The World of Sex Work as ‘Cam’ Sees It

A deep dive into the fascinating new Netflix thriller ‘Cam’ with someone who knows a little bit about its industry.
By  · Published on December 2nd, 2018

Starring Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale) as a young woman who makes her living as an internet sex performer, this new Netflix film explores the world of “cam girls” who perform live for men in paid chat rooms.

Written by Isa Mazzei (who formerly worked as a cam girl), and directed by Daniel Goldhaber (his feature debut), Cam straddles that thin edge between thriller and horror. In a powerful opening scene, Alice (Brewer), whose online name is “Lola,” performs for her usual “regulars” whom she refers to by their online pseudonyms. They type in their comments and emojis, and indicate their pleasure with rewards of tokens, also used as a sort of ante to convince Lola to perform specific acts. Performers are expected to engage in progressively more creative and daring activities, to encourage fan loyalty, earn more money and, most importantly, raise their online ratings.

Hovering at a score of 60, Lola wants to break into the top 50. She enlists a loyal fan in a stunt to encourage her to make her debut as a “suicide girl” (the name for a well known online porn site started in the late 1990s). Her fans are impressed with her special effects and good sportsmanship, but their loyalty is fleeting, as seen when rival performer “PrincessX” (Samantha Robinson, the lead in The Love Witch) specifically offers to disrobe (normally against her “rules”), and says she’ll do more if Lola’s ratings go down. Lola has rules, too, and the sense of decorum that rules her work habits make it clear she is disciplined and focused on improving. Her personal life is ruled by her work, and though her younger brother is aware of what she does and seems to approve, she keeps it secret from her mother (Melora Walters). Lola’s space is lavishly furnished and full of props: it’s suggested she makes very good money doing this. Her bling-encrusted smartphone never leaves her side, a constant reminder that even when she’s not performing, Lola’s online persona is never dormant.

The competition among performers is offset by a sense of camaraderie, seen when some of the cam girls who live in Loa’s area gather at a “club” where they collaborate on special events and acts, cheering each other on as their scores climb. After a raucous night where Lola’s popularity grows, she tries to log in only to find she is locked out of her account. But her account is “live” and she is online performing. When she calls the website’s tech support for help, she assumes that her channel is just repeating previously recorded content. She tries to get support from other cam girls but they’re as perplexed as she is about what’s happening. Is it someone made up to be her double? Is it some digital glitch replaying her earlier performances? The technology behind this major plot point is never clearly explained. This is too bad, because the technological underpinnings of this industry are otherwise conveyed in fairly accurate and convincing ways; well, except when Lola has to go to a public library to use their computer after she smashes her laptop in frustration; everyone knows public libraries block access to sex sites!

In addition to being unable to stop the doppelganger from stealing her fan-base and her money, Lola worries that an online troll has begun stalking her in real life. She can’t seem to get anyone to understand or help her, partly because she’d determined to handle it on her own, as she has everything else. Her behavior becomes reckless as she realizes her customers don’t have her best interests at heart (neither do the police, for that matter). The message is clear: sex work is dangerous, and protection is the sole responsibility of the sex worker. But there’s a compelling metaphor here also: how much of a sex worker’s life is a struggle to maintain a dual existence, separating the online persona from one’s actual daily existence? Cam makes it seem that the “real life” Lola (and others like her) is a fragile carapace, a palimpsest of sorts, and beneath the glittery surface, beyond the digital veil, the flesh and blood human being is surprisingly vulnerable.

I wanted to see this well-made film as a feminist text, and it is on many levels, but the intersection with the horror genre makes such a criticism problematic. I think the story could have been every bit as suspenseful, even more so, if the explanation for Lola’s hijacked account and an apparent double was explained somehow. To have this exist as a mysterious thing no one can explain doesn’t serve this film’s already-compelling baseline story of a fiercely independent and inventive performer who gradually realizes that the system that made it so easy for her to excel in this business utterly fails her when things go wrong. As well, her exposure to her family and community brings feelings of shame and rejection: a complete contrast to the validation, adoration, and praise she gets from her online fans.

I have formerly worked in the porn industry, and several of the actresses I worked with also worked as “cam girls” on the side, or before they broke into film work. I think Cam accurately portrays many of their daily issues and struggles: the high cost of props and costumes (not to mention electronics), and the constant need to enhance a performance to draw more followers, for example. But one disturbing factor we see unfolding in Cam is the trend that has governed online porn for years now: the ongoing normalizing of extreme content (portraying violence or unusual sex acts) as a way to impress fans who, perhaps understandably, grow “bored” by the content they view on a constant basis. This explains the proliferation of anal sex acts in contemporary porn: anal content is seen as a “frontier” that all stars must traverse if they are to improve their standing in the popularity contest. One film I worked on was touted as having the online cam girl actress’ first anal sex scene and this fact was used as a marketing tool to sell the video to her thousands of online fans. Fetish niches exist to be sure, but the vast majority of viewers want straightforward sex content that includes what have now become normalized acts of explicit sex, including anal penetration (something rarely seen in the more halcyon days of 1970s softcore porn). In Cam, the notion of “going further” is tied to violence and gore.

The portrayal of “sugar daddies” who act entitled to personal attention for giving more “tips” or gifts is well portrayed here as well. The presence of male procurers is widespread in the sex industry, despite the fact that more and more women are helming companies purveying sex online. Men acting as “talent scouts” troll strip clubs looking for female dancers who might make good online performers (one actress I worked with was “discovered” this way) because there is money to be made. If that sounds like pimping, well, it is. Dancers have to share their “take” with club owners, to be sure (I was an exotic dancer for a bit, also), but in video, the entire operation is often run by men, and this can mean financial manipulation within a sexist hierarchy.

It’s not just the business owners or agents overstepping their boundaries. Performers who allow their internet fans to send them gifts or take them on actual dates can inspire devotion resulting in higher popularity and financial reward. But there is a physical threat there as well, and watching the girls in Cam navigate the risks is fascinating and disturbing. Part of Lola’s anger at being unable to stop her double is that the imposter is stealing her money, as well as engaging her fan-base with increasingly outrageous behavior. “She’s not me,” Lola tries to tell people; “she doesn’t even know what she looks like.” The implication is chilling, to say the least.

I wanted to see Cam as a story of courage and creating an identity and striving for empowerment, and indeed it is that on some level. But its ending felt like a reminder that women who choose to work in the sex industry often feel defined by their choices and forced to remain there. Despite there being more opportunities than ever for women to obtain some autonomy in this industry (the company I worked for–which was previously profiled in Cosmopolitan–is known for a feminist approach to storytelling), Cam serves to remind viewers that there is a cyclical conundrum at work. As online activity becomes increasingly subject to surveillance, as well as a crucible of hate speech (and worse), when does the fundamental structure of the industry (anonymous men paying women to engage in sexual performance) begin to break down in a regressive culture that seems to reward men for degrading women, or support some men’s notions of entitlement regarding “access” to women for sex? Cam makes it clear that the potential for empowerment, sexual agency and financial independence on one’s own terms comes at a high price; and that the choice to move on from sex work, or the choice to remain in the industry when one’s personal safety is in question, are two sides of the same coin.

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Peg Aloi is a freelance film and TV critic, formerly of The Boston Phoenix and currently for The Arts Fuse, the Orlando Weekly, Diabolique and Vice. She is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She teaches media studies, is an avid gardener, a poet, a singer and an underemployed ne'er-do-well.