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From 'Cam Girlz' to 'True Detective': The Empowering World of Webcam Sex

By Mikala Jamison | Think Pieces | July 31, 2015 |

By Mikala Jamison | Think Pieces | July 31, 2015 |

One of the more interesting points I’ve heard about the myriad problems with this season of True Detective comes from an episode of Grantland staffers Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s “Hollywood Prospectus” podcast. They suggest it’s not that the show boasts too many main characters, like some critics say, but rather “there are too many tertiary characters … every episode has these scenes where people are in rooms with three or four new, basically interchangeable people…”

We don’t have the energy to care about these non-Core Four characters, as long as there remain so many loose ends regarding our main players, right? That may be true in many cases, but one supporting character whose narrative arc has meaningfully advanced the story lately is Ani’s sister, Athena.

We should care about Athena Bezzerides because she might be the most empowered woman in the history of True Detective.

During Sunday’s episode, Ani used Athena’s sex worker connections, via Athena’s webcam job, to gain intel on and access to what shall now be known as the Overhyped Orgy. (Some folks online point out the selfishness of Ani criticizing Athena’s job until Ani needed its benefits for her own. Fair point, that.)

In the first episode of the season, when Ani runs a bust on a house she hears is a prostitution hub (it turns out to be a legit, licensed business) she finds Athena among the women there who are webcam sex workers — Athena is a “cam girl.”

“It’s not porn. Not everybody has a problem with sex. I’m a performer,” she tells Ani, pointedly explaining that her job is essentially to masturbate (while wearing wacky wigs).

And though she spits at her sister the most senseless simile of the season (“When you walk, it’s like erasers clapping”), Athena says she’s totally clean from drugs and alcohol. Later, the sisters’ father says Athena is doing well, is “clear-eyed, has a job,” and Athena further defends her work to Ani in a later episode, explaining first that she’s “not a whore,” and that she’s saving her camming money to go to art school.

As Madeleine Davies put it here, Athena “actually seems to be doing okay for herself. (She wants to go to CalArts! She has a nose ring! And a job that doesn’t lead to the mass murder of dozens of citizens! Chill the fuck out and look inward, Ani. Your sister is fine.)”

Given all of True Detective’s issues with its portrayal of female characters, it struck me as interesting — and really significant, actually — that it would introduce a sex worker in (what can be considered for this show) a positive light. If Ani’s attitude represents much of society’s view that women who use their bodies or sexuality to make money should be condemned, Athena represents the pushback.

So do the 37 women featured in the documentary Cam Girlz, which debuted in February. Directed by Sean Dunne (American Juggalo, Oxyana), the doc raised nearly $70,000 on Kickstarter and can be purchased and streamed online.

Cast in gauzy, dreamy lighting and set to playful, almost trippy music, the women share what their day-to-day is like, how their shows are unique and how camming has changed their professional and personal lives: They can be at home with family more now. They can pay their bills. Camming has given them body confidence. Anyone can cam — the girls in the film are of diverse racial backgrounds, ages, body types and aesthetics (pierced and tattooed; the-girl-next-door type; one girl cams as a mime, another as a gothic, Lydia Deetz type).

They talk money: One girl makes $60,000 a year and only works 10-15 hours a week, and her shows are “mostly non-nude.” The top girls, she says, make $75,000 a month.

The camming industry is indeed explosive: Former porn stars say they make more in 90 days of camming than most porn stars make in an entire year. One woman, Maitresse Madeline Marlowe, made $42,000 from one single webcam session. Even two years ago, the New York Times was writing about how the top camming sites get some 30 million visitors a month.

Cam Girlz does due diligence by offering the women a chance to talk about the downsides and challenges of camming, too:

“It can get you down.”

“If you didn’t make enough money [during a cam session], because you were selling yourself, that inherently suggests that there’s something wrong with you.”

“There’s tons of behind-the-scenes work, [I’m] working almost 24/7.”

“You can’t take a paid vacation unless you’ve worked hard for it.”

But one thing many of the women posit is how camming gets to the true nature of who you are:

“Being a cam girl, you have to give a little bit of yourself.”

“[You have to be] honest about who you are, and it’s nice to share that with someone.”

“The best thing to do is just be yourself.”

“You have to somewhat know yourself.”

“The essential nature of being a cam girl is it reflects who you are.”

“People will tip you to do things they want you to do, but they will fall in love with you to do what you want to do.”

The most profound truth in camming, one performer says: “No one else controls me.”

“What I’m giving up is society’s blessing on my life,” says another. “What I’m getting is the absolute freedom I have now.”

Compare that to the women in Rashida Jones’ April-released Netflix documentary, Hot Girls Wanted, which zeroes in on the amateur porn business. Those girls, many barely legal, work for someone else — a company, a producer, an individual — and have far less, if any, control over their time, their money or the scenes they do. In the doc, they cry about the work; they call it “awful”; a couple leave the industry before the film’s end — one for the camming industry instead.

In Cam Girlz, we hear too from the men who use webcam sites, and they revere these performers.

“These girls help me,” one says — he says the girls are a “coping mechanism,” empowering him, giving him self confidence. “I see them as therapists.”

I got in touch with webcam performer Dahlia Dee [(who wasn’t in the film), who works on the sites Skyprivate, Streamate and CamModelDirectory about her take on some of the points made in Cam Girlz.

Dee says she cams “all day, every day. Camming is my life and I very rarely take a break.” She says she makes enough money to support herself, pay her bills and live very comfortably.

Of the movie, she says:

“I think the documentary offers insight into a lot of girl’s lives but doesn’t necessarily represent all of us. Very well made though. Every single girl has a different experience. The documentary was pretty short and obviously couldn’t cover everyone’s experiences in the cam world. It barely nicked the surface really.”

She has dealt with freeloaders who demand free services in her shows, as well as harassers (“I think every successful camgirl has at some point in their career,”) but when I asked about the biggest misconceptions people might have of cam girls, and what’s surprising about the job, she says:

“We’re just regular people working a regular job. It’s incredibly fulfilling and empowering. Even if i were making the same or more [money] elsewhere, I’d still be camming on the side for sure. Camming has taught me so much that I didn’t know about myself and has helped me push myself physically, emotionally and sexually in so many ways… I’m much more confident and happy with myself than I was before I began camming.”

So, while True Detective still has two episodes to go, so far it’s been good to Athena — she’s clean, she’s independent, she has goals, she has sexual agency, she works a legitimate job, she makes her ungrateful sister pretty sweet art. Ani’s biggest get, recovering her missing person (and Paul’s biggest get, retrieving the land deal contracts) wouldn’t have been possible without Athena’s intel.

Remember, other female characters from the series have been a put-upon wife who used sex to get back at her husband; a mistress who destroyed a marriage; a prostitute who needed “saving” and then also helped destroy a marriage; a cop with a drinking problem who has been given the same-old-song backstory of having been the victim of what seems to be a sexual assault, et al.

Athena could have been just another Woman with Lots of Issues. Instead, she seems to be running shit in her own life pretty spectacularly.

And maybe she’s also the crow-head killer and moonlights in a brunette wig as the moody singer in the bar. At this point, anything’s fair game.

Mikala Jamison is the arts editor at Philadelphia City Paper. You can find her on Twitter, or read more of her work here.