Join Date: Sep 2021
“I Get Paid to Have Orgasms”: Adult Webcam Models’ Negotiation of Pleasure and Danger
This article makes several important contributions to the burgeoning literature on sex work in a digital era. The scholarly literature that has documented the use of the Internet by sex workers has focused almost entirely on prostitution and has yet to make adult webcam modeling a focal point of analysis. This article critically examines the ways in which entry into adult webcam modeling is facilitated by an expectation that sex work in cyberspace maximizes pleasure, primarily because it minimizes the risk of dangers associated with street-based sex work. I conduct content analyses of discussions on a popular online forum for webcam models to explore the themes of pleasure (erotic and affectual) and danger (capping, doxxing, and harassment) in adult webcam modeling. I argue that adult webcam models experience sexual and affectual pleasures in the course of their work and that they are able to experience these pleasures because the computer-mediated sexual exchange acts as a psychological barrier, and that the computer in turn becomes the primary tool that performers use for emotional management. My analysis focuses on how sex workers reconcile the pleasure in their work with the exploitation that is also found there. Here, these camgirls use neoliberal ideas to minimize the perception of danger of their work so that they can experience high levels of pleasure. I further open up a new dialogue about neoliberalism and sex workers by focusing on the neoliberal subject in this new form of sex work.
If you’re talking about camming … I’m empowered by it. … I get paid to have orgasms. That’s fuckin legit.
Feminists have written extensively about sex work, and their debates on the subject have become known as the sex wars (Duggan and Hunter 1995). The first gauntlet in this proverbial war was thrown down by culturally conservative radical feminists who focused only on the exploitative characteristics of sex work, particularly misogyny in pornography (e.g., Dworkin 1981; Dworkin and MacKinnon 1988). Pro-sex feminists fired back by focusing primarily on the agency of sex workers and the empowerment found in sex work (e.g., Rubin 1984; Willis 2012a, 2012b). However, we learned from sex radicals that female sexuality is contingent on both danger and pleasure (Snitow, Stansell, and Thompson 1983; Vance 1984).
Specifically, many have argued (e.g., Vance 1984) that theoretical feminist debates over whether sex work is inherently exploitative or empowering are problematic because they are reductive. Ronald Weitzer (2009) refers to this as the oppression/empowerment paradigm; if we have learned anything from queer theory, it is that binary, essentialist, and categorical thinking is problematic. As Weitzer notes, “Both the oppression and empowerment perspectives are one-dimensional and essentialist. While exploitation and empowerment are certainly present in sex work, there is sufficient variation across time, place, and sector to demonstrate that sex work cannot be reduced to one or the other. An alternative perspective, what I call the polymorphous paradigm, holds that there is a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations, and worker experiences” (6).
My analysis here is guided by the polymorphous paradigm, or the theoretical standpoint that the experiences of sex workers are fluid; workers in any field are likely to have varied experiences of exploitation and job satisfaction. That is, they will have experiences with both pleasure and danger. Camgirls have found employment that is oftentimes exploitative and enacted within patriarchal systems, but this work also allows them to subvert antiquated ideas about female sexuality and thus produces empowerment.
According to the data I present in this article, webcam models’ work has the potential to subvert hegemonic discourses of gender that constrain women’s sexuality because this work allows for various forms of pleasure in the process. Carole Vance’s (1984) pleasure/danger framework is theoretically useful because it illuminates the ways in which women’s participation in webcamming is conditioned by both pleasure and danger. In this article I show that models who experience high levels of pleasure are able to manage the dangers associated with sex work. Those models who experience less pleasure than danger are less likely to be successful and do not continue to work in the field.
Introduction to adult webcam modeling
Adult webcam modeling has been called a “digital era peep show” (Richtel 2013, 1).2 Models sell a variety of erotic services (e.g., exotic dance, masturbation shows) and commodities (e.g., pornographic videos of themselves) to online customers.3 These entertainers perform for clients in highly stylized chat rooms. While the structure and design of webcam sites vary, on most, models talk to customers in a public chat room and perform erotic shows at premium prices in a virtual private room. Many websites use a token-based system in which clients purchase tokens that they use to tip models (e.g., on myfreecams.com and livejasmin.com). For example, on MFC models can perform in a public chat room and in private. In the public chat room models often initiate “countdowns,” which means that a model will set a price for a specific performance, and once the people in her room have collectively tipped that amount, she will perform the associated show (e.g., five thousand tokens for a masturbation show, for which she takes home five cents per token).
Models also do private performances. On MFC, for example, models are paid three dollars per minute for a private show, five cents per minute for a group show, and four dollars per minute for a true private show (other customers cannot pay to view true private shows). In addition, if the model is in a private show and a member pays to “spy” on that show, the model earns an additional dollar per minute for each spy. Much variation exists among models with respect to what acts are performed in public and in private. While their work is performed online and no physical contact is present, adult webcam models are sex workers because they receive monetary compensation for sexual services.
