Art & Culture

‘Camgirl’ author Isa Mazzei explains why you need to start paying for porn

The award-winning screenwriter discusses her new memoir and what we should all be doing to make sure that sex workers are treated more fairly in the workplace.

Isa Mazzei broke into the public consciousness last year with CAM, a critically acclaimed horror film about a camgirl whose online identity and livelihood are stolen. Promptly snapped up by Netflix, the movie provided one of the first (and thus far best) media representations of webcam models. Isa channelled her own experience of camming into the award-winning script, also making CAM one of the few films about sex workers to be created by someone from the community it represents. Whilst she’ll soon be making her return to the film world with two upcoming projects, she’s taken a dive into the publishing world with her new memoir Camgirl, launched last month.

Although Isa’s biggest projects so far have drawn on her time as a camgirl, it was a career she originally fell into by chance, before she went on to rise to the top of cam site leaderboards. “Initially, I had a sugar daddy and was speaking to him about how I’d always wanted to try stripping,” she recalls. “I’d never heard of camming before but he said ‘if you’re interested in stripping you might want to check out being a cam girl.’” After forging a career in the camming world and pouring sustained time and effort into maintaining her success in the field, she found that media depictions of sex work did a poor job of reflecting her and her peers’ everyday realities. “All of the media I saw about sex work portrayed it as a very victimising profession or as something very easy and exotic,” she says.

Part of what motivated CAM, then, was the desire to show the labour that goes into sex work. It makes sense that alongside the supernatural elements of the film, considerable screen time is devoted to protagonist Alice (Madeleine Brewer) prepping, planning and meticulously executing her work. “Sex work is work: there’s a lot of labour involved,” Isa explains. “I felt it was really important to portray that part of sex work because it hadn’t really been done before in mainstream media.”

Whilst CAM was a rewarding experience, she realised that there was still a lot more of her story to tell, which is what motivated her to write her memoir, Camgirl. “Writing CAM and having it come out was a really amazing experience but ultimately CAM isn’t my story. It’s a supernatural horror movie and it’s about Alice and her journey through camming,” she says. “Although there are a lot of aspects of my life in that movie — if people watch that movie and read my book they’ll see where the two intersect — it was important for me to tell my own story and personal experience too.”

CAM and Camgirl’s importance for the depiction of sex workers in the media shouldn’t be understated — particularly as the former’s success showed that stories about sex workers don’t have to be exploitative or sensationalistic in order to make a splash. For Isa, the key to a more accurate and fairer representation of the community is to have more sex workers involved in the creative process. “I think it’s important to talk to sex workers and involve sex workers in stories about sex workers; that’s how you make the representation of this group more ethical and respectful,” she says. “Often sex workers are the butt of a joke or a victim in the media. They’re used as props in a lot of stories and that dehumanises them and negates their agency in their own lives.”

Problematic depictions of sex workers might seem like a natural outcome of the wider discrimination they face in society, but they can also contribute to this prejudice. “How sex workers are represented affects how people in the outside world treat sex workers when they encounter them,” Isa says. “This can directly feed into systems of prejudice, stigma and violence that cause a lot of harm to people in sex work. I think it’s really important to portray sex work as a legitimate profession and to depict sex workers as human beings in the media.”

Whilst Isa has always been a writer, the process of penning her memoir was testing at times. As she puts it; “Writing the book was difficult in that it was extremely vulnerable and personal. That is always, for me at least, a much harder place to write from than fiction.” However, by persevering with recounting her story, she can hopefully contribute to lessening the stigma around sex work and help others come out about their own experience. “If me being open about my career can help destigmatise the work or pave the way for anyone else to be open then I’m completely honoured to do that. I’m in an incredibly privileged position where I can be open about my time in sex work and still be accepted by my community, my family and my profession: that’s pretty rare.”

Looking at what consumers can do to lessen the burden for cam girls and porn performers, Isa has one clear message: pay for your porn. “All porn is fully copyrighted but people don’t respect that copyright and pirate that content. However it’s not just about sites hosting pirated content but also people consuming that content,” she says. “If you’re not paying for your porn you are harming sex workers: you’re consuming stolen content and stealing someone’s labour. If you care about being an ethical porn consumer you need to pay for your porn as well as pay and tip cam girls.”

Considering what can be done to protect sex workers more broadly, she’s an outspoken advocate of decriminalisation — one of the only proven ways to make sex workers’ lives and livelihoods more stable and secure. “Across the board decriminalisation is the best step forward for sex workers. It’s been shown to be the best way to keep sex workers save so I’m a huge advocate for it,” she says. However, there’s a stumbling block in the shape of paternalistic lawmakers; which is something we should all be pushing against. “Legislators should really talk to sex worker communities. Often laws get passed in an effort to protect sex workers but the people passing those laws aren’t talking to the sex workers or advocacy groups they’re trying to serve,” she explains. “This is a real issue that stems from a saviour mentality that’s a large part of what creates problems for sex workers.”

Camgirl is out now and available online and in all good bookshops.

18 December 2019