Isa Mazzei’s “Camgirl” Explores Performance, Privilege, Kink and Contradictions

Queer women readers who have experience in the sex industry will recognize the push and pull between authentic pleasure and carefully crafted performance in Isa Mazzei’s new memoir, Camgirl. Published on the heels of the writer’s horror film Cam (which was released on Netflix in 2018), the book digs deeper into Mazzei’s real experiences with sex work that served as the inspiration for the movie. Like the film, the book begins with a cam girl’s staged suicide, performed for the patrons that frequent her chatroom. But whereas the sex worker (Lola) in Cam uses this salacious imagery to garner more followers, for Mazzei’s persona (Una) this would be the beginning of the end of her departure from the sex industry. “Una gave me everything,” writes Mazzei “She gave me money. She gave me validation. She gave me power and taught me hope and accepted me exactly as I was… And I was about to kill her.”

Mazzei sets the stage with her beginnings as a teenage “tease,” a young girl repulsed by sex but vulnerably desperate for the male attention of her peers. She writes frankly about her early desires for amorous validation without consummation, a confusing paradox that she successfully illustrates and connects to her later entry into the internet sex industry. I was particularly struck by her complicated relationship with her abusive high school boyfriend whom she eventually reconciles and develops a collaborative friendship with. Few people could work through such thorny beginnings. It is fascinating and relatable to see how Mazzei’s feelings towards this person evolve over time.

Relationships defined by duality dominate Isa Mazzei’s memoir. From her fraught yet loving relationships with her mentally ill and addicted parents, to her monetarily based but intimate relationship with her first sugar daddy, Mazzei’s story is one of leaning into gray areas and contradictions with complete honesty. For example, her adoration of other women in the industry embodies a distinctly queer femme sensibility of desire and envy. When Isa meets and works with other cam performers, she describes their beauty and longing for them alongside her own insecurities about her physical appearance and earning potential. She struggles with work-related sexual encounters, wanting them to happen but also being fearful of them and not being sure if she is allowed to enjoy something that is meant to be a performance.

Another relationship that is explored in Camgirl is the author’s to masochism. Through the gifts of hindsight, Mazzei is able to communicate to the reader how her unexamined trauma informed her persona and her rise in the camming platform ranks from shy new girl to masochistic maven. She describes her relationship to physical pain as one of somatic liberations. Once “Una” discovers her body reacts pleasurably after a kinky patron tips her to inflict more intense pain on herself, she reaches new heights and breaks out of a professional rut. For those of us who are kink-inclined survivors, these passages will particularly resonate.

Camgirl engages with the larger canon of queer sex worker memoirs through it’s confessional, no frills prose. There is a distinctly ‘90s, riot grrl era sensibility to Mazzei’s voice, less chaotic punk rock than Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl, but in a way that situates the narrative into a post FOSTA/SESTA landscape without being sanitizing. There is a distinct emphasis on personal experience rather than grand, political proclamations about the place of sex work in a western capitalist culture, which serves the narrative well. The reader is never condescended to or asked to see Mazzei as emblematic of anything other than her own brief experience as a popular cam performer. The author is obviously aware of her own privileges as a slim white cis woman that was able to enter and leave the industry on her own terms. Her observations about other cam workers that she worked with are honest and personal without being myopic or judgmental; it is made clear through candid reflection that this is just one, not the only truth.

Mazzei is painfully aware of her own motivations and shortcomings and this is the strongest part of her writing. As a fat woman and former sex worker, I felt dejected when the author’s fatphobia crept into her prose. Her own anxiety about appearing fat on camera and her initial revulsion with the fat body of her sugar daddy were admittedly difficult passages for me to read. Her attitudes towards larger bodies reminds me why many fat sex workers engage cautiously with their thin colleagues. In an industry dominated by body hierarchies, it is understandable that slim sex workers are afraid of gaining weight lest their earnings plummet. So while I was initially off put by this rhetoric, I grew to appreciate Mazzei’s honesty around her body anxiety. Her willingness to bear completely her less than politically correct thought patterns is admirable. After all, there can be no progress in body activism unless those with more privileged bodies admit their fears of being fat or ugly. Through honesty a more holistic and thoughtful conversation about beauty standards in the sex industry can take place.

Overall, Camgirl will appeal to feminist minded readers who are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the camming industry. Readers like myself who have been steeped in a critical engagement with the politics of the sex industry for a long time might find the lack of deep intersectional analysis in Mazzei’s story frustrating. However, the memoir is an accessible primer for young women who have just begun to think critically about the relationship between capitalism and sexuality.

Camgirl by Isa Mazzei is published by Rare Bird Books.

Annie Rose Malamet is an educator, writer, independent podcast podcast producer. She is the creator and host of Girls, Guts, & Giallo, a podcast examining subversive, controversial, and sleazy film from a leather dyke perspective. Follow Annie on Twitter.

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3 Comments

  1. Oh wow! I was listening to your podcast just last week wondering if you’d ever written for Autostraddle! I bought Camgirl after your interview with Isa. Her comments about fat bodies made me think she was a sex worker in the early 2000s until she made a reference to Tinder. It was an interesting book and I’m still thinking about my own relationship to sex, fear, and disgust. I’d also recommend the movie!

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