Personalized Porn: What We Can Learn From the Camgirl Revolution

 “Cam-girls” make pornography personal… and can form unexpected relationships with the men who are their clients.

The recent boom in “cam-girl” sites (essentially paying for an online striptease and more) has been enormous and fairly well documented. What hasn’t been discussed too often is the relationship many men have with these women, often visiting the same sites over and over to the point of nearly—and maybe actually—developing relationships with these women.  Are cam-girls truly only hookers you cannot touch? Or are they just people using the internet as a way to earn some money? So are you a bad man if you visit these sites? Are you exploiting these women? And if you develop an ongoing fan relationship with one of these women—and you are married or with a partner or a girlfriend—does this count as cheating?

In other words, do cam-girls make good men bad?

For those of you who do not know what a “cam-girl” is I will quickly explain. Essentially young women from all over the world sign on to a variety of sites. The ones I saw were strictly no “penetration”—there they engage in online strip shows fueled by “donations” from the registered guys who watch along. The guys register, create a user name (some of which are brilliant—e.g., “dicknixson”, “mrbuttox”, and “jizamatic” to name a few) and they give the site their credit card info. So when they tip in “tokens”, they’re sending the girls real money.

So what does the cam-girl phenomenon mean for porn? What does it mean for us as a culture? The internet has revolutionized the industry, and cam-girls are becoming part of the story—you can start a porn career from your bedroom. All you need is an internet connection, a webcam, and a computer.

I am not a huge porn consumer. Sure I look at porn, maybe on the average, every couple of weeks. Satisfying libidinal desires is a part of life, and I think repressing sexual desires is unhealthy; I don’t think that makes me a bad man. But cam-girls don’t just satisfy sexual desires—they satisfy social ones as well. I think a man’s relationship to some of these women certainly can become unhealthy, but we’ll get to that.

I just made a film called King Kelly that’s available on iTunes. It’s about an amateur porn star (“cam-girl”) who goes on a crazy journey on the 4th of July to reclaim some lost drugs. On her quest she employs the help of her biggest online fan (handle Poo Bare). He’s a state cop and he’s desperately infatuated with “King Kelly”, a girl he’s never met until the fateful night when the movie takes place. Without spoiling the movie, I’ll say this: things don’t go well. But that shouldn’t be the take-away for the ‘cam-girl’ phenomenon at large.

The opening scene of King Kelly is a recreation of a really effective public show that culminates in a somewhat theatrical orgasm. It was based on a real performance I saw on MyFreeCams from a girl whose handle was violet420 (you could probably go find her on there). You can also get a “private show” that is just you and the women alone (which costs a lot more). The site takes a percentage and the girls get paid. It’s literally a virtual world strip club.  It’s a lot like the old peepshow where the women were behind glass, a veritable bird in a cage, but now the audience (the viewing room) can be filled with literally thousands of people. Women now have the great virtual divide between them and the consumer. I have seen shows on MyFreeCams in which the “room” for one show had over four thousand viewers at once watching live.

When we were writing the script for King Kelly, Mike Roberts and I spent some time on MyFreeCams learning about the site. It’s a complex social environment. The goal for the women is basic: make as much money as possible. In order to do that you make a name for yourself by putting on good shows, but it’s also about forming lasting relationships with men. The women who are the most successful are the ones that can interact with the guys in congenial and familiar ways. Sometimes the girls are fully clothed and just chatting it up before they start their show. I’m not going to say I find the discussions particularly interesting, there is no shortage of vapid, over-sexualized vulgarity that usually, at the very best, is amusing. But what’s interesting is that the women really get up-close and personal with their fans. They talk about their cat and what they did last weekend, the movies they like, their car problems—it’s all very specific. So now the relationship between the women and their fans has become more “real” via this virtual medium of the internet.

Paradoxical? No doubt.

Some of these guys form lasting relationships with the girls. The men at least, consider these women to be their friends. Is this a bad thing for a lonely man with some disposable income? I don’t think so. Or maybe there is a married man that feels like he cant “talk dirty” to his wife the way he wants to because she’s not into it. There are lots of good things about the cam-girl phenomenon. It not only lets women run their own careers, but it also gives men a more socially satisfying atmosphere in which to deal with their libidinal needs. There is no doubt that some of the girls abuse these friendships (some put up Amazon wish-lists and guys buy presents for them, no questions asked). However, the reality is a lot of these women are making an average living being cam-girls; if they get a few perks, what’s the harm?

The phenomenon is proof that the internet both brings us together and pulls us apart. The men on the site have a virtual experience. I think for the most part the interactions are skin deep (virtually speaking). That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, either. Just frivolous. Maybe some guys truly find solace in their relationships with these women. However, instead of going to a bar or going out on a date, they stay home and spend their money on a cam-girl. I would have to say that that’s a bad thing. In the end a cam-girl is never going to be your girlfriend. I think men on the site tend to idealize the women. They are as much a figment of their imagination as they are some individual on the screen in front of them.

