Anybody who habitually reads mainstream feminist websites centered on the US is probably already aware of the recent decision in favor of Girls Gone Wild and founder Joe Francis in Missouri.
The female plaintiff was being consensually filmed dancing on a table while fully clothed when someone forcibly pulled up her top, exposing her breasts. In the film itself, she can be heard saying “no, no” and saying she does not want that used in the film, but she later learned that the video of her had been used in a GGW release.
But before I get to the meat of the jury’s decision and GGW’s arguments, I’d like to add some context.
Joe Francis is the creator of the Girls Gone Wild franchise, which has included dozens of films, many of which contain multiple volumes. The videos show young women, usually at Mardi Gras or on spring break, exposing their breasts or engaging in sexually-explicit behavior in front of the camera.
There have been numerous “controversies” surrounding this franchise. For the unaware or naive, a “controversy” is the term for when male entitlement runs afoul of the law or basic human decency. In the case of GGW there have been numerous cases in which they neglected to obtain adequate consent or did not check the age of the individual who was being filmed. Numerous people who have witnessed filming – including Ariel Levy, who recorded her observations in the first chapter of the book Female Chauvinist Pigs and the Rise of Raunch Culture, a portion of which related to her experiences with the GGW film crew can be found at Slate’s website – have stated that film crews encourage young women to drink alcohol so that they will be more receptive, use and rely on coercion and peer pressure including intimidation from males, and hire plants to flash the camera and encourage other women to do so. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever successfully sued GGW based on the allegation that they were too drunk to consent, or that they felt threatened or physically endangered if they did not consent (though Ariel Levy describes a scene on a beach, in which a cluster of men surround a duo of young women who are sunbathing, and the GGW crew films as the men scream at the women to take off their tops – if that doesn’t evoke the threat of a gang-rape, I don’t know what would).
Joe Francis himself has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and criminal charges, based on allegations ranging from sexual exploitation of minors, to rape, to soliciting prostitution, to drug charges, to tax evasion. All this, and he’s only thirty-seven years old.
Check out this brief blog post from 2007 which goes through several accusations of rape and sexual assault against Joe Francis to that date.
Even in the past year alone he’s been involved in numerous lawsuits in addition to the one in Missouri.
In September 2009 he was sued by a woman named Jayde Nicole (known as “Brody Jenner’s girlfriend” – presumably I’m supposed to know who Brody Jenner is) based on the allegation that while drunk Joe Francis grabbed her hair, pulled her backwards, and threw her down on to the floor of a nightclub “like a rag-doll.” Her injuries reportedly included “black eye, swollen face, bruised ribs, sore and bruised abdomen region, bruised arms and legs, ripped-out hair, and utter emotional distress and humiliation.” Francis’s response was to say that she is “an absolute and total liar” and that “[t]he only thing that Jayde Nicole is famous for is having a tattoo of the word ‘respect’ above her vagina … for which we all know she has none of.”
It’s unclear to me from that unparsable sentence whether he is saying she has no respect for her genital area (“Above” her “vagina”? How does that work exactly? And isn’t it incredible how many men think of female anatomy as if we’re lying on our backs rather than standing up?), or whether she has no respect in general. Regardless, his initial response is to mock her based on something related to her female genitalia. I think if I identified as a “sex-positive” feminist I’d probably be screaming about slut-shaming, but as I’m not I’ll just stick with calling him a raging misogynist.
Also during this period, Joe Francis has gotten in trouble for his behavior during an
ongoing lawsuit which accused him of sexually exploiting minors. The underlying facts accuse him of coercing under-age females into sexually explicit behavior which his company then videotaped and released under the Girls Gone Wild label.
His behavior during a court-ordered deposition should really be quoted in full to get the whole effect:
Another Francis tactic, U.S. Magistrate Judge Allan Kornblum noted, was “pretend[ing] not to know the meaning of common words to avoid a straight answer.” A typical exchange with plaintiffs’ counsel went as follows:
Q. Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
A. I don’t understand what that means.
Q. You don’t understand what being a convicted felon is?
A. No. Can you explain it to me?
Q. Did you serve any time in jail?
A. What do you mean “serve”?
Q. Do you know what a prisoner is?
Q. Do you know what a cellmate is in jail?
Q. Do you know what a jail is?
A. Sort of.
Excerpts from the deposition also show Francis insulted and taunted plaintiffs’ counsel. Asked about paying two teenage girls to masturbate him, he said it was “disgusting and laughable that you would be accusing a man like me of such disgusting allegations … a man of my integrity.”
