It is late in the morning on this hot summer day but hardly any light finds its way into Mary’s bedroom at her parent’s house. The trees cluster around her window providing endless shade.
Mary takes off her sleep clothes and sits naked, carefully balanced on her swivel desk chair. She is ugly. Not so ugly you can’t look her in the eye, but ugly enough that most people wouldn’t call her pretty, and they wouldn’t find her attractive. She’s been ugly all the days of her 21 years. She was a strange looking child even, with frizzy black hair, big clef chin and wide set eyes. No, Mary has never known what it feels to be beautiful. She would have to make a herself into a personality to get any of that attention that young women often yearn for.
One finger traces a straight path along her track pad from the bottom of the screen to the top. She clicks. They are waiting for her to sign on, for her daily 1pm show. Many have seen her old videos and have come to find beauty in her simply through familiarity. Or perhaps they like her because she is ugly, so they don’t feel so intimidated to chat with her, like a realistic conquest.
Mary begins every show with small talk. She tells them a little inconsequential detail of her life, to make them think they might know her. Today, Mary tells them about how she had soggy Frosted Miniwheats for breakfast and questions if anyone out there actually appreciates soggy cereal the way she does? Because it becomes soft enough to just swallow, without chewing and chewing can be hard sometimes.
In the chat, the men take her seriously and honestly wrestle with her question. No, they declare, crispy cereal is much more satisfying and chewing is often always worth the effort. Some dissenters agree with Mary and try to soothe her into taking her shirt off. Mary complies and begins the real show, the show she came online to do. After some short moments of touching her uneven breasts, she lifts both her legs and spread-eagles them on both sides of her laptop. She holds her wheelie chair down with the strength of her buttocks. She aims her webcam slightly down.
For the most part, Mary has gotten by just fine without being pretty. She has a good life. Family, friends, success in school, and she’s even had boyfriends. They would tell Mary she was pretty, because they loved her deeply, but she knew better.
Mary hears a creak outside of her door. Maybe her brother was home after all. She double-checks the lock on her door.
Mary had accepted her mediocre looks for so long she had forgotten about it really. Until one day she started a Tumblr. She would reblog things she thought were funny, important or politically disarming. Occasionally she would post a picture of herself, in front of her mirror, her iPhone by her head, her stare blank in concentration and nonchalance. And she liked doing it. It gave her a little thrill every time she posted one. The feedback was immediate. People would comment or favorite it. She felt, well, physically appreciated.
Mary knows today that if she can masturbate for half an hour she’ll make $50. In the fifteen minute lead up she makes half that so long as she can sustain enough suspense to get the men to fill up her tip jar, as a way to encourage her to get going. The real money is in taking a really long time to cum while staying wet. She is very good at cumming quickly so she must make an effort to go slowly.
The air outside is hot, very hot and very sticky. The humidity comes down on her parents’ house like a force, a hazy cloud of wet impermanence. But inside she doesn’t feel the heat; the trees keep the house cool. Mary finishes her show, promises the men a show tomorrow and signs off. She dresses and heads to her car. She held on for 20 minutes today. She deserves a snoball with her boyfriend. No, not that kind of snoball. She wants softly shaved ice with flavored syrup. There is a wide variety of flavors.
In the car the air conditioning is on full blast and when she pulls up at the snoball stand her boyfriend David is waiting for her at a picnic bench. He has just gotten off work. He is beefy and his button down short-sleeved shirt is already soaked through with sweat. But it is OK, he tells her, because he has no air condition in his old Corolla and the slight wind feels nice in his thick black hair.
Mary hugs him and doesn’t mind the sweat that rubs off on her chest and on her neck. It feels so good to be in his arms, she thinks. And I love him so much. He runs his fingers through her rough black hair and puts his thick arm around her waist. They wait in line and order one tangerine snoball with marshmallow topping and one skylite snoball. She treats him this time. The sun lays its thick afternoon rays on them, purring its light out far beyond the Baltimore suburbs. Up to Maine and down to Florida.
How was your day? David asks her.
Good. Woke up late. Watched TV. Same old.
Must be nice having summer break.
Yea, I love it. Too bad it’s my last one.
And then you’ll be like me, and have a real job.
Sigh. I guess so.
They drive back to her house and have sex before her parents come home. He wonders if her brother will be able to hear them. No, he is in the basement watching TV, Mary tells him. David kisses her mouth and all over her body and it feels so nice to Mary. He holds her very carefully but also firmly beneath him when he goes inside of her. He touches her down there while he has sex with her so that she is able to cum too. With David, Mary doesn’t have to put off her orgasm, she can let it happen whenever she wants and if David isn’t done yet she can have another one if she likes or she can just enjoy him enjoying her and she likes that a lot. Sometimes she catches herself performing, like she does for her show, but stops when she realizes what she’s doing and how it’s not honest and isn’t fair to David. Mary knows he prefers her real pleasure, whatever that might be, as opposed to her idealized pleasure.
