We assemble at an upscale Italian restaurant on College Street in Toronto. A German businessman introduces everyone as they arrive. Handshakes quickly give way to hugs. This is a friendly group. Most have never met, but it’s clear everyone’s going to get along. We’re a burly Buffalo bar owner and his wife, a gregarious pair from a Canadian border town, a garrulous foursome of best friends who drove in from Michigan, an upscale Toronto twosome, the German, and me. The couples are all in their mid-forties and up.
We order cocktails and chat amiably about the Buffalo Sabres, the drive from Michigan, plans for the rest of the weekend. We could be any group meeting for a drink on a Saturday night, except for the sense of unspoken anticipation permeating the jocular asides (“Watch out for that one — she’s a tiger!”). The men talk about their photo equipment. The women talk about their kids. Drinks are served, and someone pulls out a breast. A camera flashes. The night begins.
This dinner has been organized on my behalf by Igor Shoemaker, the German proprietor of the websites Voyeurweb and RedClouds. Shoemaker lives in Amsterdam and operates his business with servers in Toronto, Vancouver, Amsterdam, and Prague. His guests tonight share a fairly unique pastime, which becomes the subject of conservation as we settle down at a long table in a semi-private dining room upstairs.
A slight woman in her fifties with frizzy hair and freckles, one of the Michigan four, is forthcoming on everything from how she got started — “I just took off my clothes and told him to take pictures” — to what it’s like being an amateur porn starlet. “Sometimes guys recognize me on the street. I can feel them staring at me. They might not say anything. Or they might just smile. I know they know.” To my right, a trim, bespectacled, casually dressed man in his late forties looks on as his wife, a toned and tanned woman with long, curly, burnished copper hair, flirts with Shoemaker. “I’ve wanted to meet you for so long,” she purrs. “You’re our hero. You make it all possible.”
Shoemaker has indeed made it possible for adult women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, from across the world, to post erotic images of themselves for viewing by thousands, if not millions, of people online. The excitement, the women at the party insist, comes from finding out that so many men and women want to look at them, still find them attractive as they approach and pass middle age. Their husbands nod dutifully. With no exceptions, their role is to take the pictures. They talk about photography courses and camera angles. It’s a hobby, they insist. It’s not all we do, their wives announce, listing other pastimes ranging from volunteering to knitting. You see, we’re not perverts, they seem to be saying. We’re regular people.
And so they are. The impression conveyed at the dinner is of a peculiar kind of primness. These are people who live their lives on utterly conventional terms. All are married. All have jobs and children. And yet here they are. They don’t do it to make a living; although Shoemaker offers cash prizes for popular photos, the financial rewards are relatively meagre. They do it because they feel the urge — or rather urges. In the Internet age, the production of amateur pornography has become a remarkably easy way to court recognition and validation, to stave off isolation, and even to create new kinds of communities.
Fulfilling these urges comes at a cost, however. Dig deeper, and it becomes apparent that many of the Canadian women putting themselves online — in formats ranging from specialty sites such as Voyeurweb to sex blogs to YouTube — are risking not only exposure in their day-to-day lives, but deeper forms of isolation from a surrounding culture that outwardly values propriety even as it voraciously consumes pornography online. Still, they persist in posting.
A light flashes, and I realize that the guy to my left is under the table taking pictures with his digital camera. He resurfaces, triumphant, and shows me his conquest on the viewscreen. “Did she take her underwear off,” I wonder aloud, “or did she not have any on in the first place?” The prim, blonde country club lady blushes. Everybody chortles, fourteen-year-olds sharing a dirty joke in the junior high cafeteria.
It seems harmless, this odd, burgeoning pastime. After all, sex is everywhere in our society, and in Canada alone, consumers spend roughly a billion dollars a year on pornography, which works out to thirty bucks a citizen. In 2006, Canada ranked eighth in the world in search requests featuring the word “porn.” Increasingly, though, it’s not exactly “porn” that people are looking for. The Internet allows for far greater specification of one’s turn-ons than print, which is why venerable old Playboy is shedding readers and jobs. And so the most popular search requests of 2006 included not just “porn” and “xxx,” but “cyber sex,” “anal sex,” and “teen sex.”
“Amateur sex” wasn’t among the top searches at the time, but there’s a very good chance it would make the list today. “Two or three years ago, the explosion really started to happen,” Shoemaker tells me. “Before digital cameras, you wouldn’t take pictures of your wife to be developed. Now you just click and put up the picture. After that change, everybody had naked pictures of their wife. And then, of course, if you have that glut of naked pictures around, 1 or 2 percent of people say, ‘I want to trade the pictures; I want to show them.’”
