Cam Modeling and “Future Sex”
Emily Witt’s (2016) publication Future Sex chronicles her search for sexual self-realization as a fresh Yorker in her early 30s migrating to tech-centered San Francisco. The book is situated both in interviews and personal encounters, stringing vignettes jointly into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Deep breathing, Internet porn, and Burning up Man. On this review, I highlight her section on sex camming.
But first, I’ll start with a wide overview. A major theme in the publication is the kind of existential angst that comes from having too many choices. Witt feels daunted by her intimate freedom as a millennial—the unlimited range of sexual partners and procedures—first made possible by the sexual trend, and then by the Internet. She (p. 12) clarifies:
What if love failed us? Intimate freedom experienced now extended to people who never wanted to get rid of the old organizations, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I had not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I had been unhappy.
Witt spent her early adult life attempting to find long lasting love—and possibly even relationship—looking at this as an escape from the routine of causal intimate arrangements, occasionally punctuated by periods of monogamy, that has up until now defined her romantic life. But Witt’s desires discord with the world she inhabits, as Millennial intimate norms privilege freedom over security in relationships. She (pp.11-2) details why security remains desirable, even as the web opens a lot more opportunities:
The growth of sexuality beyond marriage had brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, enough time limits of fertility, the delicacy of feelings. Even while I settled for freedom as an interim state, I planned for my monogamous future. My sense of rightness, following the failed experiments of earlier generations, was like the reconstructions of a baroque national monument that was ruined with a bomb but another kind of freedom had appeared: a blinking cursor in unfilled space.
In questioning these new intimate configurations where freedom prevails, Witt echos what interpersonal theorists Anthony Giddens and the past due Zygmunt Bauman respectively explain as “pure relationships” and “liquid love.” Both authors suggest that the perfect of unconditional commitment has been supplanted by constant negotiation and the criterion of shared benefit. And, even in coupling, personality remains central.
Missing a secure, dedicated romantic relationship in the old mold, Witt pieces out to explore the possibility of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less typical situations. As works out, it is within the section on “Live Webcams” that Witt will the most theoretical work to explain why seeking diverse experiences—the project of the reserve—might assist in her quest for sexual self-realization. In particular, she points for an article in the reserve Time Square Red, Times Square Blue by the gay African-American author Samuel D. Delany about enough time he spent having anonymous sex in porno theaters. Witt (p. 126) summarizes the article:
Delany explaind the benefits of his huge experience in casual sex. The movie theaters had offered as laboratories where he had learned to discern the nuances and spectrum of his intimate desire… His observations about intimate attraction consistently disproved regular notions of beauty and ugliness. (He found out, among other proclivities, that he previously something for Burly Irish-American men, including two who experienced hairlips.)
She quotes Delany who suggests we should “figure out how to find our own way of having sex sexy” and concludes:
I don’t see how this is accomplished with out a statistically significant variety of partners… However supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do that. That is a quintessentially sociable process…
Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mostly lands back again where she began, finding monogamy rewarding but now embracing an ideal of dedication as temporary:
I am hoping that married partnership would cease to be observed as a totalizing end point and instead become something more modest, perhaps am institutional basis for distributed endeavors such as raising children or making art.
But this return to a somewhat conventional notion of love shows to be the most interesting aspect of the book. Witt’s thinking about the freedom and diversity of experience open to the present era seems to evolve. Rather than seeing the nearly infinite range of sexual options as daunting, Witt ends up viewing it as an chance to test until one discovers confidence and feels affirmed in their own wishes. She (p http://blablacams.com/tags/chatting. 204) says:
I found that… mostly I wanted to live in a world with a wider selection of intimate identities. I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of a single intimate model would continue to erode as it offers, with increasing acceleration, in the past fifty years.
Though she does not state it so explicitly, I’d claim that Witt has uncovered a fascinating dialectic between freedom and security. Though freedom to explore may aid us in finding what we find sexually appealing, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s established sexual wishes, when new experience continually prove less gratifying and therefore reaffirm the appropriateness of those desires.
And, while final chapter amazing things off a bit, I think the desirability of embracing this stress between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) conclusion of the reserve.
Following this theme of sexual exploration as a system of self-realization, I now want to turn to the question of what camming educates Witt about her own sexuality (and what we should can learn about camming along the way). Witt (p. 114) explains her experiences with the favorite camsite Chaturbate:
I first noticed Chaturbate and the countless other live-sex-cam sites available online as porn… as the technological progression of peep show booths and telephone sex lines. Like those, that they had a performer and they got a voyeur… I QUICKLY spent additional time on the site.
As she dives deeper in to the site, Witt decides that the resemblances she noticed between cam sites and other types of sex work/performance were only superficial. The diversity and interactivity of cam sites set them aside.
Chaturbate was filled with serendipity… the sensation of clicking through the 18+ disclaimer in to the starting matrix was the one of turning on MTV in the middle-1990s, when music videos performed most of the day and kept viewers captive in the expectation of the favorite performer or a new discovery. Or maybe, to reach farther back in its history, it recalled the sooner days of the Internet—the web of strangers rather than “friends.”
