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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Chaturbator

Sex and intimacy on the cyber auction block

Camgirl by Isa Mazzei. Rare Bird Books. 288 pages.

Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry by Angela Jones. NYU Press. 335 pages.

What is a woman’s marginal utility? The marginal utility of her ecstasy, of her suffering, of her time and attention? Are representations of women a fungible good, or is an investment in the human capital behind them worthwhile? These questions, however perversely stated here, are essential to the economics of camming, a curious, new-ish phenomenon that combines elements of prostitution, pornography, therapy, and friendship-for-hire. I say “phenomenon” because the label “sex work” seems not quite adequate: first because it is hard to say something so depersonalized can be called “sex,” and second because “work” alone fails to encompass the demands its precariousness imposes. Like Uber drivers, Taskers, and others employed in the gig economy, webcam models have no guaranteed wages, no insurance, no paid leave, no pension. Instead, their success depends on a nebulous combination of factors spanning initiative, availability, submissiveness, good looks, personality, and luck. The popular press is filled with stories of cam girls making thousands a week––they seem to be a specialty of the UK tabloids––but my own perusal of some of the biggest sites––Chaturbate, LiveJasmin, and MyFreeCams––shows a preponderance of Russians and Romanians aged eighteen to fifty (the older they are, the more conspicuous their assorted implants and injections) sitting bored in tiny, tackily adorned bedrooms, swaying forlornly to club music or giggling and repeating “thank you” to a lone visitor who types banal variations on “ur so hot.”

For a time, camming served two parallel but distinct interests, for creators and fans alike: “clean” sites like JenniCam were a harbinger of influencers and followers, of a new kind of fame in which some would willingly disclose every drab detail of their lives and millions of others would obsess over them; hardcore ones like Danni’s Hard Drive and its countless imitators offset lost profits from online piracy and the fragmentation of the porn studio system with the advent of cheap digital production (and cheap Eastern European actors) by promoting “exclusive content” viewers couldn’t find on file sharing or tube sites. As these tendencies merged, pages appeared hosting cam feeds catering to myriad tastes, though models remain overwhelmingly young, thin, white, English-speaking women. The nature of the user base is anecdotal. Owners brag of their internet-savvy fans in the sought-after “18–⁠34 demographic,” but a camgirl interviewed for Vice was less sanguine: “Guys who visit cam sites are socially awkward; they really do live in their parents’ basement, and all of them work from home.”

When she masturbates to orgasm, it is a revelation: “This was a chance to build a new relationship with sex.”

Niches tend to get nichier––this is a principle of the free market––and webcamming has diversified its appeal: most major sites now include “male,” “female,” and “trans” options by default, and the search functions include the predictable recommended tags (#mature, #assplay, and the surprisingly popular #tinydick) as well an array of less familiar ones (#cfnm––clothed female, naked man, and #ahegao, a Japanese term for exaggerated facial expressions during sex). Casual visitors to cam sites may wonder at the pink and purple rubbery protrusions emerging from performers’ orifices. These are the popular Lovense vibrators, one of a number of “teledildonic” devices on the market, which have Bluetooth connectability and can be controlled via app. For the right price, viewers can use it to stimulate models on their own.

As computer hardware prices have dropped, the number of cam models has multiplied, particularly in Colombia, Romania, and the Philippines. The consequent downward pressure on wages has compelled what might optimistically be called “flexibility,” but which is in practice an erosion of standards and a near-erasure of the lines separating leisure from work. Models have reported verbal abuse, or feeling pushed into painful or degrading acts––and if they work for a studio, as is typical in poorer countries, they might get fired for refusing. Even the better positioned may find their success depends as much on off-the-clock texting, DMs, and phone calls to needy clients as whatever they do in front of the camera. Those able to “curate” a bankable “brand” (it says something about our grotesque assimilation of such jargon into biographical narratives that these terms require no explanation) may turn to OnlyFans or JustForFans, where a strange array of former porn stars, aspiring influencers, and young people of all genders––some deep in debt, others obsessed with living like celebrities––come together in bleak harmony on a subscription-based model.

