Can you make a ‘choice’ to become a 13-year-old camgirl in a porn culture?

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Sigh. Vice’s “women’s section,” “Broadly” has shown itself to be kind of exactly what I was worried about. While there is certainly some good coverage of actual news events on the site, when it comes to addressing sex and sexuality, the analysis, predictably, falls flat. Like all other liberal news sites with no investment in or accountability to the feminist movement, there is an ongoing failure to critique systems of power or the sex industry.

This week an article by addresses her “choice” to become a “camgirl” when she was 13 years old. She describes the experience of stripping for boys after school, with her newly-acquired webcam (this was before there were cameras built into all our devices) as part of her sexual “journey.” This “journey,” she explains, didn’t only involve kissing classmates in the bathroom (something that is probably a pretty normal thing for kids to do), but involved watching pornography and being catcalled by men on the street at 11 years old. She writes:

“Men in cars told me I had a ‘nice ass’ as I skipped to the shops. I was aware not only of my own sexual desires but also the desires of others. That awareness gave me a licence to freely explore my own sexuality from a young age.”

McArdle also notes, as an aside, that she began watching porn at nine years old.

By the time she was 13, she “had an arrangement with around five or six boys in [her] year at school” in which she would log on to MSN Messenger and strip for them after school. The only point at which this situation became a problem, she says, is when one of the boys’ mothers found out, leading to widespread shaming from her friends, family, classmates, and teachers. While the boys were not punished in the slightest, McArdle became “pariah” and a “slut” and was offered zero support from any of the adults around her.

This experience caused her to develop and eating disorder and to self-harm. She says she lost all confidence and any sense of self-worth. The experience was, understandibly, confusing and traumatic for her. She writes:

“I didn’t know whether what I’d done was OK; I didn’t know if the sexual feelings and the enjoyment I got from it were OK, either. The boys around me were expected to be sexual. But my own desires and enjoyment? They were unacceptable.”

Because she was socially isolated and “slut-shamed” by everyone around her, the only conclusion McArdle was able to come to was that the camming itself wasn’t a problem, the only problem was people’s reactions to it.

“I wanted to be sexual. I chose to engage in sexual activity. To me, stripping on webcam wasn’t just an informed choice that I made, but one that was affirmed by informed consent. The camming never changed anything in me while it was happening; it was the reaction that destroyed my perception of myself and my sexuality.”

In some ways, this is true. Her trauma clearly came from the lack of support she received after the situation was discovered and from the nonsensical double-standard applied to her. “Boys will be boys and girls will punished for the behaviour of boys” is a message many of us received early on. Teenage girls are sexually assaulted all the time, yet they are the ones who suffer the consequences while the boys responsible are let off the hook by their peers.

I can’t disagree with her perspective on the source of her trauma, but I do disagree with her decision to ignore the impacts of objectification on what she considers to be her “sexuality.”

While McArdle understands now that what she was “unknowingly doing was creating and distributing child pornography,” she remains steadfast in her claim that webcamming gave her confidence and helped her “to better understand [herself] in terms of sexual preference.” She feels frustrated that her “consent” means nothing under the law because she was still a child at the time. She wants her “choice” to be respected. And I get that in some ways. It doesn’t really sound like she was technically coerced in any way and certainly I don’t want to see girls charged with distributing or creating child pornography because they are playing around with webcams.

All that said, I don’t believe that girls stripping on camera has as much to do with “child sexuality” as McArdle would like it to. Certainly I think that making such an argument is treading in dangerous territory considering how many grown men would like to defend their efforts to seek out underage prostituted girls to rape and their pedophilic porn fantasies on the basis that “children are sexual too.” Beyond that, what is not being discussed is the fact that, most often, it is girls who are performing for boys and men in this way and not the other way around. Why? Are we prepared to argue that somehow women and girls are simply more predisposed to “exhibitionism,” as McArdle calls it? Is pornification an innate part of our sexualities, as women?

“Childhood sexuality is unbelievably taboo,” she writes, before acknowledging that the media sends young girls extremely confusing messages about who and what their bodies and sexualities are for. “I don’t know if I can quantify how much my 13-year-old sexuality was informed by those messages — or how much was simply a part of a natural progression of discovery — but I do know that I was comfortable with myself, long before I was made to feel otherwise by those around me.”

While McArdle fully understands why age of consent laws are necessary in terms of ensuring kids aren’t exploited, and I agree that the idea of her potentially ending up on some police database for distributing child porn is fully insane, her conclusion that what she was doing was simply a harmless “sexual activity” is troubling.

We need to expand this conversation beyond “child sexuality” vs. the law. Punishing young girls for doing exactly what our culture tells them to do is perverse but limiting this conversation to one of “sexual experimentation” first implies that objectification is a form of “sexuality,” and second, that this is a genderless phenomenon. Whether or not one individual woman claims to have made a consensual “choice” to self-objectify as a child is largely irrelevant. Not once does McArdle address pornography as having an impact on her perceived “sexual experimentation” nor does she seem to want to make a connection between the way in which grown men were objectifying and sexualizing her as an 11 year old girl and the after school pass time she took up a couple of years later.

She, like so many of us in this culture, believe that whatever it is we “choose” and deem “sexual” must be so. But when young girls are routinely being sexualized and objectified and are being exposed to pornified imagery in the media more and more frequently, surely the conversation we need to be having is not about “child sexuality” or even one of “consent,” but rather the way in which our lives, self-worth, relationships, and sexual behaviours are being coopted by the male gaze, predatorial men, and the porn industry. It’s time we start holding men and the media accountable for the way they treat girls and women — and this must happen before we can expect to discuss “consent” and “child sexuality” in any kind of honest or productive way.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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