Cam Modeling and “Future Sex”
Emily Witt’s (2016) book Future Sex chronicles her seek out intimate self-realization as a fresh Yorker in her early 30s migrating to tech-centered SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA. The book is based both in interviews and personal experiences, stringing vignettes jointly into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Yoga, Internet porn, and Burning Man. On this review, I highlight her section on sex camming.
But first, I am going to start with a wide overview. A major theme in the reserve is the type of existential angst that comes from having way too many choices. Witt seems daunted by her sexual freedom as a millennial—the unlimited range of intimate partners and procedures—first made possible by the sexual trend, and then by the web. She (p. 12) clarifies:
Imagine if love failed us? Intimate freedom got now extended to the people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who do. I had not sought so much choice for myself, so when I came across myself with total intimate freedom, I used to be unhappy.
Witt spent her early adult life wanting to find long lasting love—and perhaps even relationship—observing this as a getaway from the cycle of causal intimate arrangements, occasionally punctuated by periods of monogamy, that has up until now defined her intimate life. But Witt’s desires conflict with the world she inhabits, as Millennial intimate norms privilege freedom over security in human relationships. She (pp.11-2) details why security remains desired, even as the Internet opens ever more options:
The growth of sexuality beyond marriage acquired brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, enough time limitations of fertility, the delicacy of emotions. Even while I resolved for freedom as an interim condition, I planned for my monogamous future. My sense of rightness, after the failed experiments of previous generations, was like the reconstructions of the baroque nationwide monument that was damaged by a bomb but another kind of freedom had came: a blinking cursor in vacant space.
In questioning these new passionate 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 dedication has been supplanted by continuous negotiation and the criterion of shared benefit. And, even in coupling, personality remains central.
Missing a secure, committed relationship in the old mildew, Witt models out to explore the possibility of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less standard 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 publication—might assist in her search for sexual self-realization. Specifically, she points to an essay in the publication Time Square Red, Times Square Blue by the gay African-American author Samuel D. Delany about the time he spent having anonymous sex in porno theaters. Witt (p. 126) summarizes the essay:
Delany explaind the benefits of his vast experience in casual sex. The movie theaters had served as laboratories where he had discovered to discern the nuances and spectrum of his intimate desire… His observations about intimate attraction regularly disproved conventional notions of beauty and ugliness. (He uncovered, among other proclivities, that he had something for Burly Irish-American men, including two who experienced hairlips.)
She quotes Delany who suggests we should “learn to find our very own way of experiencing sex sexy” and concludes:
I don’t see how this is accomplished without a statistically significant variety of companions… However supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do this. This is a quintessentially public process…
Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mainly lands back where she started, finding monogamy rewarding however now embracing a perfect of commitment as short-term:
I hope that married collaboration would stop to be seen as a totalizing end point and instead become something more modest, perhaps am institutional basis for distributed efforts such as raising children or making artwork.
But this return to a somewhat conventional notion of romance shows to be the most interesting facet of the publication. Witt’s thinking about the freedom and variety of experience open to the present era seems to develop. Rather than viewing the almost infinite selection of sexual options as daunting, Witt ends up viewing it as an chance to experiment until one discovers confidence and feels affirmed in their own desires. She (p. 204) says:
I came across that… mostly I wanted to reside in a world with a wider range of intimate identities. I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of an individual sexual model would continue to erode as it offers, with increasing acceleration, before fifty years.
Though she does not state it so explicitly, I’d 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 desirable, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s set up sexual desires, when new experience continually prove less gratifying and thus reaffirm the appropriateness of these desires.
And, while final chapter amazing things off a little, I think the desirability of embracing this stress between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) conclusion of the reserve.
Third , theme of sexual exploration as a system of self-realization, I now want to turn to the question of what camming instructs Witt about her own sexuality (and what we should can find out about camming in the process). Witt (p. 114) details her encounters with the popular camsite Chaturbate:
I first noticed Chaturbate and the countless other live-sex-cam sites available online as porn… as the technological advancement of peep show booths and mobile phone sex lines. Like those, they had a performer and they had a voyeur… I QUICKLY spent additional time on the webpage.
As she dives deeper in to the site, Witt decides that the resemblances she observed 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 feeling of clicking through the 18+ disclaimer into the starting matrix was the one of turning on MTV in the middle-1990s, when music videos played most of the day and kept viewers captive in the anticipation of a favorite performer or a fresh discovery. Or maybe, to reach farther back in its history, it recalled the earlier days of the Internet—the web of strangers rather than “friends.”
