American culture is caught in a Catch-22 regarding pornography, prostitution and online sex workers.
On one hand, science clearly shows the negative effects pornography has on the brain activity of everyone from pre-teens to married adults. Groups like the National Center on Exploitation claim pornography addiction has become a full-blown health crisis. Is it any coincidence that our cultural #metoo moment—when women are decrying the objectification and sexualization of their personhood—exists in concurrence with a billion-dollar porn industry, itself centered around the objectification and sexualization of the human body?
But alongside this dynamic is America’s checkered history of shaming any behavior that falls outside typical understanding of “normal” sexuality. Traditionally, those who work in the sex industry are seen as dirty, degenerate and perverted. There has been a growing pushback to the demonization of anyone’s sexual behavior, characterized by calls to decriminalize prostitution and arguments that female sex workers are reclaiming their sexual agency by way of their work. From this point of view, the sex industry can be an avenue for achieving feminist empowerment.
These bifurcated viewpoints haunt Cam, a new psychological thriller film on Netflix. Cam is bent on humanizing its protagonist, Alice, aligning her life as a sex-cam worker with that of an Uber driver. For Alice, being a camera girl is a self-sustained hustle to take pride in, even if it’s for a soulless corporation. Alice (or as she known to her chat room regulars, Lola) is in many ways meant to be a stand-in for every millennial drowning in debt and lost amid an overcrowded workforce.
Cam wants to destigmatize Alice’s life. It encourages us to understand her rather than judge her and accept her world as an outlet of female empowerment. The movie’s message would be more effective if it wasn’t also a scathing indictment of the online sex industry, a brutal takedown of a world that stripmines the humanity of all involved. Cam is a perfect encapsulation of our current cultural moment in that it can’t help but reveal the devastation of a world it wants to justify.
Cam’s plot centers around Alice being logged out of her webcam website only to discover a woman who looks exactly like her is continuing to broadcast live. As Alice watches, the fake “Lola” crosses boundaries Alice swore she wouldn’t, going so far as to reveal lurid information about the real Alice’s family. In this way, Cam becomes a modern-day paranoid “lost identity” thriller, verging close to something like horror.
The best “tech horror” stories reveal not just our subconscious fears but the real damage of our technological reality. Think of the best Black Mirror episodes like the first season’s “The Entire History of You” (a recording device leads to an obsession with reliving past events and a loss of the ability to exist in the present) or season three’s “Nosedive” (each area of our life is subject to a Yelp-review or rideshare rating). They’re inventive, but also reflective.
Tech horror uses an allegorical or exaggerated world to sledgehammer home the destructive power technology has over us in reality. So what do we make of Cam? Here, Alice gives more and more of herself to her audience, only to discover she has splintered her soul so badly a soulless representation of herself exists online, outside her control, robbing her of agency and dignity.
Critics have praised Cam for destigmatizing sex workers while capturing the relateable horror of a stolen online identity, and that’s largely accurate. Cam screenwriter Isa Mazzei—a former webcam worker herself—sees the film as empowering of not just webcam workers, but the “community” of viewers that frequent their chat rooms. However, if that’s what Mazzei intended, she failed.
Mazzei has said she wanted to show how genuine and close a cam worker and her online community of customers can be, and yet the customers we see in the movie are ineffectual, desperate and sad in some cases, predatory and violent in others. Alice’s chat regulars seem sweet at first, but as her doppleganger becomes more disturbing in her performances, we see the audience eating it up, wanting more. When some teenage friends of Alice’s brother find “fake Lola’s” webcam, believing it to be Alice herself, we’re supposed to be disturbed because Alice has lost her agency; her body is being used without her will. But how different would it be if these kids were gratifying themselves with Alice’s real webcam? Cam’s horror is meant to come from Alice’s agency and control being lost, but the truth is she never had that control in the first place. The “Lola” character Alice made was always an avatar outside her control, objectified by men looking for false intimacy, absorbed into their imaginations where her body becomes their plaything.
This’s not to say the movie’s humanization of Alice isn’t affecting and important. One doesn’t have to read the Gospels for very long before realizing one of Jesus’s missions was restoring the dignity of sexually-ostracizied women (re: the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with perfume). In this, Cam achieves its intent. Rather than seeing webcam workers as less than human, the film asks us to empathize and understand why a woman like Alice would commit herself to this career.
Pornography is harmful without question, and while I don’t think the creators of Cam would agree with that statement, the movie they made does. The dizzying acceleration of America’s porn use breeds sexual objectification, harassment and abuse. We applaud a brain-rewiring fantasyland where consent has no bearing on sexual mores, and then are shocked when that spills outside the internet. How can we not look damningly at a billion dollar industry that feeds us our worst selves?
The carbon copy of Alice depicted in Cam is what happens to anyone who loses themselves in pornography, prostitution and online sex work. Both the creators and consumers become a hollowed out version of a human, incapable of true human connection.
That’s the true horror.