Subverting Sex

Netflix’s Cam plays with genre to reveal perceptions of online sex-workers

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By: Sonia Scarlat

Whenever I sift through Netflix, I often find myself choosing the brightest, shiniest feature available. There’s something about the endless list of B-movies presented by the network that allows one to let go of all preconceived notions of “cinema” they once held. But within what can seem like endless muck and mire, every now and then there appears a B-movie that actually works as a film, with a good thesis. Netflix’s new digital age horror movie Cam is one such jewel; and it’s as bright and shiny as you could hope.

Written by Isa Mazzei, a former sex worker herself, the movie Cam centers around Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming cam girl whose shows are just as unconventional as the film itself. Gunning for a spot in the top 50, Alice (screen-name “Lola”) resorts to sometimes gruesome, high-level productions in her highly stylized streaming room. She leads a double life, keeping her career and internet acquaintances a secret from everyone, save her younger brother. The thrill of the film begins when Alice gets locked out of her account by a mysterious A.I. who has not only cloned her internet identity, but her real-life image as well and is now performing as Alice. The rest of the film is spent in hot pursuit of whoever or whatever is behind the theft of Alice’s identity.

Cam achieves a realism that few films concerned with current technologies do. This is due in part to Mazzei’s writing as well as clever directing choices on the part of Daniel Goldhaber, who integrates the physical presence of screens with great success. The audience is not just drawn into Alice’s persona, but into the entire world of camming. Working in a genre that often demonizes female sexuality, Cam subverts our expectations of horror to the point where we end up right beside Alice, fighting for her to get back into the game. Like with any good horror flick, there’s tension and blood and loss of sanity. But Cam delves deeper, into an examination of identity and autonomy within online sex work and, to an extent, online presence as a whole.

The mystery of the clone is exciting and fresh, but it’s Alice’s journey through the film that enforces the main theme of the movie: Alice no longer belongs to just herself. Again and again, we see characters who feel entitled to her privacy, both physically and virtually. These scenes are a portrayal of the continued stigma surrounding sex work as well as our perceptions of those who work in this precarious field. In the end, it doesn’t matter that Alice’s account, or voice, or likeness has been stolen. In the eyes of those who consume her content, she has already given up her autonomy by virtue of her online career.

With the advent of technology, the oldest profession in the world is quickly becoming more difficult to excel in. The opportunities for performers are becoming greater, and with each new layer that one adds to their online presence, from cam shows, to Patreon, to private Snapchats, the lines between business and pleasure continue to blur. In particular, the opportunity to pursue this career path from one’s home creates a sense of flexibility and autonomy that isn’t afforded by outdoor sex work. It is, however, a double-edged sword. The perception of online individuality is rapidly changing, and clients can often feel more attached to a sex worker through a screen than in person. Shifting dynamics between performers and viewers are more difficult to assess than ever, leading to confusion surrounding the transaction being performed.

As in “outdoor sex work”, online sex work lacks the necessary regulations and protection for vulnerable persons. Cam highlights this with a short, subtle scene that could easily be forgotten, wherein Alice contacts the police following her identity theft. They refuse to take the matter seriously, and remark that it’s a shame she doesn’t sleep with her clients. Again, the themes of identity and autonomy are addressed. However, this particular moment serves to illustrate the lack of knowledge surrounding online sex work, especially coming from judicial and legislative sectors. As is often the case, the legal system has yet to catch up to the changing world of online markets, especially those concerned with sex work. Regulations on outdoor and certain forms of indoor sex work, such as brothels, cannot be mapped onto the terrain of this new industry, and as such leave many without proper protection.

Besides being a vehicle for social commentary on the field of sex work, Cam is first and foremost an artistic film. Although it is rich and tactful in the latter endeavour, it also serves up a creative retelling of an overarching theme of virtual privacy  for our current state. It’s not perfect; it drags in places and speeds up too much in others. In trying to explain the mystery of the cloning device, it becomes wholly unbelievable. But it’s competent work, and an exciting one. At its heart it is a story of online agency and our roles as consumers exploring this virtual world of sex work.

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