Witt’s decision to approach her subject matter through the zoom lens of her own desire—as defined in the first portion of this review—demonstrates both interesting and difficult in this section.
Why is Witt’s strategy interesting is that, in bypassing the favorite rooms that she generally finds uninteresting, she takes us to the margins of the websites, searching for the unpredicted. This includes an Icelandic female who strips putting on a rubber horse cover up and fedora. In the passage consultant of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt details (pp. 112-3):
maybe it was the home that she is at or her high definition camera or an over-all feature of the Icelandic people but even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita intake of seafood oils is high and people reap the benefits of socialized healthcare.
Witt also represents a college-age women who discussed literature and made $1,500 performing a 24 hour marathon that highlighted much speaking, some nudity, no sex. Another girl suspended herself from a hook manufactured from ice. And an other woman held nude sex ed discussions.
Taking a cue in one of her interviewees, Witt represents the intended use of site—a couple of performers broadcasting to many audiences in each room—as “mass intimacy.” But, the most interesting area of the chapter was Witt’s exploration into a culture that has emerged around using Chaturbate to assist in unpaid, private, 1-on-1 sex.
Assisted by two performers that she interviewed, she “multiperved” or “audio-Skyped with one another while sifting through videos online” (p. 124). Jointly, logged to see the countless webpages of men loading but being viewed by nobody. She represents (pp. 124-5):
not even typically the most popular men, instead clicking on through to the second and third webpages for the real amateurs, the forest of men in table seats… It turned out that they waited there for a reason… so that they will find somebody who will cam-to-cam with them…
Witt (and her manuals) come across a man she finds somewhat attractive, and she chats with him. The man quickly invites her to carefully turn her cam on. She obliges and sets up a password-protected room so only he can easily see her. While Witt does not seem to get the encounter particularly rewarding, she (p. 125) possesses some insight in to the value others find in the knowledge:
here, where expectations resided in the chance of an electric encounter between two people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its squeeze page, Chaturbate was thousands of men watching a few women, a few pages in, the figures changed to 1 or two different people using Chaturbate to socialize privately with someone else.
Witt’s experience highlights an extremely interesting case of technology being utilized against the grain. It is a rougish activity for users to seek non-transactional romantic or intimate encounters on sites whose profits come from viewers purchasing tokens. While these websites afford such activity and do not prohibit it, they don’t want or explicitly condone it either. It is, perhaps, because of this absence control that sites enjoys Chaturbate remind Witt of the earlier Web.
While Witt’s examination of the margins of camming sites is disclosing, she also, probably, fails to represent most of what is going on these sites and is even relatively dismissive of the more popular performers. Because she targets her desires as a thirty-something NYC article writer, Witt sometimes displays a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t strange or edgy, it isn’t seen as deserving attention.
Witt is also not really a joiner. Her wish to experiment as part her own search for sexual self-realization, drives her visit many places; but, generally, Witt does identify or feel a feeling of belonging with the people she meets. She appears to participate only at a distance, looking at others as subjects just as much as romantic relationships. Witt (p. 172) details her own romantic relationship to a sex party she attends, stating “I was still thinking about myself as just a visitor, or rather neither here nor there, someone undertaking an abstract inquiry however, not yet with true intention.” This distancing is valuable insofar as it brings with it a degree of objectivity (almost every other things discussed Orgasmic Mediation, for example, sound like marketing duplicate); however, it does mean she’s unable to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.
What’s missing in the section on camming—due to some combination of her hipster bias and insufficient personal experience—can be an examination of the many proportions of creative labor that switches into producing night time the most normative-appearing shows. Acquired Witt attempted modeling herself, this would be readily apparent. The seeming convenience with which models embody normative desires is area of the work—area of the performance of authenticity.
A most troubling moment is when she uncritically relays one of her interviewee’s characterization of the very best performers as “zombie hot girls” (p. 124). This privileging of the strange in porn feeds some sort of whorearchy, where certain forms of sex work/practice are denigrated as a way of validating others.
Witt certainly is not consciously anti-sex work. In the previous chapter, in truth, she offers significant amounts of praise for the artistry women porn directors and makers, and she spends a substantial time questioning her own values shaped by mainstream feminism and considering more inclusive feminisms that embrace sex workers and porn as a medium. And, quite insightfully, she argues very much fetish porn is a reaction or response to new taboos create by anti-porn feminists.
Nevertheless, Witt will not seem to extend the interest and regard she has for women-directed studio room porn to the women-directed performances of popular cam models. I’m certain they have unique insights and interesting stories to tell.
Regardless of these few criticisms, Witt gets one key thing right: The future of sex can’t be reduced to a tale of technological development but must be realized in terms of changing patterns of human being human relationships. She (p. 210) concludes “America had a lot of respect for the future of objects, and less interest in the foreseeable future of human plans.” Because of this alone, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.