Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry

Author: Angela Jones
Publisher: NYU Press, 2020. 320 pages.
Reviewer: David Schultz ǀ June 2022

This book lies at the intersection of feminist legal and psychology. It provides a serious and honest appraisal of the sex work industry as it manifests in camming, which is the live videocam performance of sex to a remote paid audience. The analysis here challenges contemporary regulatory ideas that sex work should be criminalized and that the law, at least in the way it is currently focused, should regulate this emerging industry.

Sex work of nearly all types have typically been banned or regulated as criminal offenses in the United States. One reason for that is moralistic: the idea that exchanging sex for money is simply wrong. Another reason is to prevent exploitation of women and regulate the secondary effects that follow from prostitution. However, this book takes up the challenge to these rationales.

First, and Jones is not the only author to assert this, women engaging in sex work is not necessarily exploitative and that it can be empowering for women to make the choices to engage in this type of employment. There is a divide within feminist legal theory between liberal and radical reformers over this issue, with the latter contending that any form of sex work remains exploitative, while the former declaring it as a means for self-control. Part of the line in the debate here is over the working conditions that women, who are often controlled by pimps and abused by customers, confront in the sex work industry. This is where camming enters.

Camming is pay for view or performance by women, trans, or men over the Internet using a videocam to deliver a sex service. Unlike an in-person sex performance which runs many risks, here performers can control who sees want, are distant from potential dangers, and they are able to work essentially for themselves. Camming is available on many, if not all, of the major global sex sites, such as Xvideos or Pornhub. It has taken the sex industry off the street and put it into the privacy of homes, rendering it less of a so-called public nuisance or apt to produce many of the ill effects of the traditional delivery of these services.

Yet, there is a challenge in camming–how to make the sex experience pleasurable and authentic. Here, Jones introduces the concept of “embodied authenticity.”   How does one create a sense of sexual intimacy and pleasure that is similar to an authentic sexual encounter, while also bounded by an economic exchange (6)?  Exploring this question is the main focus of the book.

Jones answers this research question by conducting in-depth interviews with numerous models who do camming for a living. The conversations and comments by them, in terms of how they describe their work as generally empowering, is fascinating. Challenging the idea that this sex work is exploitative, some models interviewed declare that “I get paid to have orgasms” or to pleasure myself. They describe themselves as being in control of what they do with their bodies, and also in control of pleasing their customers and satisfying them. The models get to determine what the customers feel.

The strength of this book is describing and highlighting the camming industry, as well as giving recognition to it as a billion dollar plus growing business. The models are twenty-first century entrepreneurs, according to Jones. The book also explores the intersectionality of models whose race, gender identities, and sexual preferences for the types of acts they perform vary, and how this intersectionality factors into how they are treated. Finally, based on these interviews, Jones fashions a sociological theory of pleasure that rethinks autonomy for models and how they interact with their clients.

The book concludes with lessons and observations for the criminal justice system and regulation. If camming is in fact a safer form of sex work, why regulate it? Instead, she argues, perhaps it is worth government support as an alternative to traditional prostitution, as it eludes the traditional forms of harm that have pervaded this industry. Overall, this is a fascinating book on many levels, particularly as it describes how new technologies are challenging traditional ways to think about how, if, and when the criminal law should regulate sex.

David Schultz is Hamline University Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Legal Studies, and Environmental Studies and a Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law.

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