Bare TrapHow Girls Gone Wild Sold Sham Empowerment

a dark illustration of a woman lifting her shirt up, she is obscured with vhs static noise

Illustration by Angie Wang

Cover of Bitch's Wild issue cover: women dressed in white dancing in a circle in a river with greenery in the background
This article was published in Wild Issue #92 | Fall/Winter 2021

It might be difficult to believe that it has been 20 years since the direct-to-video pornographic franchise, Girls Gone Wild, turned sexual empowerment into a form of jack-off material. But it was in the late 1990s that Girls Gone Wild’s creator, Joe Francis, notoriously began taking young, drunk women off the streets, asking them to sign consent forms, and broadcasting their drunken decisions into the bedrooms, basements, and hotel rooms of horny, voyeuristic viewers. GGW was an obscure product until celebrities began endorsing it: Both Snoop Dogg and Eminem collaborated with the franchise, and Justin Timberlake was famously spotted in 2004 wearing a GGW trucker hat.

Endorsements from A-list celebrities do a lot to legitimize a product—just ask Fashion Nova and Flat Tummy Tea—and suddenly, GGW’s sleazy late-night infomercials were seemingly inescapable. The franchise created a demand and a cultural environment that encouraged women, sometimes under the influence, to enthusiastically take their tops off. If Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Timberlake approved, how harmful could appearing on a GGW dvd be? “It’s not like we’re creating this,” one of Francis’s employees told Slate in 2004. “This is happening whether we’re here or not. Our founder was just smart enough to capitalize on it.” Much like OnlyFans, Girls Gone Wild appealed to people (mostly men) because it showcased “amateurs.” Anyone could take their top off: the girl in your college chemistry class, your friend’s sister, or even his mom. That voyeuristic element provided entertainment for the viewer, as well as an exhibitionist thrill for the “performers.”

What Francis didn’t realize, however, was that some of the girls who technically consented on paper were minors lying about their age. In 2008, four women sued Francis for filming them when they were underage, and a Panama City, Florida, jury ruled in their favor. Eventually, Francis pleaded no contest to child abuse and prostitution charges, and GGW went belly-up. But 20 years later, we’re even more aware of the franchise’s exploitative nature because our overall understanding of consent has evolved. Thanks to the internet and the #MeToo movement, there have been more cultural conversations about consent and boundaries. But as things like GGW—along with revenge-porn site Is Anyone Up?, founded by Hunter Moore in 2010 (defunct as of 2012)—became flashpoints in our cultural discussion about consent, the fallout over their existence also led to consequences for the overall porn industry.

Though there’s a clear difference between the women who took their tops off on vacation and those who choose to actively create and produce their own porn, professional porn remains under attack, particularly after the 2018 passing of FOSTA-SESTA. The days of direct-to-video porn are over, replaced instead with layers of complex regulations regarding how porn can be made, distributed, and advertised. For instance, if you sign up for an OnlyFans account, you’re required to share your ID, a recent photograph of you holding it, and so forth, in order to avoid future legal problems or possible instances of underage porn. Even with all this red tape, a growing anti-porn movement is on the rise, resulting in Pornhub founder Feras Antoon’s Montreal home being destroyed by arson. It’s no coincidence that Antoon’s house was burned down. Anti-porn ideology is now being pushed to the extreme due to the growing QAnon movement’s conflation and co-opting of the anti-trafficking organization Save the Children. The nonlegislative leg of the anti-porn movement has hooked arms with the growing fascist movement, and legislative bodies happily join in the hopes of positive press, showing they’re on the “right side.”

GGW might have lasted only 13 years in the span of the lifetime of porn, but the show’s shady business practices emboldened an industry that already viewed porn negatively.

Francis was more of an opportunist than a pornographer, but anti-porn advocates used his case as a guinea pig, testing to see just how far boundaries and regulations around porn creation in the U.S. could go. GGW might have lasted only 13 years in the span of the lifetime of porn, but the show’s shady business practices emboldened an industry that already viewed porn negatively. And the ones left to deal with the aftermath are the actual porn workers who have had to adapt to a highly regulated world of legal troubles and suspicion. Some may argue that these developments could have happened despite GGW, but the public love affair with a creepy “pornographer” doesn’t help those who spend their careers making porn they love with consenting adults. In the end, we know what we’ve always known: Francis was a celeb-adjacent opportunist who didn’t care about the wreckage he left in his wake. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article inaccurately described the link between the Save the Children organization and the QAnon movement. The story has been updated to reflect that clarification.

 

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by Erin Taylor
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Erin Taylor is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn.