Think about films that include sex workers and you’ll be hard pressed to come up with one where the character isn’t portrayed as either a victim, a damsel in distress, or simply the butt of an unfortunate joke. A rigid dichotomy of what sex work is has emerged, presenting it as either a life of luxury or one of seedy vice, with little in between.
What’s consistently missing is an honest slice-of-life depiction that’s truly representative of sex workers’ lived experiences. We’ve seen the extreme examples, but what about the stories that don’t end with marrying a millionaire or death by tuberculosis?
Enter Cam. The hit techno-thriller from Blumhouse Productions (Get Out/Paranormal Activity) was released on Netflix in November of last year, instantly garnering critical acclaim and putting the debut writer/director team, Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber on the map.
Based on Mazzei’s own experiences as a camgirl, Cam is a bold subversion of everything we’ve come to know about sex work through film. Main character Alice (Madeline Brewer) leads an all but “normal” suburban life working from the comfort of her own home as a camgirl. She’s on her way to breaking into the cam site’s “Top 50” until one day, a doppelganger hijacks her online persona, locking her out of her account and setting her on a fraught journey to regain control over her cam show and, by extension, her identity.
It’s clever, suspenseful and intoxicatingly alluring, but perhaps most importantly, unlike others of its ilk, Cam is not a cautionary tale and no one is rescued.
As the demand for first-hand narrative storytelling continues to grow, mainstream media is being introduced to far more nuanced depictions of sex work, like Cam, which demonstrate just exactly why representation matters. Subtly, tales like Mazzei’s and the success of Cam open the door for more authentic stories of sex work — all its troubles and joys, triumphs and tribulations, the actual work and the humor — to be told moving forward.
In between developing another project for Blumhouse and preparing for the upcoming release of her memoir Camgirl, Mazzei sat down with XBIZ to discuss her time as a camgirl, the process of developing her first feature film, and her thoughts on how to continue amplifying authentic sex worker representation in mainstream media.
Photo by Marina Fini.
XBIZ: Congrats on your CineKink honorable mention by the way. I don’t know if you saw that.
Isa Mazzei: I didn’t! Was that recent?
It happened back in April but yeah, it was an honorable mention for the CineKink Tribute which highlights extraordinary representation of kink specifically and sex-positivity in general in mainstream films and television.
Oh wow, I love that.
It’s cool but honestly your film, Cam, is really the only one that touches on sex work.
It’s tricky. There are some films that do aspects of sex work really well but the overwhelming majority unfortunately do a disservice to it. I think a lot of that comes from creating films with sex workers without actually talking to any. That’s really the primary issue we see — not only are they unrealistic depictions, but in a lot of cases they feed into an “all sex workers are victims” narrative or the idea that sex work is some glamorous, easy thing that you don’t actually have to put any work into. Both of those perpetuate a stigma that creates violence against sex workers.
You even consulted other sex workers for Cam, correct?
Yeah. I was a camgirl but I was definitely aware that I wasn’t one for a very long time. I also can’t speak for all camgirls because everyone’s experience is so varied. I felt really good about the script but even at that level we sent it to sex workers in different industries. Beyond wanting to authentically represent a camgirl, it was also about wanting to authentically represent the female body and the female experience of performative sexuality, which is something every sex worker has experience with. So we showed it to strippers, we had full service sex workers that we showed it to — even when we were doing screenings of different edits we had screenings specifically for sex workers to bring them out and see how they were feeling about it. That really gave us a lot of confidence moving forward. I always said from day one that even if no one likes this movie, if sex workers feel respected by it then we will have done our jobs.
What was some of the initial feedback that helped shape a future edit?
I remember in one of the early edits, one girl was really excited about Alice’s calendar where she’s writing down her show. She was like, “Oh my God I have one just like that!” It made me realize how important those small moments are and how much that rings true to the work of sex work that’s never really depicted. Another thing that really stood out for people was the cop scene.
Yeah. It’s such a poignant moment. We went back and forth a lot on how to nail the authenticity of that scene without making it come off as too aggressive. It’s really quite overt harassment but it reads as subtle because he does it under his breath when his partner is gone. There’s no witnesses — it’s just her voice against his. It’s really common to look at sex workers who are victims of crime and say, “why didn’t they go to the cops?” In Alice’s case, she asks for help and they don’t help her. In fact, they mock and sexually harass her. I think that’s unfortunately a really authentic experience for sex workers. A lot of [sex workers] called that scene out as like, “Yes, thank you for finally shining a light on something that’s a really common problem.” That was nice, especially because all of the cop lines were actual things that have been said to either me or people that I know. One is from a news article I read about some gamer girl who was being “swatted” [harassment tactic in which emergency service are deceiving into sending a response team to another person’s address] by a fan who wanted more from her. When she went to the police for help their response was along the lines of, “Well if you don’t want this to happen then don’t go on the internet.”
There’s this false assumption that if you’re putting yourself out there in any capacity then you’re down for anything.
Right. That “asking for it” idea that tends to be put on women in general is so messed up. Anytime women are victims of crime it’s always like, “oh she was asking for it.” Whether it’s because of what she’s wearing or how intoxicated she was, where she was — blaming women is such a problem.
Photo by Marina Fini.
With sex work and within the adult industry, consent has to be an explicit thing. In a bit of a different way, that’s something that came up for you working with Madeline Brewer to establish when she was comfortable being nude in the film.
Sex workers are often at the forefront of changing the cultural paradigm about how we talk about consent, boundaries, kink — all of that. There’re so many incredible women I know doing work to educate the masses that it’s sexy to ask for consent. When we shot the film it was actually before #MeToo and before any of that started happening—
Yeah, it was a totally different world. Pre-MeToo, there were always these stories of young actresses who would sign nudity riders and then be bullied into getting more naked than they wanted to be. With Madeline (Brewer), we had to have her sign a nudity rider for legal reasons but we told her, “you decide when you’re naked and when you’re clothed.” What I loved and found so incredibly transformative about camming was setting my own boundaries: I decided how I was going to show and use my body and was in full control over who was seeing me and when. I wanted Madeline to feel that same sense of empowerment and control of boundaries that I felt. It actually became a really cool experience because she brought so much to the character of Alice that she was really able to tell us when [the character] would be more or less naked based on when she was performing her sexuality and when she wasn’t. It ended up playing both ways: in some scenes she wanted to be more naked than we wrote and in some she wanted to be less naked but regardless, it ended up feeling really authentic because it was coming from her — it was coming from the character saying “this is when I’m going to show my body.”
Gratuitous nudity is such a pet peeve.
And you can always tell that it’s just there to cater to the male gaze! It feels weird. Even in the past when I wasn’t quite able to put it in words it’s always this weird feeling that you get like, that not how the world works.
That’s such a fantastic model that other creatives and productions could perhaps begin to emulate. As a writer or director you give up a bit of control but it yields an arguably better outcome on several levels.
An actor is still a person — you want them to be able to establish their boundaries but the most important thing I learned on Cam was to trust people to do their jobs. Your actors know how to act. If you allow them the space to engage in dialogue and to feel safe to express their concerns, they’re going to give you the best performance and the best character that they can. It’s just about stepping out of the way.
I imagine it was also extremely important to have a crew behind you who supported the vision.
Totally. All of the crew were people who were super excited about [the project] and who were into the politics. We established that from the beginning and because everyone was so aligned to that vision, it became this amazing collaboration. If people weren’t on board with the politics then we just wouldn’t hear back from them. We met with everyone beforehand, Madeline too. I knew she was excited that it was a cool acting challenge but I wanted to make sure she was on board with playing a sex worker and with whatever that meant for her brand and her career moving forward. When we sat down she told me, “Isa, I would be honored to play a sex worker.” This is a movie where a sex worker goes back to sex work at the end and so many of the responses we had been getting in Hollywood were that no one would ever want to play the sex worker and that no one would ever buy our movie. We were told, “This is not a story people are going to want to participate in.” And to hear this actress who’s an incredible talent — who’s on Orange is the New Black and Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale — tell me that she’d be honored to play a sex worker — I teared up. It was really freaking moving.
Photo by Caitlin Fullam.
I actually hadn’t thought about Cam in context of being pre-MeToo. Do you feel like it would be a different experience trying to get this movie made and selling it now versus when you did three and a half years ago?
