While I was developing my new web series, Cam Girls, I had a pretty specific idea for a promotional poster in the back of my head. It showed one woman playing both of society’s great mythological creatures: The Virgin and The Whore. I wanted to convey the idea that the kind of woman a man wants to take home to meet his mother can also be the kind of woman he wants to take to bed. Not because it’s such a rare thing in real life, but because it’s so rare in entertainment. Actresses tend to be placed in these roles based on how they look: If her face is round and sweet, she is a virgin. If she’s curvy, she is a whore.
I was a theater kid in high school. I loved acting. I lived for acting. When I moved to Los Angeles, I knew Hollywood would be hard on me, but I was pretty thick-skinned and (I thought) realistic about what I had going for me. After a year or two of what can only be described as abject failure, I took a dumb — but expensive — acting class about finding your “essence” as an actor. This was a truly terrible idea. I am not exaggerating when I say that it screwed me up for years. I am still working through the damage it inflicted on my psyche. There’s something about standing (in baggy workout clothes and no makeup) before a group of one’s peers (insecure actors) who have been told to yell out what they think of when they see you and hearing, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” That completely shatters a person’s confidence, even if that person is—as I was, and am—very happily married, and completely uninterested in the opinions of anyone in that room.
I know who I am. I am a vibrant, sexy, intelligent woman. I grew up poor, spent about a third of my life in an abusive household, was briefly homeless as a teenager, and didn’t go to college. In spite of that, I have worked on major political campaigns. I was a publicist in the fashion industry. I was a costume designer and stylist on films, commercials and music videos. I am a Bad Mother Fucker, and I have thrived against nearly impossible odds. But I stood up there in that dumb (but expensive) class, in front of a bunch of scared, unemployed kids, and slowly died inside as I heard terms like “kindergarten teacher” and “secretary” and “cat lady” used to describe me.
It was bullshit — I knew it was bullshit — but I let it get under my skin. I started second-guessing my every decision. My posture changed. I could no longer choose what to order when I went out to restaurants. I cut friends out of my life, no longer responding to their emails or text messages, and I stopped calling my family back home to check in with them. I lost my sex drive. I would walk into auditions and apologize to the casting directors for having wasted their time by calling me in.
Clearly something needed to change. I was damaging all my relationships, both personal and professional. I wasn’t getting auditions. I didn’t have an agent, and — more importantly — I didn’t think I deserved to have one. I knew I didn’t fit inside the frumpy box that roomful of glorified bartenders tried to shove me into, but I couldn’t figure out where I did fit. I realized that if I wanted to play the type of roles that truly embodied who I was as a person, I was going to have to make them for myself.
Which is how I learned that making your own work — if you want it to be any good at all — is really fucking hard. And here’s the thing: No matter how good a job you do on your tiny shoestring budget, people are going to judge you against all the other movies and web series out there that have millions — or even just hundreds of thousands — of dollars to spend. They will not understand how hard it is to make something truly independent, and they will shit on you because you went out and made something that isn’t as good as the imaginary projects they are convinced they themselves will one day make.
I was luckier that most actors because producing is a natural fit for me. I have years of experience working both on film sets and in traditional business. I created a few projects, really just playing around with friends, until I felt like I was ready to get serious and move on to something bigger. I told my husband I was going to start looking for an existing script to develop as a web series, and the next morning he came home from breakfast with our friend Joelle Garfinkel and asked me if I was interested in adapting her original pilot, Cam Girls, for the web.
Joelle and I really clicked creatively. We both know women who have secretly done sex work in the past, and we share the same frustrations about how women at large are treated culturally. We were baffled when Fifty Shades of Grey was released and instantly derided as “Mommy Porn.” No one calls Game of Thrones or, hell, Girls Gone Wild, “Daddy Porn” because that would be creepy and belittling. So why mock something that has helped so many women express their sexuality? Women are expected to be sexy and available to the male gaze, but not to seek out the things that we, personally, find sexuality appealing. I can’t reconcile those two ideas in my head. I mean, erotica is fun. Knowing what turns us on makes us better in bed. Why try to stifle that? Are we all really that freaked out by the idea of women masturbating? Boys discover porn, and share it with each other, starting in elementary school. Girls are sheltered and kept far away from anything sexual, and while I hope that the popularity of erotic fan fiction (like Fifty Shades) online is helping to minimize the disparity between the rate at which boys and girls are discovering their sexuality, it doesn’t change the larger narrative that women who have sex with multiple partners become “loose,” and that no one wants to marry a whore.
Joelle and I talked it through and realized that if we were going to make a show about sex workers — specifically, sex workers who masturbate on camera for a living — we needed to make it for women, because most women who don’t work in the sex industry tend to know very little about it. This almost Victorian aspect of our culture feeds the Virgin/Whore myth. The main character of Cam Girls, Liv, is one of those normal, cute, kind of clumsy millennials (a cultural Virgin, if you will) whose decision to pursue a masters degree in a tough economic climate has left her saddled with a lot of debt and no real job prospects. We decided that early in the series, Liv should get a job answering the fraud line at an Internet payment processing company. (I have had this job, and it is not fun. Telling an old lady that what she thought were fraudulent charges were actually a result of her grandson’s porn addiction, and that he had been using her credit card to feed said addiction, was a real low point for me). It was important to us that Liv be a true outsider, learning about the proliferation of porn and its sometimes-sticky side effects during the course of the first season, so that by the end, when she chooses to become a cam girl, she believes she is making an informed decision. We wanted the women in our audience to learn about all of it along with Liv, so that by the time she makes her choice, they understand why she does so, whether they agree with her decision or not.
And now Cam Girls is out there for all the world to see, and instead of a classroom full of actors, I’m standing before a whole Internet full of people ready to point out its (and my) flaws. But I’m proud of what we made. I think we accomplished what we set out to do. Liv truly is both of the women in that poster. I hope that seeing a positive portrayal of an average girl taking charge of both her life and her sexuality, and shrugging off society’s constraints in the process, will help more women to see that they can be both, too.
Kate Bond has produced Friends Like These and This Is Where We Go, and has appeared on Lie to Me, Person of Interest and Matador. She tweets at @LadyKateBond.