The gap between that which is real and that which is virtual (or imagined) is getting larger. In my film, Poo Bare gets to live the fantasy of so many guys on the cam-girl sites. He meets the girl that so often gives him the disjointed, virtually shared, sexual ecstasy he so desires. The real Kelly (as opposed to King Kelly) does not turn out to be what he expected. It is when our extravagant fantasies must come face-to-face with cold hard reality that things can get tricky, or dare I say tragic.  Is that what makes a good man “bad”, when he crosses that line? Does the shield of the computer screen protect us from being bad?

Alienation, anxiety, and the great postmodern conundrum are all a part of the discussion. I say, if it suits you, spend some time with the cam-girl of your dreams online and see what you think of the experience. Just remember: in the end, she will log off, your room will be silent, and you will be left there alone with only your thoughts.

—Photo William Brawley/Flickr

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About Andrew Neel

Andrew Neel is a filmmaker. As part of Brooklyn-based SeeThink Films, a partnership of four filmmakers, Neel produces commercials and feature films, both narrative and documentary.

Comments

  1. Valter Viglietti says:

    Thank you Andrew, very interesting description of a phenomenon I didn’t really know it was that common.

    Personally I like porn, but I can’t see myself using that kind of service; I think I couldn’t shake off the feeling it’s all fake – but who knows…

    Regarding the (almost) inevitable question: “Is it good? Is it bad?”, I think it’s relative – as with everything else.
    IMO, for the men it’s way better than drinking or harassing a girl trying to “score”. At the same time, it’s way less positive than a real relationship; but, hey, something is always better than nothing, isn’t it?
    I think the real boundary of when it gets “bad”, is when it becomes an addiction.

    Lastly, I know many women (and some men) will think that being a cam-girl is “degrading” or “immoral”. IMO, as long as it’s a free choice, it’s just work.
    As an example, AFAIK nobody complains that some men risk their life working in mines or such.
    Thus, if working in life-threathening condition is ok, why sexwork should be any more worthy of complain?
    As a matter of fact, very few people have the job of their dreams. ;)

  2. wellokaythen says:

    Any interaction between two people is a “relationship” of some kind. So, every client is in a relationship with the cam girl. The question isn’t whether they’re in a relationship or not, but what KIND of relationship are they in? It probably runs a broad spectrum from simple business exchange to some bit of getting-to-know-each-other to probably in some rare cases a deeper, wider ranging intimate relationship. Anyone you hire for sex work will be in a relationship with you, but bear in mind it is probably much more of a limited relationship than you may think it is.

    Being a good sex worker, good actress, or good service provider sometimes means acting like someone else’s friend/confidante in the name of getting the job and maintaining repeat business. That’s not necessarily the same as being a real friend, even less a girlfriend. After all, much of the pleasure of experience is based on fantasy and role play. It has to be believable, but try not to be too gullible.

    As with any other relationship, one person may have a totally different idea about what’s going on than what the other one thinks is going on.

    (Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not speaking from experience, so this is speculation on my part.)

  3. Random_Stranger says:

    You know, when it comes to sex work, I’m curious why we limit our examination of the power differential and propensity for exploitation as flowing unequivocally from the male consumer upon a female supplier. We ask ourselves if the supplier is a victim of consumer exploitation with various sides arguing only the degree to which she is or is not.

    But, I ask you, how many similarly characterized markets do we default the buyer as the prime power broker? Do we as readily cite a drug user for exploiting a drug dealer or a fast food consumer for exploiting salty, sugary snack companies? It just seems to me that because the sex market is characterized by a supply side where entry is restricted to a relatively small number of competitors and a vast demand side whose appetite, like Tantalus,only increases with each dollar spent, that we should at least ask if these women are in fact, not exploiting these men? And if they are, do they not bear prime responsibility for their actions and the negative externalities and impacted lives left by their market?

  4. I watch the site, I find there is more realism in their bodies than most pro porn. I see how some get hooked up n fall for the girls n I feel bad for them I guess. The girls are often very friendly which is pretty cool, it’s porn but it’s also not as fake as pro porn in the way it feels.

  5. Good you goodmen for having such erudite readers. These responses are really interesting. I guess the question of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (as noted in your comments) is pretty silly. There are varying degrees of involvement in the cam-girl world some of which are healthy and some of which are not.

    I suppose i would ask this: are we in fact a lonely animal…lost in a world so over-determined by self-centered consumerism where even our sexual encounters (perhaps the most tactile of all experiences) has been turned into a virtual transaction? Or!!!??? in some way has the cam girl brought some level of human interaction back into the porn experience?

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