I don’t know. What’s been interesting — and some of this is because I now have a successful movie — is that it’s much easier to be taken seriously. I find that now people know that they want to make more authentic films that are more respectful in their representation of sex work and sex but I think that they’re still not quite sure how. I’m stoked when people bring me their sex worker/ sex work adjacent ideas and say, “We want you to do for this what you did for Cam. We want this to be authentic, respectful and politically correct.” But then once we dig into what that actually means for the story, that’s when they’re all of a sudden no longer interested. And that’s really hard. I remember all the meetings we had about the ending when we were trying to sell Cam where people would say, “She can’t go back to sex work, then she doesn’t learn her lesson!” And it’s like, she has learned a lesson. But the lesson is not that sex work is bad, the lesson is about her identity, which is actually pretty universal, whether or not you’re a camgirl. She goes back [to camming] because it’s her art, her career — it’s her thing. And it’s just as valid as any other career or art form. I’m just hoping that we continue moving away from the tropes that feel so familiar. It’s risky to tell a story that’s different from what we’re used to and Hollywood is pretty risk-averse, but that’s what people want now. We’re moving slowly but I think we’re moving. We’ll see.
It’s difficult for some people to imagine actually wanting to do sex work as a career. People want to focus on this sort of archaic, “Oh, you’re selling your body,” when in fact, there’s a lot more to it.
There is and even if there isn’t, it’s still totally valid. That’s why this “sex work exclusionary feminism” is such a problem. Ultimately, feminism is about giving women the choice of how to live. And if I am a woman and I’m choosing to “sell my body” — whatever that looks like, for however long, in whatever capacity — whether I’m addicted to drugs, whether I’m doing it for survival, whether I’m doing it to later springboard into some entrepreneurial thing — whatever reason I have, it is my right to do that. It’s my body, my choice. It’s so basic and yet so surprising to me how many so-called “feminists” don’t seem to understand that.
A huge part of it is that the representation of sex work that we’re fed in the media is that women who are sex workers are almost exclusively people who are being taken advantage of, are victims, or who have no other choice. When I think about the main reason why I did Cam it’s because when I was a camgirl, I lived in a very progressive, liberal town that was “enlightened” and I was very open about being a sex worker. I told most people what I was doing and I was privileged enough not to be shamed for it. In fact, the most common reaction I would get was, “Oh, but you’re so normal.” “Oh. But you went to college. Do you need a job that bad — I can loan you money.” That’s a really dangerous mindset because it’s predicated on the assumption that sex work is less than, that it’s not a legitimate choice. I felt like I needed to tell the story of a camgirl who is so girl-next-door because of that disconnect. She’s not super glamorous but she’s making a really good living for herself with this career that she loves. The more that people recognize sex work as a legitimate profession, the more people will respect sex workers — not only one who are still in sex work but also ones who choose to move into other fields.
It reminds me of Jacq the Stripper’s artwork: phrases people say to sex workers like, “does your family approve of this,” but it’s a stripper talking to a guy selling hot dogs.
“Do you feel empowered?”
When you flip the script you could say those things about so many other jobs.
It’s funny because I was a busboy in a restaurant making no money and working nine-hour shifts. I hated it. And no one ever once looked at me and said, “Are you empowered?” They were just like, “Oh yeah, that’s a job you’re doing, that makes sense.” But the second I’m camming I get, “Are you okay? Is someone taking advantage of you?” No, I’m choosing to do this.
Can I ask a bit about how you got into camming?
I kind of circuitously found my way into it. I was working as a web developer and was really unhappy, trying to figure out what to do with my life — typical millennial malaise. I had worked retail in high school and in college and decided to go back to that because I missed interacting with people. As a web developer I just sat in my house and wrote code all night. So I got a retail job but then wasn’t making any money and felt stuck. I thought, “Should I go to grad school, should I force myself to get another web job — what to do?” I had always wanted to try sex work so I ended up deciding to get a sugar daddy. I thought about [becoming a stripper] but I didn’t know how to dance. But I had the sugar daddy and was asking him what he thought I should do and he said, “You should be a camgirl.” I’d never heard of camgirls and had no idea what they were so I looked it up and I started watching obsessively and I got hooked! I was so impressed by how enigmatic some of them were. I would spend hours watching this one girl and just was totally sucked into her life and her story and the drama. I was really excited about the creative freedom that it afforded. There were so many girls doing so many things — I realized this was a place where I could express myself and be naked for money, which was something I had always kind of wanted to try.
