The Other Porn Addiction

Why are ordinary women exposing themselves online?
Above: Illustration by Virginia Johnson. Plus, online only: Hal Niedzviecki in conversation with Stacey May Fowles on porn and privacy.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.”

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4 comment(s)

AnonymousMarch 19, 2009 23:34 EST

There is a pattern to the posts if you read them long enough. Certain things stand out as "how could she NOT have known that?" issues that just make one shake their head. An interesting read no doubt about it, and I am sure that soon someone will end up doing their thesis about her.

Natalie PendergastMarch 20, 2009 07:01 EST

Great article. Sex makes babies, but it also makes money. I think prostitution should be legalized - with conditions of course (however, then it mightn't be as exciting, since there is always an added thrill in doing things that are prohibited, either by the law or by social code). No one should be condemned or made to feel like they are a pervert just for fulfilling their sexual desires and fantasies, provided no one gets hurt in the mix. Our society objectifies women and some women fight that and other women say, "bring it on!" The latter group get just as much of a thrill from being viewed and photographed than the people who view them. It feels good to have the attention, but more importantly, it feels good to have the power to stimulate others, to arouse them. It's one realm of power where women have been able to step up to men over the course of history. And the pleasure we all get from performing/pretending/creating fantasy scenes just adds more to the pot.

Francesco SinibaldiApril 04, 2009 12:16 EST

The bell in the mountain.

Timid
behaviour, recalling
the sunshine of
a positive sign
that now fades
away, discover
the sadness
in a beautiful
care....

Francesco Sinibaldi

AnonymousDecember 17, 2010 11:34 EST

I found this article, "Why are ordinary women exposing themselves online?", by searching for "why do pretty girls appear in amateur porn videos?"

But there's a world of difference between Voyeurweb and youporn. At the latter, we find young women, not just bored housewives, displaying the most explicit sex.

What I don't understand is: What are they thinking? Are they not hurting their chances of marrying well? Are they not embarrassing (mortifying, actually) their parents? If employed, are they not risking getting fired?

Many of these young women are pretty, easily able to attract and keep a fine young man.

Why are they allowing themselves to be filmed in degrading porn films?

Somebody help me out, please. I really want to understand this.

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