Afterwards, they lie on her bed together, looking up at the baby pink ceiling. He hugs his body around her and she snuggles inside him. He can never know, she thinks. He will hate me. And I need him.
Is it cheating though, Mary wonders the next day. She takes out her favorite purple dildo from her closet and waves it in front of the webcam. It wobbles up and down with the promise of penetration. She hopes to excite them, to get them to add more to the tip jar. $10 is added instantly as the men in the chat type out their happy exclamations in anticipation of her masturbation. Well, Mary decides, I’m only having sex with myself, so that can’t be considered cheating.
After the session, one viewer, Bombsaway666 sends her a private message.
I have a proposition for you, it says.
Mary is listening.
I’ll pay you five hundred for a more intimate video, something I can’t see on the site.
What did you have in mind?
True close-ups of your insides. I want to see you stretched wide open. I want a dick’s eye view.
She’s going to think about it. $500 is a lot. And it’s not like she was going to have to get butt fucked. Just show her inner workings to some perv. Who cared? It was all biology anyways, just blood and guts and cells and tissue. Might as well be her esophagus, it makes no difference.
Around the dinner table her parents have prepared a delicious meal. They serve their children, their babies.
Excited for your senior year? They ask her, they’re eyes fixed, attempting to make this seem like an innocent question with no ulterior motive.
Still going to be a painting major?
Yes. I love painting.
But what kind of jobs are out there for painters?
What kind of jobs are out there for anyone?
Her brother chimes in, you should be a drug rep.
But I hate traveling. Don’t worry about me, I’ll teach.
Teaching… you can teach with a bachelors degree?
Yea sure, at a private school.
Well you better start applying to those jobs now. I bet they’re very competitive.
Just remember, you’re going to have to pay off your student loans.
After watching America’s Next Top Model Cycle 12 with her mom, Mary goes into her room.
How do I know you’ll pay me? She asks Bombsaway666.
Upload the video to me. When it’s at 75% I’ll put the money in your paypal.
Mary takes her webcam and places it on a stand just below her bed. She takes off all her clothes and sits on the edge of her bed. Using her hands she spreads herself wide open, so far open the walls of her vagina nearly enclose the lens of the camera, swallowing it up. She turns around and does the same with her ass.
My body is not a temple, she thinks. That is old hippy feminist mumbo jumbo. My body is just material flesh, just like anyone else’s. It’s no different. I’m not special. Our bodies are overvalued. I just want to stay healthy, that’s all, but who cares about the rest? This isn’t the big deal everyone makes it out to be.
While she compresses the video she messages Bombsaway666 and tells him the video is ready for him.
I can’t wait to see it. You’re so hot. I can’t wait to see you, your outside, your inside, your everything. It turns me on so much.
So you’ll really give me the money? You have to put it in my paypal when it’s at 75% or I’ll quit sending it.
Yes, of course I will, just send it.
They’re using AIM, yes it is an outdated form of messaging but it’s still the only place you can send a large file over a long period of time directly to a user for free. She begins to send him the file, watches the file progress bar go from 1%, to 5% and up from there. The blue bar twists and twirls in confusion. Is it moving or is it just an optical illusion? She can’t tell. It is taking awhile and she gets impatient, staring at the screen. Her file is only 50mb but the status bar says it will take one hour. Damn technology, why is it so slow? It’s 2010, shouldn’t this shit be faster than this? 50 fucking megabytes, that’s it, why can’t it send already?
Now she has an hour, an hour to agonize over her decision. The internet of today isn’t like the way it was when she was a kid. No one had videos, no one could send them over the information super highway, you were lucky if you could send a photo of yourself. When she was young, things were anonymous. But now, videos could spread in a second. What if this guy spreads her video on forums? Like 4chan? What if her brother sees it on one of those terrible porno sites he watches when no one is home? She didn’t care if she sold her body for money, but will her parents? Will her grandmother be ashamed?
The trees outside are still in the summer nighttime heat. There is a mirror at her vanity table, a mirror on her bathroom door and a full-length mirror near her dresser, forming a triangle of mirrors around her. Mary looks around at her selves. They surround her, each comprising a different angle of her awkward face. She spins her head in a circle, looking for the best angle, but can’t find one.
I need the money. I have no regrets in my life. I love myself. I am a good person.
She dials David’s number. She makes a snap decision to lay everything on the line with him. If she was going to start making serious money, she needed to be forthcoming.
Hey baby, David says upon picking up.
Hiiiiii, Mary cooes.
What are you doing?
Not much. I miss you.
I miss you too baby.
I have a question…well really I mean I’m doing something and I just don’t know if I should and I need your advice err your perspective I mean I don’t know.
What’s going on?
Well it’s just you know I’ve been doing some webcam stuff, nothing bad, just stuff by myself, I mean I’d never be with anyone else, I’m with you, but I get a lot of money for just being with myself and so this one guy who watches me in the chat he wanted a special video and he said he would give me a lot of money so I’m sending it to him right now.
What? Baby…you cannot do this. You cannot send him that!
Mary is silent for a moment and thinks What has she done?