Purchased intimacy via the internet is the subject of Camgirl, a memoir by Isa Mazzei, director of the 2018 thriller CAM, which fictionalizes the unauthorized reproduction of a cam girl’s work, something she herself experienced during the two years she worked as a model after college. Mazzei starts out as a sugar baby when she meets a married man twice her age on a personals site whose goal is to have a “revenge affair” to humiliate his soon to be ex-wife, but only with “someone he respected, cared about.” She writes, “Alex gave me my own one-bedroom apartment, a convertible BMW, and a new iPhone. I gave him attention, validation, and the first blow job he’d had in a decade.” Her justification, apart from the money, is that even in the best circumstances, sex repels her, so she might as well make a buck from it, and she endures the whole thing by thinking about what kind of toothpaste to buy at Target.

Soon Mazzei is complaining to Alex of her “malaise” and frustrated sense of purpose, but when she considers stripping, he advises her against it, saying camming is “where the real money’s at.” After seeing a clip of a model named Queen Molly on Alex’s phone, Mazzei goes home and watches for another five hours while this “genius,” in her words, takes a bath and draws portraits of celebrities on a whiteboard for tips. The next day, on a trip to Mexico, she uses Alex’s credit card to pay for a private chat with a second model and comes away seduced. That same night, she decides to become a camgirl herself.

She prepares by observing other models’ performances, following them on Twitter, liking their pictures, and replying to their posts. Boots, a cammer with twenty thousand followers, retweets her announcement of her debut. Nervously, she struggles with her non-functioning camera, but a kindly cohort of observers gives her technical support, and when it’s up and running, they encourage others to follow her and spur munificent members––the “whales”––to tip bigger. Mazzei suggests a countdown to a “cumshow,” and a user called OdinWarrior obliges with the requisite three thousand-token fee (here $150, with a set percentage for the website and the rest for the model). When she masturbates to orgasm, it is a revelation: “This was a chance to build a new relationship with sex.”

The assumption that the sale of sexual services is a “radical and essential labor” toward the subversion of capitalism and ending repression allows little room for nuance.

This new relationship consists of bondage, masochism, and self-humiliation, much of it for the benefit of an audience. She does a two-person show with an interactive vibrating saddle, holds awkward poses for a man who likes dolls, and sleeps with a fan who chokes her, calls her a whore, and sings her a love song written from the perspective of “Truck Stop Killer” Robert Ben Rhoades to a fourteen-year-old girl he tortured for weeks before murdering because “his love was too much for him.” Through all this, there is not a moment of real intimacy or joy: sex for Mazzei almost always ends in tears.

A bildungsroman without bildung, Camgirl is a connect-the-dots of commonplaces. As a child, Mazzei is already “leading two lives.” A lack of love turns her into a manipulator. Her quest for fame is a search for approval from her mother. She forsakes love in favor of “emotional blackmail.” You can’t quite call this self-deception because there is never much of a self on display: no passions are ever indulged, no values stood up for or betrayed. Her greatest enthusiasms are Starbucks coffee, Domino’s Pizza, and bathing. Even descriptions of others are almost impenetrably superficial, as though the text had been dispossessed of any notion of interior life beyond a mishmash of self-help clichés: Alex is “a gentle man with a deeply pathological need to caretake”; a stripper is “riveting” and “powerful”; of an ex-girlfriend she says, “I felt like her femininity solidified my sexual identity.”

When prose is this empty, the problem is substantive and not just stylistic: everything is predetermined, so nothing can develop, and the same pop psychology idiom purports to illuminate Mazzei’s adolescent distress, her self-assertion through sex work, and her redemption when she admits her childhood abuse to a therapist.

Camming isn’t a symptom of my trauma; it’s a powerful tool that allowed me to regain control over my identity, my life, myself. My need for power and control came from a deep, visceral lack of it. Camming became a way for me to regain that control over my body. I took it back. I set a price. I said who, I said when, I said how much. Sex work is the reason I can talk openly about my past and the reason I’m learning to enjoy sex.

Still, there is a wealth of anecdotal material here, particularly in Mazzei’s chats with her customers, and in this genre, anecdote is often more valuable than the appearance of rigor because specialist literature without an agenda is nearly non-existent. Emblematic of the shortcomings of the scholarly approach is the first book-length sociological examination of the subject: Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry by Angela Jones. A former stripper, Jones waxes ecstatic over how sex workers “push social boundaries and make the world a less sexually repressive and more pleasurable place.” This is speaking to a very particular choir, those willing to swallow that camming is “a unique space for sexual exploration” and not a perpetuation of that self-obsession and spectacularization––of a piece with Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and all those other methods for self-mediatization––that are helping to gut people’s capacity for reflection, attention, mercy, and intimacy.

