Mention Girls Gone Wild to a casual observer of American culture in the early aughts, and it’s likely to elicit nervous laughter or a boob joke.
In 1997, Joe Francis began a venture convincing young women to bare their breasts on video and it made him a fortune. It was all just a bit of risque fun, Francis claimed; liberating for women, like Sixties bra burning, but also sexy for men.
Francis and his cameramen would travel the US, attending and sponsoring parties on beaches and at nightclubs where college-aged women would be partying, celebrating Spring Break or Mardi Gras. In return for a free t-shirt or a baseball cap, Francis would ask women to show them their breasts. Many did. Advertisements for the videos, which were crudely cobbled together clips of nice girls “gone wild”, were then sold as mail-order subscriptions on DVD and VHS.
A cultural phenomenon was born; Francis was riding the wave of reality television’s advent and the normalization of amateur pornography - the kind of videos that made Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee infamous. At its peak, the GGW empire was worth a reported $100m. Francis is today a fugitive living in Mexico, with two arrest warrants open in the US. Through a spokesperson The Independent was told: “Mr. Francis’ attorneys wanted to be clear that all of his legal issues in the United States are long gone, and he’s free to travel to the United States whenever he desires.”
A podcast detailing the rise and fall of the GGW empire, and examining the laundry list of criminal and civil charges against Francis airs in full this week. “Infamous: Inside America’s Biggest Scandals”, is a six-part investigation by journalist and author, Vanessa Grigoriadis. At the heart of GGW, the podcast shows, Francis was not a naughty boy with a childlike fetish for breasts, but a predator and masterful manipulator. His business was based on misogyny and exploitation and it allowed him to abuse dozens of women.
It’s objectively disturbing to watch archive footage now in a post #MeToo era and see older male videographers alongside Francis, egging on young women – some of them minors. Grigoriadis talks about feeling that way herself as a young reporter covering GGW at the peak of its influence. She traveled with Francis and the GGW team in 2002 and describes the scene at a Spring Break party with the film crew as like being on “an acid trip.” On the #MeToo movement, a spokesperson for Francis told The Independent: “Mr. Francis is also happy that the #metoo movement got rid of all the discussing [sic] creepers. Because he has never been one of them. He’s proud to say that and proud to be friends with most of his ex girlfriends to this very day.”
Grigoriadis tells The Independent that Francis has “never really answered for the horrible legacy he left behind.”
“There’s a lot of people, including me, who would like to see some closure to the Joe Francis story. For me this story has always been memorable, disturbing, confusing,” she said.
How willingly GGW was accepted into popular culture is equally baffling, continues Grigoriadis: The brand was featured in rap songs and on mainstream television. It was referenced all over popular media. In 2012 Francis threatened to sue Madonna over her single “Girl Gone Wild” for breach of copyright. Brad Pitt and Justin Timberlake, fans of the enterprise, were photographed wearing GGW trucker hats. Francis owned the seedy side of Hollywood celebrity, but he was embraced by its more mainstream members too.
From asking women to flash their breasts at parties, Francis progressed to taking girls to the back room of a large tour bus that he used to travel the country. Many of the women who flashed for GGW reported being pressured women to perform sex acts on camera. Dr Gail Dines, a leading anti-porn scholar – and founder of Culture Reframed, a non-profit that focuses on the hypersexualized landscape children are now exposed to – was an expert witness for two civil cases against Francis. She says of the coercion, “What was really upsetting watching the videos was they actually reminded me of child sexual abuse videos because they [the girls] didn’t know what to do. They got instructions on what to do. Many of these girls that I interviewed were virgins.” Some of those girls were under age which led to Francis pleading no contest to charges of child abuse and prostitution in 2008. Even after being charged with those crimes, Francis was on a radio show making jokes about his ventures. He has likened his two stints in jail – the second was for tax evasion and fraud – to Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.
Throughout all of his exploits, there was always a question of consent.
“Some women flashed willingly,” Grigoriadis says. “Some were egged on by friends. In the case of the girls who were underage at the time, they couldn’t consent as minors,” she says. “Were the women over 18 who agreed to appear on camera aware of the consequences in the moment? That seems unlikely. Nobody in that moment was thinking about that.”
Katinka Blackford Newman is the director of Rich and Shameless: Girls Gone Wild Exposed, a documentary that similarly explored Francis’s empire, and which came out in the US earlier this year. Several women told Blackford Newman that they were filmed without their knowledge or consent. One interviewee, a minor at the time, says she was coerced into making what she describes as a “child pornography film.”
