How does Sci-Fi approach sex work? Is there room for discourse around sex work within Sci-Fi? What does this discourse look like? The 2018 film ‘Cam,’ written by former camgirl Isa Mezzei and directed by Daniel Goldharber, offers a fascinating perspective on what sex work could look like in a not too distant future; and poignantly (and terrifyingly) addresses a lot of the concerns currently surrounding the sex industry. 

This psychological thriller tells Alice’s story (portrayed by Madeline Brewer), an online sex worker who is hacked by an algorithm that steals her image, likeness, and personality from the site in which she performs her shows. 

The film opens with what seems like a regular online sex show for Alice (or Lola for her online patrons) and unexpectedly takes a dark turn when an anonymous user asks her to ‘use a knife’ instead of a vibrator. The chat room goes wild with hundreds of users tipping her and urging her to slit her own throat to get to the ‘Top 50’ performers on the site. After she apparently commits suicide and is covered in blood, Alice turns her head to the camera and reveals it was a stunt all along…the crowd goes wild. This opening sequence strongly echoes Henry Jenkin’s essay about the comic book Bitch Planet (DeConnick, 2014-2017) in The Oxford Handbook of Comic Book Studies, in which he says, “These women are defined in relation to the patriarchy before we know how they see themselves […] suggesting how genre expectations are aligned with patriarchal power” (Jenkins 2020: 9). Before we meet Alice, we meet her online persona, Lola, and we see how this online community’s expectations define her: firstly as a sexual object and secondly as a woman. It is not until after the show that we meet the human behind the performance and get insight into her personal life that the audience is challenged to reassess their pre-conceived notions and judgments about sex work.

As the film progresses, Alice is confronted with a dark reality. Her account has been hacked and someone, who looks exactly like her, is performing shows in what appears to be Alice’s room replica; what is even more disturbing: the performances are live. Has Alice/Lola been cloned? Is she dead and in hell for her lustful sins? Is it an online demon? Alice goes on a quest to find out the truth behind her online double, a pursuit that highlights the day-to-day troubles and dangers that sex workers go through. Alice unsuccessfully tries to contact customer support, but they will not help because, in real life, there is no Customer Care and Protection line for sex workers. Subsequently, When Alice approaches the police for help, they merely acknowledge that she has an online double before making inappropriate suggestions. They ultimately leave, telling Alice, “If you don’t want to see that sorta stuff, stay off the internet.” However, what can be expected from the police when an online-prostitute asks them for help? As Wendy Gay Pearson says in her essay Queer Theory from The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (2009), “Gender is always already a function of sexuality, since women become women in the process of becoming the objects of men’s desire. In other words, sexual difference is not merely the necessary ground for heterosexuality, but also the product of it.” (Pearson 2009: 299). The policemen are really saying to her, “We see your problem, but we see you as a sex object before we see you as a person, and what you are experiencing is the product of your actions.” Nevertheless, what Alice is going through is not a product of her actions. It is the product of a series of patriarchal fictional symbols and constructs that have purposely placed her outside of their jurisdiction.

After a gruesome scene, Alice/Lola finally manages to discover the secret behind the algorithm and deactivate her account. However, by the end of the movie, she has not had a moral change of heart and decided to follow a ‘righteous path.’ Alice has decided to create a new profile with new security precautions and measures and continue doing sex work. Perhaps, most important here is not the perils she faces during her quest (even though they are the film’s dominating themes and deserving of discussion) but Alice/Lola’s independence and agency. Typically, characters who are sex workers’ escape’ their realities and join the heteronormative society that displaced them in the first place, but not Alice. She has aspirations within her own profession: She desperately wants to make the top 10 of the website. She carries a carefully color-coded planner and dresses the room she is in to fit the show’s theme. Furthermore, she is anxious to tell her mom about where her high new income is coming from but is nervous about how she will react due to the constructs that stigmatize sex workers. 

As Foucault proposes in History of Sexuality: An Introduction, “Sex [is] a means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species. It [is] employed as a standard for the disciplines and as a basis for regulation” (Foucault 1980: 146). Alice/Lola’s story challenges the regulatory powers that displace sex work because it happens outside of these powers. Using popular horror film tropes, ‘Cam’ turns the exploitation of women and sex workers inside out and takes charge of it.

Foucault, M. (1980). The History of Sexuality, vol 1: An Introduction, trans. R. Hurley,. New York: Vintage.

Gay Pearson, W. (2009). “Queer Theory,” in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Mark Bould, 1st ed, Routledge Literature Companions,. London ; New York: Routledge.

Jenkins,H. (2020). “Non-Compliants, Brimpers, and She-Romps,” in The Oxford Handbook of Comic Book Studies, ed. Frederick Luis Aldama. 

Johnston, C. (1976) “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema.” Movies and Methods I, edited by Bill Nichols, U of California P. 

Mezzei, I. (Writer). Goldharber, D. (Director). (2018). Cam. [Film]. Blumhouse Productions.