The much-discussed documentary Hot Girls Wanted presents porn as a seedy, dangerous, exploitive business that damages women. The less-publicized doc Cam Girlz, currently showing at festivals and on Vimeo, has a less scandalous but more unexpected thesis. It presents sexual cam work as a business – much like my business.
I’m not a sex worker in any sense. I’m a freelance writer. So it was a little surprising to be identifying quite so much with the experiences of the cam models. Camming, it turns out, has many of the same perks and downsides as what I do. Producing freelance content for the web is producing freelance content for the web, for better and worse.
Most of the models interviewed for the documentary talked enthusiastically about the perks of working for themselves and of working from home. One woman is a mom; she used to work a full time job and hardly ever saw her kid. She switched to camming because it meant she got to spend more time with her family. Other women enjoy the independence. “It’s my own time and my own rules,” one woman says, adding, “No one else controls me.”
When the women talk about sex work being empowering, they often mean that it concretely gives them more power over their working conditions, over their schedules and over their income. They can take off an evening if they want to study for a test and still make enough to pay education expenses; they can smoke marijuana while working. Being self-employed, and able to make money without answering to a boss, is, clearly, for the many women interviewed, exciting and satisfying.
“It’s completely changed my life. It’s so empowering. I never thought I could run my own business or manage my life the way I wanted to,” one says.
The less tangible benefits of the work also mirror other kinds of freelance creative endeavors. The women are, as one notes, selling themselves—their personality, their creativity, their physical attractiveness. The positive feedback is very validating.
“Being able to show them how good I look naked, it’s liberating,” one woman explains. Another woman says her husband shamed her for being what he saw as overweight and ended their marriage in part because of it. On camera, she can order pizza nude, to the enthusiastic admiration of her audience.
A direct payment model for a relatively small audience means that every performer is essentially a niche. Innovation and individuality are encouraged, rather than discouraged as in most entertainment endeavors (including freelance writing.)
There are some set tropes; everybody spanks themselves pretty much, in part because that seems to be a quasi-universal kink, and in part, perhaps, because it’s easily quantified and monetized. But while there are some standard clichés, the women also get to be goofy and imaginative.
One worker uses a ventriloquist dummy, another performs mime; two others jump on a trampoline together. They chat and get to know regular clients, and then they’re paid for their goofiness and their chatting alike. When people like your art and your personality, that’s validating.
The downsides of camming are familiar, too. The fact that camming is so individual can be wearing if it’s not going well; failure feels like a personal referendum, not just a job setback.
“Not only do I want to do it for the money,” one woman says, “But I feel like I want to prove it,” and she added, “The bad nights are the nights when you curl into a ball.”
Another woman said that she essentially works 24/7; when she’s not on camera she’s planning shows or working out details of the business. Being self-employed means everything’s on you, and when the product you’re selling is your own creativity, the pressure is only magnified. Freedom also means no safety net—and no corporate health insurance.
Being visible online also comes with the threat of stalking. Only one woman mentions a guy who took concrete steps to try to meet her in person, but director Sean Dunne said that most of the women have at least one similar story. Camming is safer than a lot of sex work in most ways — no risk of STDs, no physical presence and so little physical threat. But still, as for anyone who is public or semi-public online, there’s a danger of harassment.
There is one big way in which camming differs from freelance writing, though. Sex work is stigmatized. The mom who started camming to spend more time with her kid talks soberly about how she’ll need to talk to him at some point about what she does, and she worries that if people at school find out he’ll be ridiculed or bullied.
Another woman says she was initially worried about how she’d be viewed by potential romantic interests. Another talks about the overwhelming disapproval from her parents.
“There are many people even in my family who assume my job can’t be enjoyable,” she says.
The job itself is often enjoyable and rewarding. The oppressive part isn’t the job, but the fact that so many people think the job must be oppressive, and therefore they think less of those who do it.
The irony, though, is that the stigma is in large part what creates the demand for documentaries about sex workers in the first place. No one’s making documentaries about freelance writers because no one thinks freelance writing is exotic or weird or in need of explanation.
If the message of Hot Girls Wanted is to abolish adult entertainment, the low-key, more respectful message of Cam Girlz is to abolish adult entertainment documentaries. Cam Girlz presents women who cam as workers in an industry that is interesting but not necessarily scandalous or abnormal. That’s probably why Hot Girls Wanted has attracted more press. It’s also why Cam Girlz is the one worth seeing.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.