Another, who gave testimony of a 2006 rape which allegedly took place at the back of the GGW tour bus outside a nightclub in Chicago, said “[Francis] kept trying to kiss me and saying it’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok,” The woman, who uses only her first name Jannel, in the interviews continues: “I kept saying get off of me. He took a hold of me, I was this 100lb little girl. I didn’t give my consent that night and he totally raped me. And then he got off me like I was garbage.”
Jannel reported the rape to Melrose Park, Illinois, Police Department and said she felt “the police didn’t believe me” and that she “was just brushed off because nothing to this day has ever been done about it.”
A spokesperson gave the following statement to The Independent on the matter: “In 2006, the Melrose Park Police investigated an allegation of criminal sexual misconduct. The incident was presented to the State’s Attorney’s office for prosecution. After many repeated attempts to contact the victim without response, the Melrose Police department closed the investigation. Had the victim maintained contact and cooperation with the MPPD, charges would have been brought by the Cook County State’s Attorney.”
A spokesperson for Francis responded to this incident in an email to The Independent by insisting that “Mr. Francis categorically, denies he has ever been involved in any incident of sexual assault ever. Anyone who would make that claim would be lying and Mr Francis will take all legal action against them.”
Francis’s lawyer added, through a spokesperson: “The TNT documentary was a HIT piece” and called it “complete lies [that] tried to make Mr. Francis out as some sort of violent person.”
Lee Miller, the mayor of Panama City, where GGW had been filming in 2003, told Blackford Newman: “Joe’s premise was that he was producing art and as such had constitutional protection. He did call it a docu[mentary]. How ludicrous is that? Is that the most ludicrous, stupid asinine thing you’ve ever heard? A documentary about what? That females have breasts? Or was it about his real opinion about women?
“I despise the fact that he demeans and dehumanizes women,” Mayor Miller said in the documentary. “They’re just young ‘uns. And the people who are taking advantage of them are not young ‘uns.”
The warning signs had always been there. Francis’ first job was as an assistant on Real TV – which made amateur home videos into television episodes. Francis realized there was a market for videos compiling all the things deemed too disturbing or distasteful for viewers.
Francis’ first film Banned from Television was a compilation featuring “a public execution, a great white shark attack, a horrifying train accident and an explicit undercover video from a sex club bust!” Francis made his first million from this film.
Grigoriadis talks about the era of raunch in the early 2000s during which GGW thrived and the double standard it promoted: “There was this idea that there were two classes of women. There were women who had to make money from the way they looked and there were women who didn’t. There were women who got exploited and women who were too smart to be exploited - who’d gotten a good education and had sort of pulled themselves out of the natural state of womanhood, which was basically, according to the culture of the time being a ho.’” It is almost unimaginable that GGW could exist today.
The issues of consent and complicity sidestep the larger issue of systemic misogyny. GGW was never about breasts and parties. It was about enabling the fantasies of men – and one man in particular – who had violent impulses toward women.
Those impulses only grew. In 2013, Francis was convicted of battery, assault, intimidation of a witness, and false imprisonment, after luring three women into his car outside a nightclub in Los Angeles. Francis was sentenced to 270 days in jail and a year’s probation. He gave two interviews in which he said the jury members who found him guilty should all be killed by firing squad, was released on bail, left the country and has remained in Mexico ever since.
Abbey Wilson, Francis’ estranged partner and mother to their twin daughters, aged 8, shared an audio recording from 2020 with Blackford Newman of him allegedly hitting and choking her during an argument. He spent 73 days in jail in Mexico on charges of domestic violence.
Ronald Richards, attorney for Abbey Wilson, told The Independent: “Presently Ms. Wilson is a resident of Oklahoma. Francis is a fugitive living in Mexico. The judge in Oklahoma ordered Francis not to harass Wilson. Francis violated the order by cybersquatting her name, her kids’ names, and has sent dozens of threatening messages to Wilson. The judge ordered Francis to appear in person in Oklahoma if he wanted to participate in the hearing. Francis won’t, out of a justifiable fear he will get arrested for his two warrants. If he is on US soil, he will be immediately arrested.”
Today, Francis is no longer regarded as a maverick businessman capturing the cultural zeitgeist. He is yet another name alongside the likes of disgraced power brokers like Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and other high-profile perpetrators of assault against women and girls. Nobody associated with Francis and Girls Gone Wild is laughing any more.