Shoemaker should know: his business, started after he was laid off from his job as a computer programmer, has made him wealthy. His sites are so popular he’s constantly adding servers to handle the traffic. Indeed, the sheer number of visitors — over 4 million a day to the free Voyeurweb — is his biggest challenge. Skinny, nebbishy, and apt to breaking out in a bewildered grin when he talks about his success, Shoemaker tells me that when the site breaks down, his audience freaks out, subscribers demand their money back, and business suffers. Because of this, he has located parallel servers on at least two continents, placing them in stable yet relatively permissive countries, such as Canada, that have advanced network infrastructure and favourable laws. “In Iran, they’ve put $50,000 on my head,” he says happily. “I showed the wrong girl, a mullah’s daughter; some nice photos at the beach. She is twenty-five years old, and she is really ugly and she’s showing her breasts, and then it’s me, I’m the bad guy.”
Though Shoemaker has managed to skirt serious consequences for his activities, his users, who generate a remarkable amount of free content for him, are often less fortunate. Consider the story of “Felicity,” a petite, vivacious mother from a working-class Canadian border city. Before meeting her second husband, Felicity thought of porn as something for losers and perverts. Her husband, she says, introduced her to Voyeurweb, “and I realized that billions of people look at porn.” Soon he suggested taking nude photos of her, too. “We found a little deserted beach on vacation and took some pictures,” she says, assuring me the images were tasteful. “They were pretty good, so we decided to put them on Voyeurweb.” The couple called the woman in them Felicity.
The reaction from the millions of global surfers who drop by Voyeurweb each day excited her: “We won newcomer of the month and 300 bucks. We thought, ‘Wow, this is really fun.’ It soon became a habit — I should say a hobby. It was a hobby. It was just a great, fun hobby, taking pictures, sorting through them, and putting them on Voyeurweb. Every time we put a contribution in, we were voted number one. We were stunned, because there are millions of contributions.” (She’s exaggerating the scale of the competition, but Shoemaker’s contests, which have such themes as “newcomer of the month” and “best lingerie shot,” do attract hundreds of entries.)
Soon the newlyweds found themselves seeking out exotic locales for their shoots, often booking vacation spots based on their picturesque, secluded landscapes. They paid for the trips with money they’d earned on Voyeurweb. Gradually, they started to reveal more of Felicity. “We started half-showing my face, and then in the end fully showing my face.” Unmasked, she became even more popular, and began raking in more money. “We were checking the computer every day to see the rankings and comments.” Finally, on one of their vacations, they had occasion to reconsider what they were doing. “The first day, my husband had too much tequila and was in the water taking pictures, and the camera got ruined,” she recalls. “We had planned this whole vacation to take pictures, and here we were without a camera. It was a bust. It was kind of a reality check about how addicted we had become to it. But we bought a new camera and went right back to the same place.”
That was to be their last carefree vacation centred around nude photography. Not long after the couple returned home, they were confronted with a nasty situation. “Somebody recognized me and told someone, who told someone else.” Then “a straitlaced Christian woman” came to Felicity and condemned her. Felicity was frantic. Could her husband be fired from his well-paid office job? Would their kids be ostracized at school? Would they have to move? Immediately, they asked the site administrators to take down all their pictures. For the next six months, Felicity’s heart leaped every time the phone rang. She held her breath and hoped the storm would blow over.
When discussing why posting is worth the risk, Felicity focuses not on the sexual thrill and danger, but on the cash prizes, her relationship with her husband, and the artistry of their shoots. She most enjoys, she says, the reactions of viewers cultivated enough to appreciate such elements as setting, camera angles, and poses. As for the lewd comments posted by her less-refined fans, they’re best left ignored. Her propriety seems almost quaint.
She calls herself padme, and she shows the world everything. Her blog, featuring posts replete with pictures and videos, leaves out nothing but faces, names, addresses, phone numbers, and social insurance numbers. padme lives in a suburban community in the Fraser Valley, not far from Vancouver. She often posts pictures of the snow-capped hills, lush foliage, and blue waterways of the Pacific Northwest. Her husband works full time. She stays home and takes care of the kids, aged seven and thirteen.
padme is a bit lonely. She doesn’t have many close friends. In 2005, she started the blog as a way to branch out, find new pals, express herself. At first, she was reluctant: “I thought, ‘Who would read what I write? I’m not a very good writer.’” Soon, though, she was blogging methodically about the basics of suburban life:
I just found out that Chuck E Cheese where we are going to have Skywalker’s birthday party had a pipe burst and they canceled his party on us…The woman on the phone didn’t seem to think it was a big deal but we have a ton of kids and people coming to the birthday later and now we have to try to find somewhere else. Also all the loot bags and cake and package was done through Chuck E Cheese. Now we have a lot of running around to do. Urg!!