Witt’s decision to approach her subject matter through the lens of her own desire—as defined in the first section of this review—demonstrates both interesting and problematic in this section.
What makes Witt’s strategy interesting is that, in bypassing the popular rooms that she generally finds uninteresting, she takes us to the margins of the websites, searching for the unforeseen. This consists of an Icelandic girl who strips putting on a rubber horse face mask and fedora. In a passage consultant of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt details (pp. 112-3):
maybe it was the home that she was in or her hi-def camera or an over-all characteristic of the Icelandic people but even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita consumption of fish oils is high and people reap the benefits of socialized healthcare.
Witt also identifies a college-age women who talked about books and made $1,500 performing a 24 hour marathon that presented much speaking, some nudity, no sex. A 3rd woman suspended herself from a hook manufactured from ice. And another woman held nude sex ed discussions.
Going for a cue from one of her interviewees, Witt describes the intended use of site—a couple of performers broadcasting to numerous viewers in each room—as “mass intimacy.” But, the most interesting part of the chapter was Witt’s exploration into a culture that has emerged around using Chaturbate to help 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 to browse the countless web pages of men loading but being viewed by no one. She represents (pp. 124-5):
not even typically the most popular men, instead clicking through to the next and third web pages for the true amateurs, the forest of men in desk chairs… It proved that they waited there for a reason… so that they will find someone who will cam-to-cam with them…
Witt (and her guides) stumbled upon a man she finds relatively attractive, and she chats with him. The man quickly invites her to turn her cam on. She obliges and sets up a password-protected room so only he can easily see her. While Witt will not seem to find the encounter particularly satisfying, she (p. 125) does offer some insight into the value others find in the knowledge:
https://www.x-webcamslive.com/en/ here, where hopes resided in the opportunity of an electric encounter between two people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its website landing page, Chaturbate was thousands of men viewing a few women, a few webpages in, the figures changed to one or two different people using Chaturbate to communicate privately with another person.
Witt’s experience highlights a really interesting case of technology used against the grain. It is a rougish activity for users to seek non-transactional seductive or sexual encounters on sites whose revenue come from viewers purchasing tokens. While these sites afford such activity , nor prohibit it, they do not plan or explicitly condone it either. It really is, perhaps, due to this absence control that sites enjoys Chaturbate remind Witt of the sooner Web.
While Witt’s study of the margins of camming sites is disclosing, she also, arguably, fails to stand for most of what is going on these sites and it is even somewhat dismissive of the more popular performers. Because she focuses on her wishes as a thirty-something NYC article writer, Witt sometimes shows a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t weird or edgy, it’s not seen as deserving attention.
Witt is also not really a joiner. Her wish to test as part her own quest for intimate self-realization, drives her visit many places; but, for the most part, Witt will identify or feel a sense of belonging with the individuals she meets. She seems to participate only far away, observing others as topics as much as human relationships. Witt (p. 172) represents her own romantic relationship to a sex party she attends, saying “I had been still thinking of myself as just 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 amount of objectivity (almost every other things discussed Orgasmic Mediation, for example, appear to be marketing copy); however, it does mean she’s struggling to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.
What’s lacking in the section on camming—credited to some combination of her hipster bias and lack of personal experience—can be an examination of the many proportions of creative labor that goes into producing evening the most normative-appearing shows. Got Witt attempted modeling herself, this would be readily apparent. The seeming simplicity with which models embody normative wishes is part of the work—part of the performance of authenticity.
A most troubling second is when she uncritically relays one of her interviewee’s characterization of the top performers as “zombie hot girls” (p. 124). This privileging of the strange in porn feeds some sort 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 previous chapter, in fact, she offers significant amounts of compliment for the artistry women porn directors and makers, and she spends a significant time questioning her own beliefs formed by mainstream feminism and considering more inclusive feminisms that accept sex workers and porn as a medium. And, quite insightfully, she argues very much fetish porn is a reaction or response to new taboos set up by anti-porn feminists.
Nevertheless, Witt will not seem to extend the eye and regard she has for women-directed studio porn to the women-directed shows of popular cam models. I’m certain they have unique insights and amazing stories to tell.
No matter these few criticisms, Witt gets one key thing right: The continuing future of sex can’t be reduced to a tale of technical development but must be recognized in conditions of changing patterns of human being romantic relationships. She (p. 210) concludes “America got a great deal of respect for future years of objects, and less interest in the future of human arrangements.” Because of this only, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.