us: “What are we supposed to do?” In my episode, I asked Holly if she learned about sex and porn from her mom, and Suze said, “Oh, my God, absolutely not. I would not have talked to her about that stuff. I just taught her how to have good manners.” If Suze isn’t talking to her daughter about porn and sex, and that was in the ’80s and the ’90s, what are parents who don’t work in erotica not talking to their kids about?

So, as awkward as it is, I do feel there’s a responsibility here to continue conversation, and you have to assume that if your kid is 11, they’ve probably happened upon porn. And it’s worth having a conversation to find out so that they can have a healthy relationship with their sex life that isn’t driven by porn [but] driven by their own desires.

Correction: Jones worked with both Debby Herbenick and Bryant Paul.

Alexander Bisley is a regular Vox contributor.

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