Cam Modeling and “Future Sex”
Emily Witt’s (2016) reserve Future Sex chronicles her seek out 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 experiences, stringing vignettes jointly into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Meditation, Internet porn, and Burning up Man. In this particular review, I emphasize her chapter on sex camming.
But first, I am going to start with a wide overview. A significant theme in the reserve is the kind of existential angst that originates from having way too many choices. Witt feels daunted by her sexual freedom as a millennial—the unlimited range of sexual partners and practices—first made possible by the intimate trend, and then by the Internet. She (p. 12) clarifies:
Imagine if love failed us? Intimate freedom got now extended to the people who never wished to shake off the old organizations, except to the level of showing solidarity with friends who did. I hadn’t sought so much choice for myself, so 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 perhaps even relationship—viewing this as a getaway from the routine of causal intimate arrangements, sometimes punctuated by intervals of monogamy, that has up until now defined her intimate life. But Witt’s desires conflict with the world she inhabits, as Millennial sexual norms privilege freedom over security in relationships. She (pp.11-2) represents why security remains attractive, even as the Internet opens a lot more options:
The extension of sexuality outside of marriage got brought new reasons to trust the original settings, reasons such as HIV, enough time limitations of fertility, the delicacy of emotions. Even while I resolved for freedom as an interim state, I prepared for my monogamous destiny. My sense of rightness, following the failed tests of earlier generations, was like the reconstructions of the baroque national monument that was destroyed with a bomb but a different type of freedom had arrived: a blinking cursor in bare space.
In questioning these new romantic configurations where freedom prevails, Witt echos what public theorists Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman respectively explain as “pure relationships” and “liquid love.” Both authors claim that the perfect of unconditional commitment has been supplanted by constant negotiation and the criterion of mutual advantage. And, even in coupling, individuality remains central.
Missing a secure, committed relationship in the old mold, Witt sets out to explore the probability of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less conventional situations. As turns out, it is in the section on “Live Webcams” that Witt will the most theoretical work to clarify why seeking diverse experiences—the task of the publication—might assist in her search for sexual self-realization. In particular, she points for an essay in the book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue by the gay African-American writer Samuel D. Delany about enough time he spent having anonymous sex in porno theaters. Witt (p. 126) summarizes the essay:
Delany described the benefits of his vast experience in informal sex. The movie theaters had served as laboratories in which he had discovered to discern the nuances and spectral range of his sexual desire… His observations about intimate attraction regularly disproved regular notions of beauty and ugliness. (He discovered, among other proclivities, that he previously something for Burly Irish-American men, including two who had hairlips.)
She estimates Delany who suggests we must “figure out how to find our own way of having sex sexy” and concludes:
I don’t observe how this can be accomplished with out a statistically significant variety of partners… However supportive, the response of an individual partner just cannot do that. That is a quintessentially social process…
Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mostly lands back where she began, finding monogamy rewarding but now embracing an ideal of dedication as temporary:
I am hoping that married relationship would stop to be seen as a totalizing end point and instead become something more modest, perhaps am institutional basis for shared efforts such as increasing children or making art.
But this go back to a somewhat regular notion of romance proves to be the most interesting facet of the reserve. Witt’s taking into consideration the freedom and variety of experience open to the present generation seems to develop. Rather than seeing the nearly infinite range of sexual possibilities as daunting, Witt ends up viewing it as an opportunity to experiment until one finds confidence and feels affirmed in their own desires. She (p. 204) says:
I found that… mostly I needed to live in a global with a wider selection of sexual identities. I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of an individual intimate model would continue steadily to erode as it has, with increasing acceleration, before fifty years.
Though she will not condition it so explicitly, I would claim that Witt has uncovered an interesting dialectic between freedom and security. Though freedom to explore may aid us in discovering what we find sexually desired, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s established sexual desires, when new experience continually prove less satisfying and thus reaffirm the appropriateness of those desires.
And, while final chapter amazing things off a bit, I believe the desirability of embracing this stress between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) bottom line of the publication.
Following this theme of intimate exploration as a mechanism of self-realization, I now want to turn to the question of what camming shows Witt about her own sexuality (and what we can learn about camming in the process). Witt (p. 114) details her encounters with the popular camsite Chaturbate:
I first saw Chaturbate and the many other live-sex-cam sites available online as porn… as the technical development of peep show booths and phone sex lines. Like those, they had a performer https://www.x-webcamslive.com/en/chat/SalmaRoth/ plus they had a voyeur… I QUICKLY spent more time on the website.
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 variety and interactivity of cam sites established them aside.
