Rashida Jones wants us to talk about the taboo. Along with Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, the actor and director produced a new Netflix docu-series, Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, an offshoot of the 2015 documentary Hot Girls Wanted.
While the film explored a few young women’s experiences in the porn industry, the series tackles the relationship between sex and technology on a broader scale. The topics range from feminist filmmakers in the porn industry to a man who “ghosts” women on Tinder to the teen who broadcast a rape on the app Periscope. The goal: to start a frank discussion about sex.
The series has drawn some criticism after two women said they were shown briefly in a Periscope clip without their permission, and an adult film actor who appeared in the series claimed she had revoked her permission to be filmed. The creators have responded, saying their practices adhered to legal standards.
Jones spoke to TIME about porn as sex education, how technology both facilitates and hinders intimacy, and the recent controversy.
TIME: How did you become interested in the topic of sex and technology?
Rashida Jones: I’ve always been really interested in femininity and sexuality. I think being an actress and growing up in Hollywood, there’s so many complicated pressures about objectification and ownership and confidence.
And things were very different than when I was growing up: On the one hand, there’s a ton more sexual freedom. There’s a ton more room for young women to be whoever they want, show whatever they want, which is great. On the other hand, there’s a lot more pressure to be sexy. That was my in into this world because I think technology is a huge part of that. There’s a lot to unpack.
Why did you decide to focus on feminist filmmakers within the porn industry in the episode that you directed, “Women on Top”?
I met Jill [Bauer] and Ronna [Gradus], who were the directors of the film Hot Girls Wanted, at a women’s conference, and they asked if I would be interested in producing this movie they were making about teenage girls who answer ads on Craigslist and go to Miami to pursue porn.
That movie represents a very specific set of stories that come out of a very specific type of porn. It did not represent all of porn, and there was a conversation among people in the industry about whether that movie was really representative. And I understood the fact that people inside the industry felt stigmatized and marginalized by that movie because it could be the only thing that anyone has seen inside the porn industry. So we wanted to make sure to broaden the spectrum of what is happening in the sex industry today.
And that’s how you came to the filmmakers Erika Lust and Holly Randall.
A couple of people we’ve met along the way have said they had such a nice time working with Holly, and Erika is a star in her own right. We just wanted to broaden and show what’s possible, and what it’s like when a woman wants to represent female desire through her own gaze.
Lust points out porn is sex education for a lot of kids now, and that’s why it’s important to her to create porn that empowers women and reflects their desires. How do you think porn affects young people’s perception of sex?
Porn is intended as adult entertainment, but it’s being used as sex education. We did a study in conjunction with the series with Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute: We surveyed teenagers about their sex lives and their porn usage and then interviewed their parents about their kids’ sex lives and porn usage. The parents have no idea what their kids are doing. They were wrong about all of it.
Fifty percent of children in America have had two days or less of sex education, and 80% of kids come across porn accidentally the first time they see it. The average age of watching your first porn is 11. So we have to assume that they’re learning from what they see.
The episode also points out that the proliferation of free porn on the Internet means that filmmakers have less funding. That’s especially affected the female filmmakers you interviewed who want to make movies with backstories and high production values.
Obviously, the same thing has happened to music and film where technology has gotten so advanced that there’s a generation that’s okay taking things for free. There’s a lot more people making more music and movies that are more accessible. That’s true with porn, too. There’s just more people making porn, and it’s decentralizing the business. Holly and [her mother Suze, the first on-staff female photographer at Playboy] told me that there was more money to go around before the Internet.
In another episode, a male porn actor is asked to mimic violent acts. The male actor says later in an interview that he and other black men in porn are often asked to pretend to be violent, especially when acting with white women. He says porn is the last industry in which people can discriminate based on race. That revelation was rather upsetting.
If that kind of racism [like typecasting black actors] was happening in Hollywood, oh you best believe that there would be a public outcry. But because we bury things and don’t want to talk about [porn and our desires] openly, we’re not exercising the same consideration we’re trying to exercise in the rest of our lives. I think that’s a problem, and we have to talk about it.
A lot of the episodes touch on the issue of privacy. Do you think control over your Internet footprint is an illusion?
I think we need to talk about self-presentation and its relationship with privacy because there is a bit of tension right now around what privacy we’re entitled to and what privacy we’re fine giving up. I think millennials are more comfortable with that tension. I think they’re comfortable having a separate public and private identity. Whereas when I’m with my friends who are not millennials, our attempt at social media is a little bit more sweaty. We’re trying to figure out how to represent ourselves in a way that’s authentic but doesn’t reveal too much. I think it’s more natural for digital natives to have separate personal and public lives.
Until the two things come crashing into each other, as they do in the last episode. That episode is about Marina Lonina, the teenager who filmed her friend being raped on the app Periscope and has to serve time in prison because of it.
To me, that is the most overt example of how much we’ve merged with our technology. We’ve merged enough to engage in what we think is intimacy. But also it’s created this distance from our own accountability. There’s no clearer example than Marina because she lived so much of her life online because she was lonely that she did stop perceiving reality in reality and only thought through the lens of technology. [In the series, Marina says that she didn’t register what was happening in real life, but was focused on the likes and comments telling her to keep filming the assault that were coming in on the app.] That’s pretty scary that it’s so powerful that it can do that.
There’s been some controversy around the series. A few are claiming that their images were used in the series without their permission.
My interest and expertise are more on the creative side. I was not that involved in the legal vetting of the show. From the little that I know, it’s from the Periscope montage, and two women were featured in the montage as an example of average Periscope use. And there’s a fair use law that all these social media platforms rely on to just release all these people’s footage.
I fully understand the shock and frustration they must have. As a performer, I don’t have that much control over some images of myself. And I totally get that. Seeing something that you weren’t even given an opportunity to approve all the sudden being on TV series. That’s got to be shocking. It’s a really unfortunate modern reality, and it’s something I think should be discussed ad nauseam.
I do feel compassion for them. I don’t think anybody in the production company knew they were sex workers. It really was just a montage of people on Periscope. But I have a lot of compassion for them, and I understand how they must feel.
Were there any takeaways from working on this series that you feel you can apply to your own life?
I think in terms of how we see sex, it’s a reminder that there’s a huge divide between how much people think about sex, how much they engage in sex online, how much they watch porn, and what we’re actually talking about. People still don’t want to talk about it. I think it’s because we have this weird hypocrisy in this country: We have puritanical history but also these deep desires. There’s room in the middle to create a healthy relationship with sex, but I think people feel shame about it.
My intention was just trying to bridge that gap and talk about it in a way that doesn’t make people feel embarrassed or ashamed or makes them feel their desires are represented. And to remind people that when you swipe left, there’s a person behind that picture or when you tune into porn, there’s a person there.
Correction: The original version of this article misidentified the filmmakers featured in the first episode of Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On. They Are Erika Lust and Holly Randall, not Erika Randall and Holly Lust.