Alongside Japanese bondage ropes and a Mighty Merlin Dagger Dildo, Jessie's Amazon wishlist includes French editions of the Harry Potter books, crochet yarn, Tidy Cat litter, a Vitamix, Mrs. Meyer's basil-scented laundry soap, Lykke Li records, a velvet fainting sofa, and a fantastic glass-topped accent table with a rearing, pearlescent unicorn as its base. The strangest thing about Jessie's wishlist is not actually the unicorn table — it's that Harry Potter Et L'Ordre Du Phenix is as likely as the dildo to show up on her doorstep without warning. Jessie is a camgirl.
Nights and afternoons — and once for an 11-hour day-long streak — Jessie, known online as Jae Filth, sets up her webcam in her Lowcountry home and signs into sites like My Free Cams or Chaturbate to stream her image onto screens around the globe. Viewers can sit and watch Jessie without interacting, or they can engage with her via chat rooms nested alongside her video feed. When the going gets good, they tip her with tokens that are redeemable for cash or are given the link to her wishlists in the hope that they'll spring for something she's listed. By the end of the show, Jessie has lost a few items of clothing and likely gained an orgasm or five.
Local filmmaker Charlotte Savage got first wind of Jessie's work when she spotted some photos on Tumblr. "I was doing music videos and I was always looking for hot girls, especially boobies — so much of what I do has boobies in it — so I'm always looking for girls that are open and comfortable," Savage says. "She came out to be in a music video I directed for Wolf Lord and she rocked it. I fell in love with her during that music video shoot."
It was during a documentary filmmaking class at Savannah College of Art and Design that Savage pitched the idea of making a film about Jessie's work. When Savage asked her classmates if they wanted to join her existing Charleston-based Seamless Pictures production crew, Greg Hornak jumped at the chance. "Greg raised his hand and at first I said, 'You can't just wanna do this because of boobies,' and he said, 'I'm gay, so you don't have to worry.' He ended up getting really excited about it and asking if he could co-direct," Savage says.
For Hornak, it was Jessie's narrative that was the draw. "The other pitches were just obvious passion projects from other people about subjects I wasn't really passionate about — tiny houses, live-action role-playing, a turtle conservatory," Hornak says. "I came into it thinking she had some sort of need for validation or attention, but in reality it was just kind of how she made money. She was using what she had to the best of her abilities."
The end result of their efforts is Camgirl, a seven-minute film in which viewers get a glimpse of tits and ass, but also a hint of Jessie's sense of humor and matter-of-fact attitude about sex and money. The opening line: "Charles, I'm not getting naked. I need more money first."
For Jessie, the path to camming was innocuous enough. Upon suggestion by a photographer friend, a cash-strapped and exhausted Jessie started taking photo sets of herself in varying stages of undress and submitting them to GodsGirls, a site of "erotic alt-porn" — think Suicide Girls.
"At one point I was working five jobs and I was going to school full-time and I was never home. Once I started taking photos of myself, I realized I really liked taking photos of myself," Jessie says. "Through that I met this girl who did webcam modeling. We had a mutual friend and we instantly just became best friends. We started out and we would just cam together every Wednesday night and order pizza and just kind of have a pizza party when we were online."
That was four years ago. These days Jessie mainly cams by herself, but she's online regularly. "Sometimes I only do it two or three nights a week. Sometimes I get on five nights a week. If I make a lot of money in one day, I'll take a break and relax and come back to it, or even if I do make a lot of money, sometimes I get more excited and I end up staying online because I'm having fun — it makes it more exciting and I want to keep going," Jessie says.
The perks of the job have kept Jessie working steadily — she's essentially her own boss. "I'm not a morning person. I don't like wearing uniforms or answering to authority or someone bossing me around and telling me what to do. I'm basically in control of how much money I make. It's completely up to you 100 percent. You don't have to do anything you're uncomfortable with," Jessie says. "I didn't realize how much I actually enjoyed doing it until I realized I was making all this money while doing something that felt so natural. Most people would kill for a job where they're having a great time and they get paid."
During a show, viewers can chip in toward a cammer's goal, something like removing a piece of clothing or using a particular toy in a particular orifice. But between reaching goals, which could take an hour or more, performers often essentially just hang out, conversing with those in the chat room. A good night online can net a performer a couple hundred dollars, but for Jessie, the bulk of her income is from off-line tipping or purchases from the aforementioned wishlist.
"There are some guys who just want to feel like they can be there for you — they just want to talk to you and know what you've been up to and know things about you. The guys who don't want anything in return. They're not hinting at wanting to meet in real life or have some weird relationship," Jessie says. "The guy who bought me my laptop and my memory foam mattress and my iPad mini, he's never wanted anything from me except for conversation — literally nothing."
Hornak hypothesizes that's part of the appeal for Jessie's viewers, a sort of false sense they're getting to know the girl behind the cam. "Her personality is someone who you want to get to know but who you can't ever fully know, and that's probably what keeps them coming back. She knows exactly how much to reveal and exactly what to keep to herself," Hornak says.
And despite prodding by the filmmakers, Jessie never cracked under questioning for the documentary. "It was a running joke during the shoot that I was going to make her cry, and I wasn't able to," Hornak says. "I tried to get into the really dark elements, but she was very self-aware and so well-adjusted and had already dealt with the negative aspect of it, and she was fine with it. She was having fun. It was kind of like she was playing a trick on everyone."
He adds, "At the end of the day she was totally aware of the societal implications of it and just didn't give a fuck. It seemed like she was well-prepared to take this on as a job, just from her personality, her mindset."
For Savage, Hornak's co-director felt strongly about showing Jessie's profession as progressive, even positive. "It bothers me when people say that it's shameful," Savage says. "When I meet people that are completely comfortable in their skin, I'm entranced and I envy that and I feel like I can learn from them and feel better about myself eventually."
