Posted at 18:56 on 17 Jun 2016 by Pandora / Blake
Last night I attended the second Naked Truth Film Club screening, a new adult industry event organised by Terry Stephens, chair of UKAP, the UK porn producer trade association. Like most of us who organise within the adult industry, he's interested in destigmatising porn and raising public awareness about the realities of porn, combating the myths and misconceptions that percieve erotic labour as exploitative. The film club screens relevant documentaries in Central London, with a panel of sex workers hosting a Q&A after the screening.
The first event was a few weeks ago, and showed UnSlut: A Documentary Film, an American documentary about slut-shaming and teenage sexual bullying. It doesn't mention the adult industry but examines slut-shaming more broadly, looking particularly at the way that it affects young people. The documentary was born out of The UnSlut Project, an internet initiative that invited people to submit their own stories of being bullied or shamed because they were perceived as being slutty or sexual. The project brought people together to share experiences - some who had never told anyone before - and offer support, solidarity and healing.
The documentary follows a number of women telling stories of sexual assault, slut-shaming and bullying. It's a serious subject, and the film is powerful; definitely not light viewing. One girl, Allyson Pereira, was asked to send a nude photo to her ex-boyfriend, who then shared it with the rest of her school without her consent. She was bullied and ostracised by her town as a result of this violation. The most harrowing story was that of Rehtaeh Parsons, who was drugged and gang-raped at a party. Her assailants took photos, shared them, and she was labelled as a "slut" as a result. The subsequent slut-shaming and bullying followed her despite changing schools several times, compounding the trauma of her assault. Eventually, at the age of seventeen, she took her own life.
(Sharing this flyer on Facebook, by the way, got me banned from using my account for a week, and I had to provide photo ID to prove my identity. It goes to show how endemic slut shaming is in our society when you aren't even allowed to use the word to make a point.)
The internet is an amazing resource for people to connect with each other, educate themselves and realise that they are not alone in the world; but that connectivity can be abused. With a single click social media platforms now make it easy for images to be shared with a large number of people at once, and once published, the act can never be undone. It sickens me that our culture is so confused and repressed about sexuality that people will turn against survivors of sexual assault rather than providing the support and understanding they need.
Despite being progressive in some ways, our society is still very damaged when it comes to sex. Girls are held to different standards of behaviour than boys, and even young people police each other's sexual behaviour in violent and repressive ways. But they aren't doing this in a vacuum. Young people receive the messages we give them, and this film makes it very clear that when it comes to sex, and particularly the sexuality of young women, we need to step up and start sending better messages.
Although this film doesn't discuss sex work, sex workers are also on the front line when it comes to experiencing stigma and sexual shaming. The film kickstarted a spirited Q&A, in which I was on the panel - here's the video of the discussion, which also featured Misha Mayfair, Jerry Barnett and Charlotte Rose.
The second event last night had a much more cheerful offering: Cam Girlz, the documentary by Sean Gunne looking into the web cam industry and women who work in it. It's a gorgeously shot, celebratory portrait of camming which had me smiling all the way through - it's so affirming (and unusual!) to see a documentary about sex work that is more positive than critical, and a lot of what the film's subjects were saying about creative and financial independence really resonated with me. The documentary is free to watch online, and I recommend it.
The film focuses on US performers who work on MyFreeCams - this focus isn't specified, but it's easy to identify MFC if you know what you're looking for; it has a fairly distinctive business model. Performers have open chatrooms, which could be being viewed by 10 or 1000 people at any time, engaged in free chat with the performer - who provides hosting, companionship and entertainment, encouraging viewers to tip rather than charging up front. Tips help fund group shows, private shows and other treats at the performer's discretion.