Chaturbate was full of serendipity… the sensation of pressing through the 18+ disclaimer in to the starting matrix was the one of turning on MTV in the mid-1990s, when music videos played most of your day and kept viewers captive in the anticipation of a favorite performer or a new discovery. Or possibly, to reach further back in time, it recalled the earlier days of the Internet—the Internet of strangers rather than “friends.”
Witt’s decision to approach her subject material through the lens of her own desire—as defined in the first portion of this review—proves both interesting and difficult in this chapter.
What makes Witt’s strategy interesting is that, in bypassing the favorite rooms that she mainly finds uninteresting, she will take us to the margins of the websites, looking for the unpredicted. This consists of an Icelandic female who strips wearing a rubber horse cover up and fedora. In the passage representative of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt describes (pp. 112-3):
maybe it was the home that she is at or her hi-def camera or a general characteristic of the Icelandic people but even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita usage of seafood oils is high and people benefit from socialized health care.
Witt also explains a college-age women who discussed literature and made $1,500 doing a 24 hour marathon that highlighted much talking, some nudity, and no sex. Another female suspended herself from a hook manufactured from ice. And an other woman kept nude sex ed conversations.
Taking a cue from one of her interviewees, Witt identifies the intended use of site—a couple of performers broadcasting to many viewers in each room—as “mass intimacy.” But, the most interesting part of the section was Witt’s exploration into a culture that has surfaced around using Chaturbate to assist in unpaid, anonymous, 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). Collectively, logged on to see the countless pages of men streaming but being viewed by no one. She details (pp. 124-5):
not even typically the most popular men, instead clicking through to the next and third webpages for the true amateurs, the forest of men in table chairs… It proved that they waited there for a reason… in order that they will find a person who will cam-to-cam with them…
Witt (and her manuals) come across a man she discovers relatively attractive, and she chats with him. The person quickly invites her to turn her cam on. She obliges and creates a password-protected room so only he can easily see her. While Witt does not seem to find the encounter particularly satisfying, she (p. 125) does offer some insight in to the value others find in the knowledge:
here, where expectations resided in the opportunity of an electronic encounter between two different people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its squeeze page, Chaturbate was a large number of men watching a few women, a few webpages in, the numbers changed to 1 or two people using Chaturbate to socialize privately with someone else.
Witt’s experience highlights a really interesting case of technology being utilized against the grain. It really is a rougish activity for users to get non-transactional romantic or sexual encounters on sites whose earnings come from audiences purchasing tokens. While these sites afford such activity and do not prohibit it, they don’t intend or explicitly condone it either. It is, perhaps, because of this lack control that sites likes Chaturbate remind Witt of the sooner Web.
While Witt’s study of the margins of camming sites is disclosing, she also, arguably, fails to symbolize most of the proceedings these sites and it is even relatively dismissive of the more popular performers. Because she targets her desires as a thirty-something NYC writer, Witt sometimes shows a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t weird or edgy, it isn’t seen as deserving attention.
Witt is also not a joiner. Her wish to experiment as part her own quest for sexual self-realization, drives her visit many places; but, for the most part, Witt does identify or feel a sense of belonging with individuals she fulfills. She appears to participate only at a distance, viewing others as subjects as much as human relationships. Witt (p. 172) represents her own romantic relationship to a sex party she attends, saying “I was still thinking about myself as only a visitor, or rather neither here nor there, someone starting 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 written about Orgasmic Mediation, for example, sound like marketing copy); however, it does mean she’s unable to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.
What’s missing in the section on camming—credited to some mixture of her hipster bias and lack of personal experience—is an examination of the many measurements of creative labor that switches into producing night time the most normative-appearing shows. Had Witt attempted modeling herself, this might be readily apparent. The seeming convenience with which models embody normative wishes is part of the work—part 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 a kind of whorearchy, where certain types of sex work/practice are denigrated as a way of validating others.
Witt certainly is not consciously anti-sex work. In the last chapter, in fact, she offers significant amounts of compliment for the artistry women porn directors and makers, and she spends a substantial time questioning her own beliefs shaped by mainstream feminism and considering more inclusive feminisms that embrace sex workers and porn as a medium. And, quite insightfully, she argues that much fetish porn is a response or response to new taboos setup by anti-porn feminists.
Nevertheless, Witt does not seem to increase the interest and regard she has for women-directed studio porn to the women-directed performances of popular cam models. I believe they have unique insights and fascinating stories to tell.
Regardless of these few criticisms, Witt gets one key thing right: The continuing future of sex cannot be reduced to a story of technological development but must be recognized in conditions of changing patterns of individual relationships. She (p. 210) concludes “America got a great deal of respect for the future of objects, and less interest in the foreseeable future of human plans.” Because of this by itself, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.