Cam Modeling and “Future Making love”
Emily Witt’s (2016) reserve Future Sex chronicles her search for intimate self-realization as a New 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 together into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Deep breathing, Internet porn, and Burning Man. In 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 publication is the kind of existential angst that comes from having way too many choices. Witt feels daunted by her sexual freedom as a millennial—the limitless range of intimate partners and practices—first made possible by the sexual revolution, and then by the Internet. She (p. 12) points out:
What if love failed us? Intimate freedom had now extended to people who never wished to get rid of the old institutions, except to the extent 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 possibly even marriage—looking at this as a getaway from the cycle of causal intimate arrangements, occasionally punctuated by periods of monogamy, that has until recently defined her intimate life. But Witt’s desires issue with the world she inhabits, as Millennial sexual norms privilege freedom over security in associations. She (pp.11-2) describes why security remains desirable, even as the web opens a lot more opportunities:
The expansion of sexuality outside of marriage acquired brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, the time limits of fertility, the delicacy of emotions. Even as I settled for freedom as an interim condition, I planned for my monogamous future. My sense of rightness, following the failed experiments of previous generations, was like the reconstructions of a baroque nationwide monument that was damaged by a bomb but another kind of freedom had showed up: a blinking cursor in unfilled space.
In questioning these new intimate configurations where freedom prevails, Witt echos what social theorists Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman respectively describe as “pure relationships” and “liquid love.” Both authors suggest that the ideal of unconditional dedication has been supplanted by constant negotiation and the criterion of shared advantage. And, even in coupling, individuality remains central.
Missing a secure, committed relationship in the old mold, Witt models out to explore the possibility of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less conventional situations. As works out, it is within the section on “Live Webcams” that Witt will the most theoretical work to describe why seeking diverse experiences—the project of the publication—might aid in her search for sexual self-realization. In particular, she points to an article in the reserve 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 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 conventional notions of beauty and ugliness. (He found out, among other proclivities, that he had a thing for Burly Irish-American men, including two who got hairlips.)
She quotes Delany who suggests we should “learn 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. This is a quintessentially cultural process…
Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mainly lands back again where she started, finding monogamy rewarding but now embracing an ideal of dedication 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 increasing children or making artwork.
But this go back to a somewhat typical notion of love shows to be the most interesting facet of the publication. Witt’s taking into consideration the freedom and diversity of experience open to the present era seems to progress. Rather than viewing the almost infinite range of sexual options as daunting, Witt ends up seeing it as an chance to experiment until one finds confidence and seems affirmed in their own wishes. She (p. 204) says:
I came across that… mostly I needed to reside in a global with a wider selection of intimate identities. I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of a single intimate model would continue to erode as it has, with increasing acceleration, before fifty years.
Though she will not state it so explicitly, I would argue that Witt has uncovered an interesting dialectic between freedom and security. Though freedom to explore may aid us in finding what we should find sexually attractive, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s set up sexual desires, when new experience constantly prove less satisfying and therefore reaffirm the appropriateness of those desires.
And, while final chapter wonders off a little, I believe the desirability of embracing this tension between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) summary of the reserve.
Third , theme of sexual exploration as a mechanism of self-realization, I now want to carefully turn to the question of what camming teaches Witt about her own sexuality (and what we can learn about camming along the way). Witt (p. 114) represents her encounters with the popular camsite Chaturbate:
I first noticed Chaturbate and the many other live-sex-cam sites available online as porn… as the technical progression of peep show booths and telephone sex lines. Like those, they had a performer and they experienced a voyeur… I QUICKLY spent more time on the site.
As she dives deeper into the site, Witt determines 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 set them aside.
Chaturbate was full of serendipity… the sensation of pressing through the 18+ disclaimer into 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 the favorite performer or a fresh discovery. Or possibly, to reach further back in its history, it recalled the sooner times 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 explained in the first portion of this review—demonstrates both interesting and difficult in this chapter.
Why is Witt’s strategy interesting is that, in bypassing the popular rooms that she mainly finds uninteresting, she will take us to the margins of the sites, searching for the unforeseen. This consists of an Icelandic woman who strips wearing a rubber equine face mask and fedora. In a passage representative of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt represents (pp. 112-3):
maybe it was the home that she was in or her high definition camera or a general characteristic 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 residents reap the benefits of socialized health care.
Witt also describes a college-age women who discussed books http://blablacams.com/couples and made $1,500 doing a 24 hour marathon that featured much talking, 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 from one of her interviewees, Witt details 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 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 each other while sifting through videos online” (p. 124). Together, logged to browse the countless web pages of men loading but being watched by nobody. She identifies (pp. 124-5):
not the most popular men, instead pressing through to the second and third web pages for the real amateurs, the forest of men in table chairs… It proved that they waited there for a reason… in order that they will find somebody who will cam-to-cam with them…
Witt (and her manuals) come across a man she discovers somewhat attractive, and she chats with him. The man quickly invites her to carefully 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 get the encounter particularly rewarding, she (p. 125) does offer some insight in to the value others find in the knowledge:
here, where hopes resided in the opportunity of an electric encounter between two different people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its landing page, Chaturbate was thousands of men watching a few women, a couple webpages in, the amounts changed to one or two people using Chaturbate to socialize privately with someone else.
Witt’s experience highlights a really interesting case of technology being used against the grain. It really is a rougish activity for users to seek non-transactional seductive or intimate encounters on sites whose income come from viewers purchasing tokens. While these websites afford such activity and don’t prohibit it, they do not plan or explicitly condone it either. It really is, perhaps, for this reason absence control that sites loves Chaturbate remind Witt of the earlier Web.
While Witt’s examination of the margins of camming sites is uncovering, she also, arguably, fails to represent most of the proceedings these sites and is even somewhat dismissive of the more popular performers. Because she focuses on her desires as a thirty-something NYC article writer, Witt sometimes displays a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t weird 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, for the most part, Witt will identify or feel a feeling of owed with the folks she satisfies. She appears to participate only far away, observing others as subjects as much as relationships. Witt (p. 172) represents her own relationship to a sex party she attends, saying “I used to be still thinking of myself as only a visitor, or rather neither here nor there, someone starting an abstract inquiry but not yet with true intention.” This distancing is valuable insofar as it brings with it a amount of objectivity (most other things written about Orgasmic Mediation, for example, sound like marketing duplicate); however, it also means she’s struggling to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.
What’s missing in the chapter on camming—due to some mixture of her hipster bias and insufficient personal experience—can be an examination of the many proportions of creative labor that goes into producing night the most normative-appearing shows. Had Witt attempted modeling herself, this might be readily obvious. The seeming simplicity with which models embody normative desires is area of the work—area of the performance of authenticity.
A most troubling instant 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 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 previous chapter, in fact, she offers a great deal of compliment for the artistry women porn directors and makers, and she spends a significant 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 that much fetish porn is a reaction or response to new taboos create by anti-porn feminists.
Nevertheless, Witt will not seem to increase the interest and regard she’s for women-directed studio room porn to the women-directed shows of popular cam models. I’m certain they have unique insights and exciting 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 realized in terms of changing patterns of human being relationships. She (p. 210) concludes “America acquired a lot of respect for the future of items, and less interest in the foreseeable future of human plans.” For that reason only, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.