In case you haven’t read this already, Joe Francis, the guy who runs the “Girls Gone Wild” empire, has been revealed by the L.A. Times to be a crazy, abusive, profoundly fucked-up asshole. I don’t actually have a lot to add on that particular topic apart from “Damn, what a crazy, abusive, profoundly fucked-up asshole.” Actually, the phrase “crazy, abusive, profoundly fucked-up asshole” would seem to be an understatement.
But I do feel somewhat compelled to comment. I wrote a fairly lavish think piece about the “Girls Gone Wild” videos for the big Disinformation anthology Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong (you can read it on my website if you like), and since then, I feel like I’ve become the Feminist Sex Writer Who Thinks The “Girls Gone Wild” Videos Are At Least Somewhat Defensible. So whenever the topic of these videos comes up, I feel like I need to chime in.
What I want to talk about now is not the people who run the “Girls Gone Wild” empire, but the “Girls Gone Wild” videos themselves — and the women who perform in the videos.
And more specifically, I want to talk about what’s being said about the women in the videos.
The writing I’ve seen about Girls Gone Wild is largely taking two directions. One is pity/concern for the poor exploited girls who are being taken advantage of when they’re too excited/too young/too drunk to know what they’re doing. The other is pity/contempt for the vulgar idiot girls who are squandering their feminist heritage by pulling their shirts up on camera… and are ruining things for the rest of us.
And I have much the same problem with both. I think there’s more than a whiff of patronization, and elitism even, in both attitudes.
Let me talk about the first one first. In the strict Marxist sense, of course the women in GGW are being exploited. They’re being paid a disproportionately low amount for their labor — they’re getting paid in T-shirts and Mardi Gras beads, so duh — and someone else is getting rich off that labor. But I’ve seen a few of these videos, and it sure looks to me like most of these girls know what they’re doing and very much want to be doing it. They like the attention; they get off on exhibitionism; they enjoy feeling sexy and wild; they like having an excuse to do dirty things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
Will they regret it later? Maybe. Some of them almost certainly will. But you know, a lot of us have done things in our youths that we now regret and can’t take back. (My entire first relationship leaps to mind.) Making dumb choices that you regret is part of being young. It’s the flip side of risk-taking and adventure.
As to the women being too drunk to consent goes, I’m not seeing it. I’ve seen tipsiness in the GGW videos, high spirits, probably even some impaired judgement — but not blackout drunkenness, not drunkenness that would obliterate consent. I could be wrong, I’m not there on the streets of Spring Break with a Breathalyzer and a lie detector test (those don’t work, anyway)… but it sure looks to me like, hammered though many of them are, most of these girls know what they’re doing and know what they want.
Which brings me to my second point: the “they’re squandering their feminist heritage” argument.
This is the one that really bugs me. It’s as if sexual liberation is only for those of us with the right sex-positive feminist credentials — not for yahoo sorority girls who want to pull their shirts up on camera. Like they don’t deserve to have sexual choices, because they’ll make the wrong ones.
But we all deserve sexual liberation. We all deserve the freedom to make sexual choices — even dumb ones or crass ones. As someone whose name I can’t remember once said, not all censorship battles can be about Ulysses. (Does anyone know the source for that quote, btw? I couldn’t find it.) And the battle for sexual liberation and the right to sexual expression can’t always be about brilliant sex-themed performance art, or beautiful ecstatic lovemaking in loving long-term relationships. Sometimes it’s about college girls at big drunken parties pulling their shirts off for the video cameras. That’s the whole point of feminist sexual liberation — we don’t get to go around scolding other women for their consenting sexual choices. (Not on moral or political grounds, anyway. On aesthetic grounds… that’s another story.)
I’ve seen arguments that the problem with GGW isn’t the girls whipping their tops off for the camera — it’s the people behind the camera, the crassness of the videos and the company and the grotesqueness of the main man behind them. It’s not liberated or empowering if you’re whipping your top off for exploitative assholes, or so goes the argument. But while I’m certainly not going to defend the motives of the GGW empire (especially not now), I still think we should support the sexual agency of the wild girls themselves. Do you think every single porn movie that Annie Sprinkle or Nina Hartley ever made was a delicate work of artistic beauty and profound insight, made by sensitive feminists, with the profits going to rape crisis centers and saving the rainforest? I sure don’t. I’m sure that at least some of their movies were silly and dumb, and that the profits from at least some of them went to pay for the sports cars and coke habits of nitwit Silicone Valley porn producers. That doesn’t negate Nina and Annie’s sexual agency and power.
And I think a lot of the “won’t somebody please think of the children?” hysteria about the women in the GGW videos is just flat-out sexist. The same company that makes the “Girls Gone Wild” videos also makes “Guys Gone Wild” videos as well… and I think it’s extremely interesting that nobody, not one person that I’ve heard or read on this subject, has gotten upset about the poor stupid young college boys with low self-esteem who got drunk and let themselves be manipulated into flashing their asses and dicks on camera, and who are going to feel violated and ashamed the next morning and will regret it for the rest of their lives. It’s apparently just young women who are incapable of making their own sexual decisions and living with the consequences.
So here is my plea. Can we please, please, try not to extend our excoriation of Joe Francis to an excoriation of the women who’ve performed in his videos?
Can we please treat them like adults, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they do what they do because they want to do it?
Can we please at least try to remember that other people like different sexual things from what we like… and not jump to the conclusion that if someone is doing something sexual that we wouldn’t enjoy, therefore they don’t enjoy it either, and therefore they’re only doing it out of manipulation, desperation, coercion, drunkenness, low self-esteem, cultural brainwashing, etc.?
Because when we treat the Girls Gone Wild with patronizing pity and contempt, when we stop respecting them and their sexual agency, it’s a small step to disrespecting Nina Hartley and Tristan Taormino and Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen and all the other great exhibitionists of the world. And it’s a small step from there to disrespecting every woman — and every man — who makes unpopular sexual choices.