There is a reason why this blog is not only called „wisdom of life“. Because it is my impression, that for the most part life doesn’t make much sense. And in fact it can’t because sense or meaning is something that is without exception constructed by humans. We make sense of it, if at all. It doesn’t come from anywhere else.
Now this article is pretty different from most others on my blog. It’s about a part of the web that is 18+ or NSFW (not safe for work) and thus is itself only suited for adults. It’s an article about adult websites and what to make of their existence, among other thoughts. As a scientist I analyze structures of websites and their communities. But this is not at all a scientific article, merely an opinion based on experience on what seems to be a subject not often talked about publicly. I’d like to challenge that notion. So this is not a spoiler warning, but a warning nonetheless: If you’re up to accept that challenge, please do read on. If you’re easily offended, or weirded out by the idea of adult websites and porn, than please just click here and you’ll be lead to a less offending place. Thx!
The bigger picture
Many people do not get what I do. That is, they don’t understand what a researcher does, don’t know about the tasks or how they are performed. Yet they probably acknowledge the role science and researchers play in society. That’s why there is a certain respect for my kind, despite people often not knowing what it is we do. Other professions don’t have that luxury. There may also a myth about them, maybe people have a preconception about what is involved. But they’re not as accepted or respected, although maybe they should be.
There are many rules on the web, one of the most popular is rule #34: If it exists there IS porn of it. And if you search that line with your favorite search engine, you will instantly see, that it is true. (So better don’t.) However, why is it that porn is such a big thing on the internet? It seems that one reason has to be that it is marginalized in many other public places. Sure we are an open society, but maybe not as homogeneously open as we think. There is an ongoing discussion if there is too much porn and whether it is too readily and easily available. It is argued that e.g minors can get to really hard-core videos with a few clicks and the only thing that’s supposed to keep them out is a website with a red and a green button asking whether they are of legal age. Sites like Pornhub or Youporn collect (somewhat illegally sometimes) videos from all big players of the adult industry as well as amateur videos. Those are real issues but those are not what this article is about either.
The Rise of the Amateur
Amateur porn seems to be a BIG trend in general, as there are countless sites where willing individuals can upload self-made videos and sell them to interested fans. We know this phenomenon more generally by the name of user-generated content, and it is everywhere now, not just porn. But it is there too: Performers make their own films and photos, no one else has to be involved, and upload it to platforms like ManyVids or MyDirtyHobby, that basically function like YouTube (or YouPorn) but you need to pay for access. Thus the models build a community, many interact directly through common services like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or whatever. It works much the same as it does for YouTube stars or Twitch streamers. Some see it as a hobby or a way to make some nice extra cash, for some it is their main source of income.
The professional adult industry has always been at the forefront of new media technologies (see articles on this by theguardian.com, CNN, BusinessInsider, TheNextWeb, WIRED, collettesymanowitz.com or books like Obscene Profits by Frederick S. Lane as well as The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss), giving a boost to sales of home equipment like the VHS, DVDs or BluRay, and the same goes for the Web, just think of online payment, identity checks and of course digital delivery. There are plenty of interactive experiences in development and VR looks like it will be a next step. One could say that porn generally is a way to find out what might become the new main stream media technologies in the future. If you’re interested in looking.
Masturbating on live stream
Now of course with the power of the live stream (invented in the 1990s by a Dutch adult entertainment company according to Barss’ book) some new opportunities have come up. Where the streamers on Twitch can discuss with their viewers what and how to play, can react to criticism and feedback and of course can be tipped and then thank each contributor personally who donates money, buys a subscription or anything like that, those are options available to the adult world of live streaming as well.
So on streaming sites like Streammate or Chaturbate, the user can create an account and decide to stream live via his or her own webcam at home to other logged in users of the site. Usually access to those public rooms with the stream and a chat function is free, on some platforms not even an account is necessary to view streams, but you need an account to chat. Options vary by site: Either you can take your favorite model private, which means you enter a private stream and chat room for which you pay a specific rate by the minute. Or you can tip the model you are watching, sometimes getting them to do certain things for certain amounts of tips. Most sites use a kind of premium currency to mask the fact the u spend real money, a technique we also know from Free-to-Play-Games. It’s not like an entirely new concept, professional call girls and escorts, strip clubs and the like have been around for a very long time, indeed it is called the oldest profession of the world for a reason. However allowing guys and gals to anonymously offer a similar service from the safety of their home, is a different story altogether. Or not?
It’s more than just voyeurism(?)
