When Rachel Bernard from Oswego, Illinois, answered a Craigslist ad last fall entitled “Hot Girls Wanted" that promised a modeling gig and a free trip to Miami, she thought it might be her ticket to freedom and fame.
“I just didn’t want to be another run-of-the-mill Oswego kid,” the 19-year-old told "Nightline." “I was going into it looking for just normal modeling. ... I like to be in front of the camera.”
Rachel, who played the clarinet in her high school band and considered joining the Air Force after graduation, was excited at the idea of modeling, making good money and a chance to get on a plane for the first time ever.
“They emailed me back, telling me that it was actually adult entertainment and you can get $2,000-$3,000 for going out there once,” she said. “I thought that I was just going to go there do one or two and then come back. ... I still didn't think anyone would find out, didn't think my parents would find out.”
But when she landed in Miami, Rachel said she realized she had stepped into a world she never imagined -- one that she said would haunt her forever.
Rachel said a 23-year-old agent met her at the airport and took her to a no-frills house with about a dozen other young girls -- most of them were also from small towns, just like her.
“[Business] has been a blowing up, in a good way," the agent told "Nightline," adding that he said he has been an agent for three years. "I actually care about my girls. A lot of agents just see money signs. I’ve helped my girls with a lot of stuff. If they have family emergencies, I lend them money so they can go home. I just got another house [for the girls].”
These girls are among the thousands of naïve, fresh-faced, 18- to 20-year-olds who are being plucked out of obscurity at the click of a mouse and introduced to the world of amateur porn.
Rachel is one of the subjects of a new documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted,” which premiered at the Sundance film festival this year and is now available on Netflix. Filmmakers Ronna Gradus and Jill Bauer spent months following several teens in the amateur porn business.
“Girls from all over the country," Bauer said. "I mean every time we'd go into the house, we would go into a room, interview a girl -- next day, interview another girl. These girls have just graduated from high school. They're from small towns. They have huge hopes for a bigger, better life ... and they were sweethearts from such loving homes ... cheerleaders, achievers in high school.
“It's really just they are looking for something, some kind of opportunity, to not stay in their towns and work minimum-wage job," Gradus added. “A lot of them really look like 'the girl next door.' They don't look like porn stars."
The filmmakers say young, innocent faces are what porn consumers crave, with sites advertising, "'Watch real girls,' like, 'real 18-year-olds get naked for the first time,'" Gradus said. "And it turns out that a lot of that, in fact, is what's happening."
“They just all wanted to be famous ... like Kim Kardashian famous,” Gradus continued. “‘Look at all my followers on Twitter. I'm getting 1,000 new followers a week. I’m gonna be famous'"
To understand what they were dealing with and how big the amateur porn industry really is, the filmmakers turned to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, a non-profit research institute at Indiana University in Bloomington. Dr. Bryant Paul, an associate professor at the university and a researcher who works with the institute, has studied Internet porn and amateur porn usage and found a number of startling statistics. Porn sites get more traffic each month that Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined, according to Paul, and the top three pro-amateur sites are worth an estimated $50 million. Through his research, Paul said social media, especially Twitter, has become a tool for increasing a rising porn star's fame.
"There’s this niche of amateur porn content that people assume is less organized and that you don’t have professionals working in it,” Paul told "Nightline." “But it’s just as organized and professional as mainstream pornography. There’s nothing amateur about most amateur pornography – except the naivete and the youth and newness of the actresses. The producers go out of their way to create this aura of ‘its you’re first time’ and ‘you’ve never done this before,’ but in fact everybody is being paid and is in on the act.”
But it was the fringes of amateur porn, an underworld called “abuse porn,” in which girls perform obscene acts that cause them to vomit or bleed, that the filmmakers said they found the most shocking.
"We were just sort of spending time on these very mainstream porn hubs," Gradus said. "And these banner ads just pop up for these websites called, "18 And Abused." I mean websites that make no secret of the fact that, basically, they're saying, 'Come to our site so you can watch us, you know, degrade [women]... and I mean, the language is awful."
According to the Kinsey Institute, in 2014, abuse porn websites averaged more than 60 million combined hits per month. Recent research shows that nearly 40 percent of online pornography depicts violence against women.
“I would say pretty much every girl that we did meet ended up doing a scene that was more hardcore, I guess, let's say, than she had expected,” Gradus said.
“It's horrific,” Bauer added. “A lot of-- young girls do end up doing that as their first scene. What happens is they end up on the set, and then, if they don't finish the scene, they don't get paid.”
At first, Rachel, like many of the young women who answered the ad, seemed to revel in her new-found freedom.
“I’ve done so much s*** here, more than I’ve ever done in my entire life," Rachel says in the film. "Chillin', penthouses, Lamborghinis, riding on street bikes ... all the s*** I’ve ever wanted to do... I’m trying to be famous, so you gotta do what you gotta do.”
She says she made about $1,000 for each shoot. After starring in 85 videos, Rachel said, she had raked in $80,000, but added that agents take at least a 15 percent cut. Rachel and the other girls had to pay for rent, hotel rooms, lingerie, hair extensions, manicures and make-up.
“It’s not like you’re actually making $80,000,” Rachel said. “You’re really just surviving."
Every day, she said, it got a little harder.
“You go to some dude’s house and he has a camera set up on a little tripod and you feel horrible and, 'Why am I here?'” she said. “It just like hurts you, like you go from a scene one day to a scene the next day to a scene another day and it’s just, like, horrible, because no one is really meant to have sex that long or that vigorously ... that intensely for that many days in a row with different people."
She began to feel the emotional toll.
“The whole time, I was like, 'Damn this isn’t me,'" Rachel added. "I’m smart. I had intelligent conversations. I read, I write, I do a lot of stuff. And then to be in that position didn’t feel good once I started reflecting and realized what was going on.”
Rachel said she considered going home, but by then her parents had found out what she was doing.
“And at that point, everyone in my town had found out so I knew that I couldn’t come back," she said. "[Be] a burnt out porn star and I was like, 'That can’t happen,' so I’m just going to have to be doing this until something else happens."
And then it did. She dreamed of being a photographer or a director, but could never afford her own camera. But after working in amateur porn, she finally could, and bought one. Rachel said buying her new camera was a turning point because it empowered her to do something she was proud of.
“I found my camera and that saved my life ... like, a lot. 'Cause I had nothing. I had nothing to live for. It was really sad because I thought I had no talents besides taking off my clothes and having sex with people,” Rachel said through tears.
Through her camera, Rachel found a new way to see herself.
“I can back up myself on my camera and I can understand this is my gift," she said. "It’s like, I can be proud of every single thing that I do when it’s with my camera and not in front of someone else’s.”
After six months in Miami, Rachel said she headed home to Illinois with just $2,000. She is back at home with her parents and her dream is to become a movie director.
She now works doing photography for local musicians. She said she knows she belongs behind the camera, not in front of one. Asked how she would choose now between going to Miami or staying in Oswego, she was quick to respond.
"I would rather be stuck here," she said. "I would because there’s no worse feeling than being used, or feeling washed up, or just not feeling good about yourself at all. I would rather be broke and living in my mom’s basement than do that again... When I went in, I felt like I was 12 years old. And now, I feel like I’m 30.”
Recently, Rachel saw herself in the documentary film, “Hot Girls Wanted,” for the first time.
“Sitting there watching that, I wanted to be an advocate for people who don’t know, who don’t know yet,” she said. “Now, I can tell people who might be having the same thoughts that I had, two years ago, that it’s not-- You don’t want it, it’s not worth it.”