What struck me most about this film was the creativity and imagination of the cammers. Having never done webcam work or hung out on a cam site, my image of camming was that it was fairly straightforwardly sexual - I envisaged stripteases, flirting, masturbation shows and fetish activities. But Cam Girlz shows performers singing and playing guitar while naked; glow-hooping in their underwear - on the bed, being side-eyed by their cat. We see an outdoor duo show turn into topless bouncing on a trampoline (which must have necessitated an impressively strong wifi signal); an incredibly talented ventriloquist performing horror puppet shows, complete with Morticia wigs and fake blood squirting blowjobs. Everyone seems to have the most fun when they work together - from straightforward sexy girl times to choreographed group shows that are designed with a real eye for aesthetics. There's body art with glitter oil, lush lightshows and psychedelic performance art involving Morph suits and animal masks. One cammer performs in mime, doing everything from comic stripteases to playing the Game of Thrones theme on the accordion.
In their interviews, the performers talk about having the freedom to set their own hours, work from home, spend more time with family, and develop a loving relationship with their own body and sexuality. They are three-dimensional people, shown not only engaged in erotic performance but also just hanging out at home with their cats, lovers, boyfriends, husbands and children. The theme of "realness" runs through the film. One performer says, "If you do what the guys ask, you'll make some money, but if you do what you want to do, you'll make them fall in love with you."
This idea of authenticity and self-expression is also found in a lot of discourse around feminist and queer porn. The documentary does a pretty good job of handling the grey area between fantasy and reality in camming: the fact that it is work, showing how professional and entrepreneurial the performers need to be; but also that many performers feel able to "be themselves" on cam rather than putting on an act, and in fact find it more profitable. Of course, even one's own personality can be an act some days, depending on your mood and energy levels. But the idea that customers want to talk to "normal girls", and that the performers feel able to relax and show off their every day lives - drinking, smoking and chilling while hosting shows - is repeated throughout the film. The idea is that many customers don't want a personalised sexual service so much as the illusion that they are hanging out with you at home.
Having said that, there was huge variety in the type of shows on offer. Some performers go to great lengths to produce highly theatrical pieces of performance art - without having to get their ideas approved by a venue or manager, delivering live performances direct to their audience and making far more money, probably, than they ever would on stage. Others emphasised the importance of keeping it real, being your own goofy, nerdy or weird self, and embracing your looks and character, rather than aspiring to an ideal.
MyFreeCams only hosts female performers, and so that's all we see in Cam Girlz. Despite this gender bias, there's a reasonable stab at diversity - the performers range in body type, ethnicity and skin tone, and there's with some intelligent discussion of body image, self esteem and how it relates to sex work and romantic relationships. We see several women of colour, and one mature performer who took to camming after being bereaved by the unexpected death of her husband. Still, I was disappointed not to see any male, trans or non-binary performers, as I felt they would have offered a valuable perspective. After all, NB, trans and male sex workers are often unable to find well paid work performing for porn studios, and many of them therefore DIY it instead - which often means camming. I mean, okay, the title of the film is gendered from the start, but it could just as easily have been called Cammerz.
The documentary isn't totally rose-tinted - one interview talked about the self-esteem crash that can happen when you put in the hours but don't make any money, especially if the dip lasts a few days. "The lows are low, and the highs are high." But other than that, camming is pretty much presented as an ideal job: freedom to work from home, choose your own hours, enjoy your body, have fun, be creative and make money. I feel as if all those things are also true in porn - and in both porn and camming, you have to put in long hours to make an impact or turn a profit. Both involve lots of hard work, promotion and consistency. Still, the panel of cammers discussing the film after the screening agreed that camming was better money than porn.
The documentary doesn't really touch on the high pressure and competitiveness that has driven some performers away from MyFreeCams, with strategies like the "camscore" that pits performers against not only each other, but also their own previous performance. This article about Cam Girlz fleshes out some of those issues, but it's always hard to talk too much about the downsides without inadvertently echoing anti-sex work rhetoric.
Despite being invited by my cammer friends Adele Haze and Nimue Allen a couple of times to do duo shows with them, I've never taken the plunge and actually tried camming. But Cam Girlz has sold it to me. One of these days, I think I might give it a go.