There’s been a lot of buzz about Netflix's new horror movie CAM, for good reason. CAM features actor Madeline Brewer as the protagonist Alice, a rising star in the world of camgirls (aka, virtual sex workers), who slowly has her identity stolen online. Aside from the creepiness that ensues, one of the best parts of the movie is how it portrays Alice, and her job as a virtual sex worker. It’s not only refreshing to see a realistic and thoughtful portrayal of a sex worker in CAM, as a sex worker myself, but it’s extremely necessary right now.
Sex work is often depicted in extremes: Sex workers are shown as either completely financially and emotionally unstable, or as living a glamorous, extravagant lifestyle. While there is no one universal experience, a lot of sex workers (including myself) fall somewhere in the middle — just like workers in any other industry. In CAM, Alice’s work as a camgirl is simply portrayed as, well, work. She signs into her profile as would anyone logging into a shift, conducts her cam show, and chats with some of her top-paying patrons. After work, Alice does regular, every day activities like spending time with her family, getting her hair done, and shopping for furniture online.
But what makes sex work an outlier from other kinds of work is the stigma that’s attached to it, and the violence that occurs because of said stigma. Even though the sex work community is affected by violence at alarming rates, sex workers are rarely believed or taken seriously when they come forward about a crime.
Alice’s interaction with two police officers in CAM isone scene that captures an experience that many sex workers have in real life. While trying to report that her identity has been stolen, Alice is dismissed and dehumanized. The first officer, rather than express concern for Alice’s wellbeing, begins to ask intrusive questions about her job, like, “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to do?” When his questions cross the line into the territory of sexual harassment and Alice objects, he replies, “It’s a compliment.” The second officer, on the other hand, is visibly disgusted with Alice and shames her by saying, “If you don’t want to see stuff like this, stay off the internet” — before walking out the door without filing her report.
When I’ve disclosed that I’m a virtual sex worker, many people have asked me intrusive questions about my job and even my sexuality — without taking into account if it's information I want to share. I’ve also had friends and family members belittle me, degrade me, or completely cut ties with me. Whether they're intrigued by sex work or uncomfortable with it, non-sex workers often objectify those who engage in sex work.
Another reason CAM is so important is because it dispels the myth that all sex workers are coerced or forced into sex work. Society continues to conflate consensual sex work with trafficking, which sex work organizations and experts say is dangerous for sex workers. According to the Sex Worker's Outreach Project Behind Bars (SWOP Behind Bars), "Many anti-trafficking initiatives regard all sex workers as victims, relocating or detaining them in so-called safe houses against their will." As author and Development Producer for Fusion’s show "Sex.Right.Now." Lux Alptraum wrote in an article for NBC News, "Anti-sex work laws often hamper support groups working to provide safety resources (like safer sex supplies, housing, and information on harm reduction) to vulnerable sex workers by equating any assistance with pimping, pandering, or promoting trafficking."
Recent laws and policy changes have also endangered sex workers, as many sex workers and advocates have noted. The passage of the anti-trafficking law FOSTA/SESTA in March 2018, along with the April 2018 shutdown of Backpage, an advertising site many full service sex workers used to safely find and screen potential clients, put many members of the sex work community at risk — especially those who engage in full service work. Many sex workers have spoken out about how FOSTA/SESTA has forced them deeper underground, left them out of work, or even exposed them to more violence.
"Because of [FOSTA/SESTA] I’ve now been forced back to the one place I barely made it out of alive the first time [...] It’s forcing me to go back the streets, walking up and down trying to find clients," Melissa, a 32-year-old escort from Phoenix, told the Huffington Post. "Now I not only have to deal with the police, but now I’m forced to deal with tricks that know this bill is in effect, and trust me, they are taking full advantage of it by being more aggressive."
What’s more, social media sites that played a vital role in sex workers’ revenue streams and marketing have cracked down on sexual content in recent months. On Oct. 15, PCMag reported Facebook quietly updated its user content guidelines to add a stricter policy against “sexual solicitation,” or exchanging sexual services for a fee, as well as all sexual language and content. On Dec. 3, Tumblr followed suit and announced that it would ban all pornographic and sexually explicit content beginning on Dec. 17 (which happens to be the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers).
Laura Dilley, the executive director of the Vancouver-based sex worker organization PACE Society, told The Daily Beast in an interview that social media bans are limiting the places sex workers can connect with each other and share important information. “Sex workers share important info on Tumblr, like providing folks with education, and resources, and really just much-needed community, which is hard to find when you’re in a stigmatized profession like sex work," she said.
Since social media spaces for sex workers are being strictly censored, having films like CAM that normalize sex work is needed. Unfortunately, film and television have often reinforced stereotypes of sex workers: A punchline to a joke, a victim of violence, a prop in the background of a scene for the male gaze, sex workers are portrayed as one-dimensional characters, if at all. However, CAM manages to create a character with Alice that completely avoids all these stereotypes.
Much, if not all, of the credit for CAM's thoughtful portrayal of sex workers has to be given to screenwriter Isa Mazzei, who wrote the script for CAM based on her own experiences as a webcam model. CAM portrays the lives of virtual sex workers, the work itself, and the stigma faced on a daily basis without relying on the tropes about sex workers who have often dominated the entertainment industry. Mazzei and the producers of CAM ensure that viewers see Alice as person first, who has a right to self-autonomy and boundaries, and who also happens to be a sex worker.
It shouldn’t have to feel like a groundbreaking moment that a movie produced by two large production companies made an effort to humanize sex workers and our experiences — but it is. Normalizing sex work on-screen — without glamorizing or degrading it — helps subvert some of these stereotypes that surround sex workers. Because, in the end, sex work truly is just work, and those of us who have engaged in it are just trying to do what everyone else is: pay the bills.