Carol Leigh, also known as Scarlet the Harlot, coined the term “sex worker” in 1978 (Leigh 1997). Since then, countless activists have struggled to obtain a legitimate status for sex workers as service professionals who perform erotic labor in a highly competitive capitalist marketplace. Webcamming is similar to many other forms of service work because it involves providing good customer service, which often requires managing both one’s own emotions and those of clients (Hochschild 1983). Adult webcam work also involves “bounded authenticity” (Bernstein 2007, 6), or providing an authentic erotic experience that, while bounded by an economic exchange, offers clients an emotionally intimate experience. However, because webcam models actually deliver their services online, this context also involves performing what I have called embodied authenticity (Jones 2015a). Unlike traditional pornography, the live-streaming video and interactive components of webcamming allow workers and customers to create unique content for each performance. Their real-time interactions allow clients to have an “authentic” experience—one that is valuable because it is experienced as a “real” interaction with a “real” woman. To be clear, if a model performs fellatio on a dildo while a client watches and masturbates to climax, the client knows this is not “real”—meaning it is not the same feeling as if the woman had physically performed that act on the client. However, in this article, I argue that the primacy scholars of sex work place on physical touching thwarts our ability to appreciate the various experiences of pleasure people have in the online world of erotic labor. Moreover, it is precisely in the absence of the ability to physically touch—and the absence of the many risks associated with physical encounters—that this new online sex market has flourished, and that has made it so pleasurable for workers and clients.
The emergence of adult webcamming marks an important change in the sexual economy. Webcam modeling is part of a new, large, and diverse online market in which sex workers advertise and sell sexualized services online. Many sex workers now perform part or all of their labor in an online environment (Jones 2015b). However, the scholarly literature that has documented the use of the Internet by sex workers has focused almost entirely on prostitutes’ use of the web to market their services, recruit and screen clients, and facilitate physical encounters. The literature has yet to make adult webcam modeling a focal point of analysis (Jones 2015a, 2015b).
This article critically examines the ways in which entry into adult webcam modeling is facilitated by an expectation that sex work in cyberspace maximizes pleasure, primarily because it minimizes the dangers associated with street-based sex work. In the study on which this article is based, I conducted content analyses of discussions on a popular online forum for webcam models to explore the themes of pleasure and danger in adult webcam modeling. I posit that camgirls use the Internet to explore pleasure, in a context that they perceive diminishes the dangers they face as sex workers in a patriarchal world. For many models, by minimizing and downplaying the dangers of camming, they understand their work as pleasurable, which results in greater individual success; the pleasure they do experience allows them to effectively deliver embodied authenticity to clients.
Sex work in a digital era
This article makes two interventions in the literature on sex work. First, my focus is on a form of sex work that has yet to be studied by other authors: adult webcam modeling (Jones 2015a). Second, this article expands the current literature on sex work in a digital era by highlighting the benefits as well as the dangers of adult webcamming. Moreover, I push the current literature forward by highlighting pleasure as a primary benefit of adult webcam modeling. Models are able to achieve high levels of pleasure because digital sex work minimizes danger and potential harm.
The term sex work is often conflated with prostitution. However, we know that sex workers perform a wide variety of erotic services. Christine Harcourt and Basil Donovan (2005) have created useful typologies of sex work on the basis of extensive reviews of the literature. They argue that at least twenty-five types of sex work exist. Further, they have divided these labor activities into two groups: the direct sex industry and the indirect sex industry. Direct sex work refers to direct genital contact (as when an escort has penetrative sex for a fee); indirect sex work refers to sex work where there is no genital contact. Therefore, adult webcamming is a new form of indirect sex work and is a unique development. Prostitutes have used the Internet to market services and facilitate “real-world” encounters for some time now; however, for the first time, in camming, we see sex workers using the web to deliver a live service directly to a customer online. Before camming, phone sex operators offered a similar indirect sexual service to customers, but the Internet and live-streaming video have created a more personal and intimate experience that, unlike phone sex, allows for an authentication of embodiment.
While this article focuses on pleasures and dangers in webcam modeling, my focus on pleasure also makes a unique contribution to studies of sex work. The nascent literature on sex work in the digital era has primarily focused on more pragmatic benefits of Internet-based sex work, such as better wages, better and safer working conditions, and a decline in risk exposure.4 While these benefits are important, with few exceptions (see Bernstein 2007; Walby 2012) this literature does not highlight the way the online environment fosters a space in which workers have greater potential to experience sexual and affectual pleasures.
Far too often cyberspace is seen as a realm of social experience that is separate from the “real world”; interactions that occur in cyberspace are perceived to be less “real” than face-to-face interaction in physical space. Like Christine Hine (2000, 2005), I would caution against understanding cyberspace in this way. Webcam performers and their clients do talk and engage in sex acts face to face; these interactions are just mediated by a screen. To suggest that cyberspace is not part of the real world suggests that these online sex exchanges are less culturally significant or meaningful because they lack physical contact. Not only does the cyber context not diminish the quality of the interactions, the online context may actually be the very reason why they are so pleasurable.