She also wrote about her health:
The surgery went well…They are doing some tests on the polyp I had removed from my uterus during the D&C that they did on me. I am not sure yet if I will need more surgery or not for my fibroids. The uncertainty of it all has me feeling cranky. I have no patience and I want to start feeling better soon.
And then there was this:
The kids were back to school today and Master was back to work again after the holiday break. I was a bit worried I might be lonely today but I was glad to have the place back to myself again and I had also been given permission to use my Hitachi and masturbate this morning. It’s been weeks since I last had the chance for some private time with my favorite vibrator.
These are the kinds of posts that have attracted more than 1.9 million people — 1,000 to 2,000 a day — to the blog padme calls Journey to the Darkside. In addition to her alone time with her Hitachi, she writes about spankings, elaborate fellatio sessions, and her need to be dominated by Master Anakin, the man she’s been, as she puts it, “married to for four years, living with for twelve years, and best friends with for eighteen years.”
The tone of padme’s blog is as frank and unpretentious as you might expect from a suburban middle-class mom. She tells all in a pleasant, upbeat manner that belies the significance of the blog in her life: “I don’t drive, I don’t work,” she explains. “I’m a stay-at-home mom and I’m alone all day. It’s been a great way to connect to people.”
The connection she describes is largely with a geographically dispersed group of men and women in similar “total power exchange relationships,” in which one person makes all the decisions. Among members of this community, padme is a brave explorer of alternative sexuality, a fellow practitioner of a distinct lifestyle. Keeping up the blog, though, requires her to maintain a wall around this compartment of her fragmented life. She doesn’t want her “real-life” friends to stumble across the blog, and yet she appreciates that the details it contains could allow her to be identified even by people who only know her casually. But she also believes that anyone visiting the site would be too embarrassed to expose her. As a result, only a few people in her daily life openly admit to knowing about Darkside. Much of her social existence happens online, in a state of partial anonymity.
“There are a lot of lurkers, a lot of return visitors,” padme says of her readers. “People are curious. They want to know what we’re doing next.” She feeds off that curiosity. As more and more readers started visiting the site, her posts became more frequent and she began to experiment with explicit videos and photos. In return, the community shored up her emotional life, responding to her outpourings with everything from e-cards to offers of assistance:
Thank you for all the comments and support during this last week. Southern Angel even did a lolcat just for me this week and it cheered me up a lot. I got a lot of e mails and e cards. I’m sorry I haven’t responded to them but I’ve been trying to recover from the surgery and not feeling too good…I want to be feeling better so I can start being more like a slave. Master’s been taking care of me and helping out a lot but I hate not having my structure. The chores list and rules help me to stay centered. I miss feeling like a slave.
Psychologist John Suler of Rider University in New Jersey has been researching what happens when our need to be noticed extends to the web. In his sprawling interactive text, The Psychology of Cyberspace, he explores such subjects as online disinhibition, cyberspace romance, and online addiction. Suler describes a pattern in which online communities exert influence over individuals and create a sense of disassociation from the greater community — the majority who are still inclined to punish you for behaviour you are increasingly unable to perceive as being outside the norm. Such social taboos are often hypocritical, but they are nevertheless influential. “Some people are considerably more disinhibited in online life,” he explains. “In real life, they have needs they can’t express, but online they have a vehicle and an environment where they can unleash, and they do it. It’s pretty well known in psychology that if you have anonymity you are going to do things you wouldn’t normally do.”
Suler describes online disinhibition as a process that begins with an awareness that anyone in the world can read the material being posted. “But then you start typing,” he says, “and you aren’t getting the feedback of face-to-face situations, so you don’t have that censoring process. You start delving into tangents that maybe should not be said.” Gradually, permission and encouragement arrive from whatever community has formed around your activities. “But with so many people [creating content online],” he says, “the odds are you’re going to have a limited audience. I see mostly like-minded people gathering together to reinforce their own ideas.”
The idea of online exposure predates the World Wide Web. In the early 1970s, for instance, the video artist Willoughby Sharp did a show for which he lived in a box in a gallery for 300 hours while transmitting his life to exterior monitors. Steve
Mann of Hamilton, Ontario, did live point-of-view broadcasting to the web from 1994 to ‘96 while earning his Ph.D. at mit. And in 1996, Jennifer Ringley started JenniCam, offering live access to everything that happened in her dorm room at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, leading her to be branded both a porn star and — horrors — a performance artist.
Emmalene Pruden was still a child when Jennifer Ringley was making her mark. Today she’s twenty-one, married, and the mother of a three-year-old. She lives in Hamilton and has been posting videos about her life on YouTube since she was eighteen. She has shown herself preparing to go to the hospital to give birth, to get married, to start college, and to move out of her in-laws’ house and into her first apartment.