Interestingly enough media theorist Marshall McLuhan referred to call girls as an example of the changes the telephone brought about to society.
„No more unexpected social result of the telephone has been observed than its elimination of the red-light district and its creation of the call-girl. To the blind, all things are unexpected. The form and character of the telephone, as of all electric technology, appear fully in this spectacular development. The prostitute was a specialist, and the call-girl is not. A "house" was not a home; but the call-girl not only lives at home, she may be a matron. The power of the telephone to decentralize every operation and to end positional warfare, as well as localized prostitution, has been felt but not understood by every business in the land. […] The call-girl dispenses with the procurer and the madam. She has to be an articulate person of varied conversation and social accomplishments since she is expected to be able to join any company on a basis of social equality." (McLuhan 2003, p.357f)
You might notice this focuses on the ability to communicate and to fit in with any social environment. Now if we take this further into the digital age, the location (of both provider and consumer, or indeed prosumer) becomes even more irrelevant. Models can create and shape the real and virtual rooms they offer their services in as they choose (within technical limitation that is). And the actual role of sexual acts is probably not the most important thing too, being articulate and interesting to talk to might be much more important to entertain an audience and get them to be interested in the show and whatever it is you have to offer (which basically can cover all fetishes you can imagine). So it’s even less specialist than what McLuhan described in a sense, because it involves creating interesting visuals, interesting conversations, broader incentives for people to come back and actually pay you, because they are not forced to do that with many platforms. Apart from the service providers that keep a sizeable share of the income (much more than you’d probably think in fact) a cam-person is a solo entrepreneur of sorts, doing everything themselves including marketing and distribution if they so choose. It is a business in the end, but not one dependent on just a single ability. Or even looks, given the broad range of ladies that you can choose to visit. There is an element of democratization too, because no gatekeeper gets to decide what is deemed to be beautiful or sexy.
More to think about
Now, I won’t debate moral standards connected to this phenomenon, but there are legal and other aspects to it. Thus there are rules of course. E.g. while the platforms are designed for individuals to participate freely and by own choice, it is clear that such platforms could also be exploited by ruthless people. But that is in fact true for many jobs.
However the point I’d like to make is that much like other professions in the adult industry, this is an area outside the focus of the public for no apparent reason, at least in the open societies we claim to be today. There is nothing wrong with masturbating, it’s a healthy thing to do within reason. There’s nothing wrong with watching somebody else do it, too. And thus there is no shame or perversion involved that I see in what is essentially paid masturbation, as long as everybody is free to do what they want to do and enjoy it.
Now from my experience, which is limited to talking with performers and viewers, I can say it’s not an easy job at all. People can be rude, especially when they think they’re customers and have paid for the right to misbehave. Focusing on a pleasurable view (technically and artistically) for the audience while trying to interact with dozens or hundreds of chatters is many times more complicated than what adult actors and actresses in porn already do and it needs constant attention. You can’t really plan much how the show goes, you can’t prepare for everything that might happen for sure. Just like on other social media you need to be authentic and ready to run with anything that happens. And even if you succeed at everything within your power it might not click and viewers stay away. Or worse, they are there watching but not tipping or talking to you. I know from experience how it is to not get much of an audience reaction to a talk or a seminar, now imagine this while sharing as intimate a thing as masturbation with hundreds of people you can’t perceive unless they type into their keyboards. I’d think it must be nerve-wrecking at times, and it’s much harder to distance oneself from what essentially is a very personal service, although it’s broadcasted through the World Wide Web. It is for a reason that the term Global Village (also coined by McLuhan) has become widely used with the digital age, because little communities form around this seemingly superficial performers.
There really is no climax here (pun intended). I have to say that I’m quite impressed with what is involved in being a cam model, and it’s a very different thing than what you might expect. As with most things, you should become educated about it before judging it. In fact if you’ve seen movies like this years “Fucking Berlin” that try to depict certain aspects of this industry, you may realize the clichées at work there. If you ever get to know people who actually do it, you may be able to get rid of some prejudices you might have. It’s a world that is quietly there but can be easily ignored and forgotten about but that deserves a closer look in my humble opinion, as it is a the forefront of innovation both in terms of technology and society. And one also should remember, that just like with any other online communication, there is always a human being on the other side.
PS: In addition to the articles and books I pointed to, there are some interesting documentaries to watch (also NSFW of course, embedded below): I Am A Cam Girl Documentary (Vimeo), Cam Girlz Documentary (Vimeo). I also like to point out the 2014 study “IP without IP” by Kate Darling about intellectual property and the online adult business.