That’s kind of beautiful.
So I tried it and I loved it. I met some incredible friends, some people that I still talk to. It was a really cool community to be in.
In terms of the mainstream, it’s so rare that you hear positive stories like this.
It definitely wasn’t all good and I think that’s important to mention. It was by far the hardest job I’ve ever had to date. I was pretty successful at it but I also worked constantly. I was camming most nights and if I wasn’t camming I was checking my email; I sold my Snapchat so I had to make enough content to keep my subscribers happy; I had to do my custom content and my privates; I had to do photo shoots and video shoots and buy costumes and plan games and manage all the individual relationships — it was just constant. You’re also grappling with this online persona that you’ve created and that you’re existing in. It was an extremely rewarding job but it definitely took every aspect of everything I knew in terms of marketing and building a brand. Everything was calculated down to what color I’m going to paint my nails. And I think that’s how a lot of sex workers run their businesses, I’m not abnormal in that sense.
It’s baffling that people sometimes look down on camming and/or sex work because sex workers have a lot of marketable skills. The amount of work that goes on behind the scenes — people have no idea.
Talk about analytics — camgirls but I think sex workers in general can break down analytics like nobody’s business. They’re incredibly transferrable skills but they’re skills we’re not allowed to talk about. I’m not allowed to tell you that I know how to break down web traffic from my cam site. I was out in my community but it took me a while to be okay with having my name out there tied to camming because I was very aware that once that connection is made — once you googled me and saw camgirl — that that would have some consequences unfortunately. It was a very calculated decision about when and how that would happen.
And what made you want to leave?
I got what I needed from it. It wasn’t the end-all career for me and there came a point where I was already working on Cam and things pivoted to that. I got what it was there to give me and I’m so grateful for that. Camming is probably the most important thing I’ve done in my life to date.
I love that.
I grew up with a lot of shame around my body and around my sexuality and camming honestly transformed how I felt about myself.
It’s very subversive in its own way.
There was never a space for me to draw such clear boundaries as when I was a camgirl. For me when I was camming I was like, “If you want to look at me, this is what you have to pay me.” That was such a firm boundary that I was able to draw and as a woman growing up, we’re not always given the opportunity to set those boundaries over our bodies. And to have other people defend those boundaries — if someone pushes it’s not just me who’s going to kick them out, it’s going to be my whole room — that can be really transformative.
Photo by Caitlin Fullam.
That’s something that everyone could stand to learn: respect my rules and respect my boundaries otherwise you don’t get xyz. Especially when we talk about consent in the digital age. You had a bad experience where some of your videos were pirated?
That’s actually where [the character] Lola comes from. My mom always warned me, “If you put pictures on the Internet they’re there forever.”
Everyone’s mom always and she’s right! What you put on the internet is there forever and I was aware going into camming that there would be naked pictures of me on the internet forever. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was to have my shows screencaptured and then to have my watermark cut off, my name stripped away, and to have videos of me on Pornhub that weren’t tied to me in any way. It was a really surreal experience to feel alienated from my own image and it felt so incredibly violating. That’s where Lola came from is that feeling of looking at yourself but it’s no longer you. To thousands of people watching, that person was not me, it was “frizzy haired pale girl.” That has continued to happen and will continue to happen — people will continue to pirate porn. So when people ask me what’s the most important thing we can do to support sex workers it’s like, pay for your porn. There’s such a stigma that somehow if you’re paying for your porn it’s more shameful then if you’re just consuming it for free. But you know, if you’re not paying for your porn, you are harming the sex worker that made it. They are not being compensated for it.
Aside from paying for their porn, any last thoughts about how people can do better by sex workers?
I think the main thing is to listen to them. Across the board, listen to sex workers. When you’re passing legislation, listen to sex workers. Especially if you’re trying to pass legislation to help sex workers, talk to sex workers. If you’re looking to make a film about sex workers, talk to sex workers. It’s a matter of dialogue and empathy and respecting sex workers and letting them tell you what they need. I think that’s super important.
Follow Isa Mazzei on Twitter @isaiswrong.
Cover photo by Drew Levin.