Had he ever paid girls to masturbate him, he was asked? “Do you?” he replied.
Even the efforts of his attorney, Frederick J. Bateman, to restrain him were unavailing. Bateman succeeded two previous defense lawyers, only agreeing to take the case after Francis agreed to honor “the conduct requirements, the ethics requirements and the procedural requirements for moving this matter to trial.”
After plaintiffs’ counsel decided to terminate the deposition, Francis -– perhaps flashing back to his work on “Girls Gone Wild” videos — took the camera from the court videographer and began filming one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Rachael G. Pontikes.
Keep in mind, one of the plaintiffs was allegedly thirteen years old at the time.
Later in the case – specifically, in February of this year – Francis’s attorneys presented evidence that one of the plaintiffs had been filmed in a sexually explicit fashion subsequent to being in Girls Gone Wild. The title of the article is “‘Girls Gone Wild’ Plaintiff Admits Making Porn Films”, though what she actually admitted is that she is aware she had been filmed once or twice by unknown persons at unknown times in a sexually explicit fashion. Francis and his attorneys filed a brief demanding to be shown the allegedly pornographic videos.
More recently, the case is up on an interlocutory appeal over the judge’s decision to not have the plaintiffs’ identities remain undisclosed (pdf). While acknowledging that the plaintiffs were minors at the time of the filming, the judge found that “casual and voluntary sexual activity is not the type of fundamentally personal issue that warrants the imposition of anonymity like abortion, birth control, or religion” (emphasis added).
They could not have legally consented, and they’re arguing they did not consent, but they did consent enough, apparently, to not have a real privacy interest in keeping their identities secret.
In the meantime, GGW has become ubiquitous, to the point of almost being a household name. Joe Francis earns millions of dollars each year, and GGW is one of the country’s most financially successful pornography labels. Prior to the economic downturn, the company was considering opening a restaurant chain a la Hooters, and its empire has been reported on by, among others, Rolling Stone Magazine.
By this point, anybody who pays any attention whatsoever to the pornography industry is almost assuredly aware that Girls Gone Wild has serious issues with consent, and that in any given film there may be a real question as to whether it was the “girls” who were going wild or the film crew and its voluntary enforcers and intimidators. Men who pay any attention at all (or who question the “god-given” right to view female bodies which has been inculcated into them since birth) must all know that GGW and its founder have been accused of these things. Joe Francis is regularly sued, and these lawsuits generate a fair bit of attention and publicity.
Yet Francis is
obscenely disturbingly wealthy. Men know about these problems, they just don’t care, or they rationalize it away.
Of course, this is a problem with pornography in general. A viewer has no way to know if the woman has consented, or if she is the victim of sex trafficking or other forms of sexual assault. Consent is presumed, if the viewer even considers it at all. This links back into so much in the world about consent and female-sexuality-as-subordinate-to-male-sexuality: we are presumed to be there for the “taking”. Rape statutes presume consent and the prosecution has to prove a lack of it. We have themes of sexual “awakenings” in which a young woman is “awakened” to her sexuality by being at the receiving end of male sexual behavior.
And the entire “nice guy” archetype is based on the idea that if only the male can find the right magic words, or convince us of what we secretly want anyway (so secretly that we don’t even know it ourselves) then everything will be fine. If only we could be liberated from prudery, we’d happily spend our day sucking cock.
We’re not people, after all. We’re just toys – sex dolls, quite literally, and usually broken ones at that.
So, let’s go back to that Missouri case.
The defendants – Girls Gone Wild and Joe Francis – argued that the plaintiff had expressed consent simply by being at the party. The jury foreman stated she was “playing to the camera” and “knew what she was doing” even though someone forcibly pulled off her top.
Could this be any more clear? We imply consent by merely existing.
As the website Web Gangsta recently wrote:
Web Watch can see the next Girls Gone Wild court case, where the lawyer simply stands up and presents their entire defense as “Your Honor – her mouth was saying no, but her body was saying yes. The defense rests.”
Silly us, forgetting and thinking we were people. Next time, don’t leave the kitchen, you skanky ho.
So, that’s why the GGW defense argument and the jury decision are this week’s Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: because if I were going to write a satirical news article about victim-blaming and rape apology in our society, I might well write an article in which a woman who was filmed while being sexually assaulted was told she “knew what she was doing” by simply being at the party/house/bar/hotel/danceclub/ballet/Lions Club fundraiser/PTA meeting.
And look! Somebody actually did it. But they weren’t fucking joking.