Emmalene, with her propensity for pink tops, and her braces only recently removed, could easily pass for fourteen. She’s bubbly and animated in front of the camera, often opening her videos with a hearty “Hi, YouTube!” Like padme, she started her online project out of loneliness. After her daughter, Alice, was born, she’d had to move out of her mom’s house to a completely different part of town. She found herself cut off from her friends: “I was sitting at home. I didn’t know anyone. Mike [her husband] was still at school, Alice was still a baby. So I just started watching people talk on YouTube.” (Echoes of JenniCam: when a radio interviewer asked Ringley why she continued with the webcam experiment in her new apartment after she graduated from college, she replied, “I felt lonely without the camera.”)
Emmalene’s videos aren’t explicitly sexual, but she admits to using sex appeal to grow her audience to more than a thousand followers. She flirts with viewers who comment on her videos, encouraging them, for instance, by filming her midriff and including “bellybutton” as a searchable tag. In one posting, she shows off her underwear; in another she wears a bikini (the latter was tagged as “adult content” — permissible, but just barely, according to the rules of Google-owned YouTube).
Six months after I first spoke with Emmalene, I noticed she was posting less and less frequently, in contrast to Felicity and padme. Emmalene’s only recent video was a cryptic monologue about being in a bad place and needing to get her life together. I wondered if she was having a different experience than the other women. Or had her interest simply waned?
We met for Taco Bell at Hamilton’s Lime Ridge Mall, where Emmalene told me she hadn’t necessarily lost her enthusiasm for self-exposure. Rather, real life had begun to intrude. She’d grown cautious after one viewer started obsessively insulting her every video, going so far as to call her daughter a “fetal parasite” before Emmalene had him banned from YouTube. Furthermore, her husband had become uncomfortable with how much strangers knew about their existence. She’d also begun working retail on the strip near the mall, and was reluctant to post about work.
We finished our lunch and sat in front of the mall fountain, watching Emmalene’s three-year-old throw pennies in the water and dance around. “I basically grew up on YouTube,” Emmalene says. Perhaps as a result of this familiarity, she comes across as particularly savvy about the limitations and potential consequences of her hobby. “A lot of people,” she reflects, “will say, ‘I know you. I’ve gotten to know you through your video blogs.’ But I think, ‘These people don’t really know me.’”
Our conversation tapers off. Emmalene pulls out her camera. “Hello, YouTube!” she says cheerily, pointing it at her face. Then it’s my turn. I introduce myself. After that, we ramble on, neither of us sure of the point of the video. “Well…okay…” Emmalene eventually says. The camera wavers between me, her, Alice dancing by the fountain, and passersby heading for the food court. Finally, mercifully, Emmalene blows a kiss into the lens and we fade to black.
British social theorist Nikolas Rose talks about the modern individual as an “entrepreneur of him- or herself” who is “to conduct his or her life, and that of his or her family, as a kind of enterprise, seeking to enhance and capitalize on existence itself through considered acts of initiative, and through investments.” The modern individual, then, seeks relationships that are essentially “parasocial” — the term social scientists use to describe the one-sided relationships we have with celebrities, in which we know everything about them, but they don’t know we exist. Social networking scholar danah boyd has argued that this flow of detailed information is creating a new class of people in our lives — people we follow closely online and come to know intimately but voyeuristically, without any need for genuine interaction.
The parasocial relationships being formed by the millions of people whiling away lonely hours looking at pictures and videos online tend to become deeper and more compelling over time. This is in part because viewers can know far more about people like Emmalene and padme than they can about a generic, Photoshopped Playboy bunny who likes sunsets and poetry. This potential to know and see all without complication seems to be part of the allure of amateur erotica. With more consumers out there, and thus more feedback and attention, parasocial relationships in turn become increasingly compelling for those who find themselves being followed. “We got pretty addicted to it. We took huge risks,” says Felicity. “It can definitely be addictive,” agrees padme. “I’ve tried to cut back a bit. But you get to 1.6 million readers, and it’s really hard to just walk away from that. I can’t even go a few days and I want to blog.” Even Emmalene still feels the pull. “Every day,” she tells me, “I think about putting something up on YouTube.”
Felicity and her husband, for their part, have returned to their hobby since their brush with unwanted attention, though they now do so with more caution. They no longer show Felicity’s face, and they now post on Voyeurweb’s more explicit sister site, RedClouds, which has a much smaller viewer base, because it requires payment for access. The couple’s comeback post won them $2,000. One commenter succinctly captured the buzz on the site, writing simply, “Felicity is back!”