A few weeks ago I was contacted by a producer from ABC News/Nightline about a story they were working on about adult webcamming. Might I be available for a chat and possible on-camera interview to help contextualize camming in the world of adult entertainment?
The producer and I spoke by phone later that day. He was friendly and described the segment as focusing primarily on couples that cammed. We talked about the growth of webcamming, some of the reasons for its popularity, and how camming, with its emphasis on personalized interactions, differs from prerecorded porn. We also talked about the gig economy, flexible forms of labor, and the challenges of pinpointing exactly how much revenue adult businesses generate.
He was open with me about some of the difficulties they were encountering in producing the segment. They had talked with a number of couples that had later balked at appearing on camera; and they were having little luck getting representatives of any major cam companies to reply to their inquiries.
I wasn’t surprised to hear any of this. The stigma around sex work, I told him, is very real and it’s understandable that performers might be wary of “outing” themselves to friends, family, and employers who might judge, shun, or even fire them. Adult companies also have a good reason to be skittish. Media outlets, with their penchant for sensationalism, have not always done a good job depicting sex workers, or the adult industry, in complex and ethical ways.
I thought the producer was asking the right kinds of questions, so I agreed to an on-camera interview the next day. My job, he explained, would be to provide a kind of “Webcamming 101” for the uninformed viewer.
The experience of filming the segment was interesting. I usually shy away from on-camera interviews. Part of it is comfort level—I prefer the back-and-forth of talking to print journalists and generally trust that they’ll treat my words and ideas fairly; and I really enjoy radio, because you can have substantive conversations that move beyond five-word sound bites.
With television, though, you never know exactly what you are getting into. There are lights and cameras and staging, and it’s not just what you say that matters but your appearance, too. The time involved in taping can also be significant and once it’s over, the final edits can be…creative, to say the least.
But there I was on a Saturday evening, barefoot and wearing a blue dress, waiting for an ABC producer and cameraperson to show up at my house with their gear.
We set up in my office, with my bookshelves in the background. I was sitting on a high stool, the producer was on a chair across from me, and the cameraman was positioned in the hallway just outside the room.
The interview questions were exactly what I expected. That is, until I was asked if I thought webcamming was “empowering or exploitative.” The producer explained that this was, of course, something viewers would want to know.
I can’t tell you how many times journalists have asked me this question. I learned years ago that there were strategies I could use to steer reporters toward other, more productive ways of discussing sex work as work. In this instance, however, the camera was rolling and whatever skills I thought I had developed seemed to dissolve. I stammered and spit out a clunky answer that felt anything but polished.
Before I went to bed, I emailed the producer in New York. I told him that the shoot went well and that while I was pleased that Nightline was doing the segment, I also hoped it wouldn’t get trapped in the exploitation versus empowerment narrative, which, I explained, did little if anything to deepen the public’s understanding of the business of adult webcamming.
He wrote back to say that he understood my concerns and assured me he would “keep this guidance in mind.”
The 10-minute segment that aired featured Pepper and Dusty, a 40-something couple that was described as “the average couple next door.” It also featured Ariana Marie, a porn performer and cam model who has turned her Las Vegas home into a “cam house” and makes money just by puttering around her kitchen in her bra and flashing for tips.
Although I expected the piece to be longer, I was happy (and relieved) that the show’s producers dedicated the bulk of the story to the performers, allowing them to explain in their own words why they cammed and what they liked about it. They weren’t pathologized or stigmatized; they were, the narrator emphasized, just ordinary, every day people who happened to enjoy the exhibitionism, and the money, that camming provided.
As for me, I appeared for less than 10-seconds—if you blinked you would’ve missed me—and made exactly one point: people are willing pay for the high level of interactivity that camming provides. That was it. 90 minutes of taping whittled down to one sentence.
Media work is work, and my Nightline experience was a good reminder that it can also involve a great deal of emotional labor. Sure, I could’ve opted to not talk to the producer and decline the invitation for the on-camera interview, but I’m also aware that saying no to interview requests means that there’s always the possibility I might be ceding the floor to an anti-sex worker activist or an anti-porn “expert” who has no problem pushing an agenda that demonizes anyone and everything connected to the world of adult entertainment and sexualized labor.
So while there’s never a guarantee that the point I want to make will end up in the final edit of a story, it’s always, I think, worth trying. Because if sex-positive academics, educators, and activists aren’t talking to the media and attempting to intervene in the various conversations about sex that are happening in the public sphere—albeit often in the most reductive or tabloid of ways—we can be sure that other, less friendly campaigners are using those spaces to advance their messages.