Savage says she initially had an edit of the film that included more somber moments, but it felt forced and unrelated. "There's the documentary aspect of needing to have some sort of like, conflict, in this story structure. I felt I needed that to have a compelling story, but at the same time it's like, 'Why do you need conflict to have to do this?' I guess there was part of me expecting that she was a mess deep down and that's because the world tells me that any girl doing something in the sex industry must have something wrong with her. It was refreshing and proves what I deep down hoped for," says Savage.
Hornak also liked the non-story of Jessie's story, so to speak. "I didn't want or need or expect her to be an advocate for any kind of super-contemporary views on porn," Hornak says. "This is just how she makes her living." For him, Jessie was fairly ordinary relative to the circus of voyeurism.
On cam sites, you can go peeking through multiple windows at a time, and Hornak doesn't undersell the point — it's a potpourri of pornography.
There's a woman cheekily dancing in a half-unbuttoned oxford and capri pants who takes Tarantino-esque song requests from viewers between brushing her wig and talking about Twin Peaks. A pregnant woman sits cross-legged, completely nude, talking about acts that would normally get a person pregnant. A guy who refuses to show his face strokes his 8-inch-long, 7.75 inch-circumference penis. A young pair of cam vets are on screen, only today the man sits on the couch fully clothed eating soup while his lady love lays nude on the couch and regular viewers ask him about his day at work. A trans couple perform under poor lighting, but they make up for it with impressive hair volume, deep-throating skills, and advice about lube. In Spain a woman double penetrates herself with toys while listening to Magic!'s dreadfully awful "Rude." There's a woman wearing elf ears and a group of three fully nude seniors — I don't know which is more shocking.
Bodies are wrinkled, pimpled, and dimpled and every room has a lively chat and everyone receives tips in the form of online tokens. One woman even has a vibrator ingeniously connected to an app so that she involuntarily convulses when large tips come in without warning. When that happens, the chatroom goes bonkers. She's so flushed and pleased that viewers forgive her when she forgets to put on nipple clamps like she promised. Instead she uses them as hair clips for the remainder of the show.
The online democratization and normalization of sexuality has created spaces for all bodies, genders, orientations, and fetishes. There's a consensual performer and an eager audience for any sexual fetish, and the relative anonymity of the internet loosens the slack on personal judgments. Telling your Tinder date you like to be choked or you have a raincoat fetish might not end up well. Tell Jessie the same, and she's heard it all before.
Savage thinks this modern medium can open the public's eyes. "I think camming is the gateway to where we need to be going. I feel like it's becoming more popular and accepted compared to other sex work, which could be used as a tool to change people's ideas," she says.
Because it's all live all the time, camming is a different experience from traditional recorded porn — the rentals in the store or the acted-out clips that get recycled online. Hornak says, "They don't have someone holding the camera or telling hem how to look or what to do or how to moan or whatever."
And though objectification is still on the table, the unscripted intimacy has the capacity to humanize a performer, he thinks. "It's harder to remove someone's personality when what you're seeing is their personality — they're not a porn actor or performer so much as they are just a person," he says. "'Objectification' is such a big term to talk about with porn. So much of it is based on who is viewing it, who's thinking about it. It gets down to the individual watching it, that's when it gets really hard to tell."
When viewers troll a performer during a show, they're banned. But what might be more surprising is how harassing chatters are rebuked by other participants. The simple act of no-pressure conversation might be revolutionary for some viewers, making them feel connected, Jessie hypothesizes. "I feel like a lot of them are just lonely and they don't really have another outlet for their sexuality. A lot of them just want someone to talk to and they can be more themselves online than they are in real life or maybe who they would like to be," she says. "I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan, so if they see something in my room and they're like, 'Oh my God, you like Lord of the Rings,' then we'll just talk about that for an hour. It's not always 'show me your ass.'"
That facade of by-the-minute intimacy is uncomplicated for Jessie, who easily separates online from real life, even though at times they might seem alike. "Just because I'm getting naked for someone on the internet and doing these things, it's not like I'm establishing an emotional connection with them — I don't go to sleep thinking about these guys. The side of me that they're seeing is not the same side of me that someone I would be dating is going to see," she says. "It's my work persona and real life — they're very similar, but I'm not my work identity in real life all the time."
In Savage's mind, part of the appeal of creating Camgirl was to show that once people stopped wringing their hands about sexual shame and the fear of their own bodies in well-lit rooms, the fun starts. Having a professional cam performer get no-nonsense about things that might make a sexually vanilla person squeamish is just one way to start a discussion. "A lot of the laughter [at the screening] wasn't only things she said, but a lot of it was toward the naughty stuff that people feel uncomfortable about so they laugh, like when we're going through all the different fetishes — small penis humiliation, the guy drinking the cum, wearing the diaper," Savage says.
Discomfort, shame, and insecurity are themes Jessie goes back to as well. "It's just frustrating that people have these insecurities," she says. "I just feel like a lot of girls aren't exposed to anything that makes them feel OK about their body and being naked. They're all exposed to things in the media saying you have to be skinny and perfect, so then they're like, 'I don't have that, so I'm not beautiful.' You should be saying, 'No one else has what I have, so that makes me beautiful.' It's not like everyone's supposed to fit a certain little mold. Don't try to fit yourself into a mold. Mold yourself into what you see yourself as."
In the meantime, Jessie is happy to have made a spot for herself, and she hopes Camgirl continues to destigmatize sex work. "It's not just me finger-banging myself all the time. I'm having fun and being myself, and it's not a scary, crazy thing," says Jessie. "It's a really great feeling when you're letting people see everything and they're not turning away from you because of that."