Jones’s book has its virtues: where Mazzei’s is mostly straight and white, with just a passing mention of transness, Jones uses “progressive stacking” to give weight to “the voices of people of color, people from Latin America, trans people, queer people, and people with disabilities.” Unsurprisingly, these are the castaways of the cam world, where users’ preferences reflect the prejudices of society at large. The libertarian perspective that accepts sex as a commodity and vilifies “hegemonic neo-Victorian discourses regulating sex and pleasure” naturally sits ill with the various forms of bias that become manifest when sex goes on sale, and Jones’s contortions to reconcile them would be amusing if they weren’t repugnant.

Many performers highlighted that they are unwilling to perform what they saw as the most degrading requests, shows involving the word “nigger” and slave role plays, but do race play shows if it involves making such statements as “you going to fuck this White pussy with that big Black cock.” Some White female performers believe that the latter empowers Black men and that the former is racist play that demeans Black men. I wonder, though, Isn’t it also demeaning to deny these men their fantasies? If some White women tell Black men they will not perform these services because it is degrading for the Black man, they are exerting racial privilege and engaging in the same racist behavior they seemingly want to avoid.

There is something creepily utopian, almost reminiscent of Maoist “right thinking,” in the proposition that a woman’s right of consent should yield to a man’s fetishes when compensated, or that sex ennobles reenactments of racism so long as the presumptive oppressed party is calling the shots; but the assumption that the sale of sexual services is a “radical and essential labor” toward the subversion of capitalism and ending repression allows little room for nuance, let alone responsible documentation (her lone source for the claim that most sex work is voluntary comes from a 1988 newsletter from a prostitutes’ advocacy group, and she is silent on demonstrated links between camming, sexual exploitation, and money laundering).    

Both Davis and Mazzei rely on a suite of nonce-words––empowerment, agency, self-exploration, validation––that lend stature but not rigor to contemporary progressive discourses inside and outside the sexual domain. Taking them as confirmed realities rather than suppositions means usurping the advantages of a philosophy of freedom and of the nature of the self might have without the burden of thinking one through. We have measures, however debatable, for what power and freedom are––Putin is powerful, North Korea is unfree––but if you tell me it’s empowering to write “cum dumpster” on your forehead and beat yourself with a paddle on camera for tips, I can’t say otherwise, and trying to do so opens me to accusations of heteronormative bias. The same holds for consent––a concept that is immensely fertile for the mostly white male owners of cam sites and porn distributors. Mazzei makes the motto of her room “Don’t Yuck Someone’s Yum.” But it is hard not to notice the distinctly disturbing nature of many cybersexual “yums,” or to ignore the gray area between coercion and unencumbered choice that comes into play when sexual availability is placed on the auction block.

It is hard to ignore the gray area between coercion and unencumbered choice that comes into play when sexual availability is placed on the auction block.

Moreover, I wonder whether problems that demand sexual forms of liberation or empowerment as a solution are not the product of constituting oneself as a sexual being, of giving sexuality a central place in the makeup of the self. In a remarkable essay, “Filling the World with Self-Esteem: A Social History of Truth-Making,” Steven Ward outlines the historical process by which the concept of self-esteem grew from a “fragile truth” in the early twentieth century to a “self-evident matter of fact” in our time, and suggests that ideas become canonized when they serve the interests of heterogeneous groups. Extending his insight to sexual empowerment, it is worth asking: Who does such a concept benefit? The answer, I would argue, is all those––artists, professors, and writers, but also millions of middle-class people flaunting rebellious postures on social media––who covet the social prestige of subversion but are unwilling to sacrifice the material comforts of their societies as they stand. “If sex is repressed,” Foucault writes, “that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression.”

The marketing of this purported transgression––at galleries, conferences, and lectures, in books and magazines––generates millions upon millions a year and is inconceivable without labor and financial arrangements that exacerbate inequalities among classes, countries, and ethnic groups. What is curious is how infrequently any of this is questioned. In March, a few days before I came down with Covid-19, I was in London and saw an exhibit called Masculinities at the Barbican. High claims were made about the artworks featured, some more than fifty years old, and how they subverted ideas of race, gender, power, and representation. If this had been true, shouldn’t they be well and truly subverted by now? How long do we wait for a theoretical apparatus to produce results before we decide it’s reached its expiration date?