Your da had 1850 sexlines and your granda had back-room peep shows. For those looking for a sexy time without any of the touching, this generation shops around the internet’s vast arcade of camgirls. Visit sites like MyFreeCams and Chaturbate at any given time of day, and you’ll find windows into the boudoirs of women dancing, fapping and doing their homework the world over. And what’s more – they seem to be quite happy to have you.
Sit in front of a camgirl’s booth for more than a few minutes and you’ll see plenty of Paris, Texas moments. These peep show booths often become confessionals. Particular girls seem to be magnets for quasi-existential over-sharing (and book recommendations). Behold as KlausKinski87 regales <3SexyStanton<3 with monologues on his fractured feelings, his real tough day at college and financial problems with his scabby parents. The successful girls juggle engagement with these conversations with the occasional butt shimmy (or, regularly, have such broken English that they just flash a TL;DR smile and look sympathetic). The rooms become as much a realm for the individualism of the client as for the performer.
That’s not to assume that the phenomenon of cam sites is a vessel for much else other than wanking off. The apparatus of the camroom subjects the body of the patron to an individualised and intimate mode of address, which in return demands an equal intimate response in return (whether corporeal or emotional).
Personal branding is at its most virile in this domain. Theresa M. Senft’s influential Camgirls: Webcams, LiveJournals and the Personal as Political in the age of the Global Brand  coined the now-familiar term ‘micro-celebrity’ to describe the small-scale fame that camgirls maintain and commodify. Senft’s paper was written prior to the social networking boom that marks our contemporary internet, so could not even take into account the work that camgirls now put into Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and any other platform that allows them to saturate their audience with documentation of their everyday lives. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well too – girls often install wheels-of-fortune and other games to encourage small tips for big prizes. The line between spectatorship and participation is kept porous.
Our internet behaviour today demands nowness. Narrative structure is irrelevant in an age of infinite scrolling and facial compilations. The perceptive gap between the live and the static has been eroded to the point that the internet replicates the ‘presence’ that we associate with reality. It is not the high definition cameras that enhance the viewer’s intimacy with a camgirl, but this presence, this real-time interactivity. The social internet relies on the deception of a real, spatial existence – you ‘enter’ a camgirl’s ‘room’ and are ‘welcomed’.
To choose a live stream over a recording is to choose the apparently more authentic experience. It is easy to belittle the patron’s conflation of reality with representation here. As Guy Debord pointed out donkey’s years ago, post-industrial culture has moved the focus of existing from first from being to having, then to appearing. The assumption is that the representation estranges us from reality. But nobody is enough of a dope to think that they are, in fact, physically in the IKEA-curtained room of the camgirl. The punter enters a social contract with a person they are fully aware to only be ‘real’ to a certain degree – but then, isn’t this just a degree down from IRL relationships?
Strip clubs force dancers to inhabit a real physical space with the punter. Block functions, favourites lists and the old craft of flat-out ignoring an unsavoury audience member skews power back towards the performer. The backroom lapdance is replaced with the ‘go private’ function, which still allows the girl to dictate the terms of engagement. The pimp is instead a camming platform with regulatory power dictated by the girls, and not the patrons. The dematerialisation of sex work serves to not only protect the worker from many forms of abuse, but allows her to work on her own time and terms. As the ultimate proof of this power shift, pay a visit to Ceara Lynch, a self-styled ‘Humiliatrix’ who for just two dollars a minute will completely ignore you. And, no. You’re not even allowed watch her do it.
HBO Documentaries: Sex // Now [NSFW!]
A pilot for a show that unfortunately never made the commissioner’s cut, filmmaker Chris Moukarbel’s S01E00 explores the potential of sexy technology with a particular view to camming sites. A camgirl funding her microbiological studies, a couple who broadcast their sex-life from Arizona, and the Real Touch virtual handjob machine all feature.
For this dissertation, Senft became a camgirl herself in order to delve into this ‘impossibly intimate and necessarily distant’ performative world, particularly focussing on the networked nature of camgirls and viewers and its problems for feminist theory.
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Words: Daniel Gray // Illustration: Fuchsia MacAree