Cam Modeling and “Future Sex”

Cam Modeling and “Future Sex”

Emily Witt’s (2016) reserve Future Sex chronicles her search for sexual self-realization as a New 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 Man. Within this review, I emphasize her chapter on sex camming.

But first, I am going to start with a wide overview. A significant theme in the publication is the type of existential angst that comes from having too many choices. Witt seems daunted by her sexual freedom as a millennial—the unlimited range of sexual partners and methods—first permitted by the intimate trend, and then by the Internet. She (p. 12) points out:

What if love failed us? Intimate freedom had now extended to people who never wanted to get rid of the old organizations, except to the degree of showing solidarity with friends who did. I hadn’t sought a lot choice for myself, so when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I used to be unhappy.

Witt spent her early adult life attempting to find enduring love—and perhaps even marriage—viewing this as a getaway from the routine of causal sexual arrangements, occasionally punctuated by periods of monogamy, that has up until now defined her passionate life. But Witt’s desires discord with the world she inhabits, as Millennial intimate norms privilege freedom over security in associations. She (pp.11-2) details why security remains attractive, even as the Internet opens ever more options:

The enlargement of sexuality beyond marriage had brought new reasons to trust the original handles, reasons such as HIV, the time limits of fertility, the delicacy of emotions. Even while I settled for freedom as an interim condition, I prepared 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 destroyed by a bomb but another kind of freedom had showed up: a blinking cursor in empty space.

In questioning these new passionate configurations where freedom prevails, Witt echos what cultural 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 mutual advantage. And, even in coupling, individuality remains central.

Missing a secure, dedicated relationship in the old mildew, Witt sets out to explore the possibility of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less typical situations. As turns out, it is in the section on “Live Webcams” that Witt does the most theoretical work to explain why seeking diverse experiences—the task of the reserve—might assist in her quest for sexual self-realization. In particular, she points to an essay in the book 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 described the advantages of his huge experience in casual sex. The concert halls had served as laboratories where he had learned to discern the nuances and spectral range of his intimate desire… His observations about intimate attraction consistently disproved typical notions of beauty and ugliness. (He found out, among other proclivities, that he previously a thing for Burly Irish-American men, including two who acquired hairlips.)

She estimates Delany who suggests we must “figure out how to find our own way of experiencing sex sexy” and concludes:

I don’t see how this is accomplished without a statistically significant variety of partners… However supportive, the response of an individual partner just cannot do that. That is a quintessentially public process…

Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mostly lands back where she began, finding monogamy rewarding but now embracing a perfect of dedication as short-term:

I am hoping that married relationship would stop to be seen as a totalizing end point and instead become something more humble, perhaps am institutional basis for distributed endeavors such as increasing children or making artwork.

But this return to a somewhat standard notion of love proves to be the most interesting facet of the publication. Witt’s taking into consideration the freedom and diversity of experience available to the present generation seems to evolve. Rather than viewing the almost infinite selection of sexual possibilities as daunting, Witt eventually ends up viewing it as an opportunity to test until one finds confidence and feels affirmed in their own wishes. She (p. 204) says:

I came across 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 steadily to erode as it has, with increasing acceleration, before fifty years.

Though she does not condition it so explicitly, I would argue that Witt has uncovered an interesting dialectic between freedom and security. Though freedom to explore may help us in finding what we should find sexually desirable, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s set up sexual desires, when new experience continuously prove less satisfying and thus reaffirm the appropriateness of those desires.

And, while final chapter wonders off a little, I think the desirability of embracing this tension between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) bottom line of the reserve.

Following this theme of sexual exploration as a mechanism 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) represents her experiences 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, that they had a performer plus they had a voyeur… Then I spent more time on the webpage.

As she dives deeper in to the site, Witt establishes that the resemblances she observed between cam sites and other kinds of sex work/performance were only superficial. The variety and interactivity of cam sites arranged them apart.

Chaturbate was filled with serendipity… the feeling of pressing through the 18+ disclaimer in to the opening matrix was the one of turning on MTV in the mid-1990s, when music videos performed most of your day and kept audiences captive in the anticipation of a favorite performer or a new discovery. Or possibly, to reach further back in its history, it recalled the earlier times of the Internet—the Internet of strangers rather than “friends.”

Witt’s decision to approach her subject material through the zoom lens of her own desire—as explained in the first section of this review—shows both interesting and difficult in this chapter.

Why is Witt’s strategy interesting is that, in bypassing the favorite rooms that she generally discovers uninteresting, she requires us to the margins of the websites, searching for the unexpected. This includes an Icelandic girl who strips wearing a rubber horse cover up and fedora. Inside a passage consultant of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt explains (pp. 112-3):

maybe it was the home that she was in or her hi-def camera or a general feature of the Icelandic people but even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita consumption of seafood oils is high and residents benefit from socialized healthcare.

Witt also details a college-age women who talked about literature and made $1,500 doing a 24 hour marathon that featured much talking, some nudity, no sex. A 3rd woman suspended herself from a hook manufactured from ice. And another woman held nude sex ed conversations.

Going for a cue from one of her interviewees, Witt identifies the designed use of site—a couple of performers broadcasting to numerous audiences 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, private, 1-on-1 sex.

Assisted by two performers that she interviewed, she “multiperved” or “audio-Skyped with each other while sifting through videos online” (p. 124). Together, logged to browse the countless web pages of men streaming but being viewed by no-one. She details (pp. 124-5):

not typically the most popular men, instead clicking through to the next and third web pages for the real amateurs, the forest of men in desk seats… It turned out that they waited there for a reason… so that they will find a person who will cam-to-cam with them…

Witt (and her guides) come across 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 does not seem to find the encounter particularly rewarding, she (p. 125) does offer some insight in to the value others find in the experience:

here, where hopes resided in the chance of an electric encounter between two people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its squeeze page, Chaturbate was a large number of men watching a few women, a couple pages in, the figures changed to one or two different people using Chaturbate to socialize privately with another person.

Witt’s experience highlights a really interesting case of technology being utilized against the grain. It is a rougish activity for users to get non-transactional close or sexual encounters on sites whose income come from viewers purchasing tokens. While these sites afford such activity and don’t prohibit it, they do not plan or explicitly condone it either. It is, perhaps, for this reason absence control that sites prefers Chaturbate remind Witt of the earlier 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 is even relatively dismissive of the popular performers. Because she focuses on her wishes as a thirty-something NYC writer, Witt sometimes shows a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t weird or edgy, it isn’t viewed 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 feeling of owed with the folks she fulfills. She appears to participate only at a distance, looking at others as topics just as much as associations. Witt (p. 172) describes her own romantic relationship to a sex party she attends, stating “I used to be still thinking of myself as only a visitor, or rather neither here nor there, someone executing an abstract inquiry but 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, sound like marketing duplicate); however, it also means she’s unable to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.

What’s lacking in the section on camming—due to some combination of her hipster bias and lack of personal experience—is an examination of the many sizes of creative labor that goes into producing night the most normative-appearing shows. Experienced 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 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 weird in porn feeds a kind of whorearchy, where certain forms of sex work/practice are denigrated as a means 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 companies, and she spends a significant time questioning her own values shaped by mainstream feminism and considering more inclusive feminisms that accept sex workers and porn as a medium. And, quite insightfully, she argues that much fetish porn is a response 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 exciting stories to inform.

No matter these few criticisms, Witt gets one key thing right: The continuing future of sex cannot be reduced to a story of technical development but must be comprehended in terms of changing patterns of human associations. She (p. 210) concludes “America had a lot of respect for future years of items, and less interest in the foreseeable future of human arrangements.” For that reason only, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.

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