David’s voice begins to tremble and then it booms. What’s wrong with you??
I can’t? But I mean, it’s really no big deal. It’s just a body, we’re all just bodies, what does it matter?
Then David yells, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? ARE YOU CRAZY? DON’T SEND IT TO HIM. PLEASE DON’T SEND IT.
But why not?
HAVE YOU EVEN THOUGHT ABOUT THIS? WHAT IF SOMEONE SEES THIS? DO YOU EVEN CARE? DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT ME? YOU BETTER NOT SEND THIS VIDEO.
She wants to explain to him how it’s not cheating, how sex and being sexual isn’t such a big deal as society makes it out to be, but it feels like there is something stuck in her throat and she is getting hot, feeling very hot, hot like the Baltimore sticky air, feverish, crazed, she is dizzy and the panic starts to set in, her heart beats quickly and the pink of her room makes her sick, sick to her stomach and it swirls around her, not like an optical illusion but like a truth, one that hits her hard in the gut and she wants to tell him how wrong she is but all she can get out is, OK.
Ok, I won’t.
She chokes this out and turns off her phone. She returns to her screen and presses the small X on the progress bar.
Bombsaway666: The file stopped sending. Will you send it again?
I don’t want to send it anymore.
Don’t you want the money?
No. It’s not worth it.
Babe. Come on. You promised.
I know I’m sorry. I’ve changed my mind.
Ok. Well how about for $700?
$1000. Final offer.
This really isn’t about the money although I am flattered at your offer.
He doesn’t respond. He has given up, she thinks. Or maybe he is pursuing another webcam girl. Mary’s heart is racing and she lets it calm down. You were about to make a mistake, but now it’s over. David will still love you and you won’t lose him.
After some time, she resumes her normal virtual activities like checking her Twitter and then her webcam inbox for flirtation notices. Sure, making private videos might not be the best thing for her to do but maybe she could still do her webcam show. It was far less personal and intimate after all. And much less likely to be spread over the internet.
Mary feels better that she didn’t go through with it. And she is happy she told David about it all. She hates hiding things. She wants him to know everything about her so he can love her still for who she is, not who he would like her to be.
But who is Mary? Is Mary a webcam whore? Is she a good girl? Is it in Mary’s nature to perform sexually for men or is this a put on? Can both possibilities exist simultaneously? No, no…you can’t act like a slut and have respect as a woman. No Mary, it doesn’t work that way. And how long could she really keep all this a secret?
She told David, yes, but he will still be mad. She will have to call him back and address the situation.
I didn’t do it baby. I’m sorry.
Why would you even want to do that? I don’t understand.
I don’t know….I guess it’s just an easy way to make money. And I don’t think societally it should matter socially as much as it does. I want to define my own sense of morality, you know?
Ok but babe, I am your boyfriend. You think I want other guys looking at you like that?
I don’t understand why it matters if they do. I’m not having sex. Men look at me on the street all the time.
But they don’t see you naked!
So what? My body is just a body, we all have them.
I can’t believe you don’t get it.
No I do. I just don’t believe in it.
Well, I do!! So you better too!!
Mary loved him so much. Her heady realizations didn’t matter. The men who watch her show don’t matter. Only David matters.
Ok baby. I won’t anymore. I love you.
I’m a good girl, Mary decides, I’m not a camwhore. Is it worth the money to hurt her boyfriend? No it isn’t. How could Mary be so selfish and naïve? I want to be a good person, Mary thinks. I want to treat people right. I don’t want to think only of myself.
Without any warning to her male acolytes, she deletes her webcam account. So far, no one seems to mind. It is like Mary never existed. Will any of them miss her, she wonders. Will they think she’s died tragically, or had a baby? Will any thought even cross their minds? Probably not, she decides.
After dinner the next evening, Mary watches The Bachelor with her parents and her brother.
Oh, these girls are so terrible, her mother decries.
Mary asks her why?
Because they are just so desperate for attention. And why are they always so dressed up and have so much make up on? Can they ever relax?
Her brother interjects, Mom, they’re on TV, duh.
Well, her mother continues, I would like them better without all that makeup.
Yea, OK Mom, well I think you’re the only one, her brother states.
Mary watches the rose ceremony and thinks she is so glad she stopped doing her show. Her mom would hate her. And now she can be good and honest.
In the morning, Mary lies in her bed, trying to recall her dream from the night before but it, sadly, has slipped away. David is at work, but she sends him a loving text message, so that he knows she has changed.
Without her show to occupy her afternoon, Mary is bored. What did I use to do with all this time, she thinks. Watch TV? Go on Facebook? Hang out with friends? Mary can’t remember so she decides to go for a run. The heat outside hasn’t broken so she heads to the basement and sets the treadmill for thirty minutes.
What a nice run I’ll have. And then I’ll feel so great. Mary watches How Do I Look while she runs. I wish I were a stylist on that show. I would give everyone a unique style.
After she showers she sees what her friends are up to on Facebook. Not much, Mary thinks, but she clicks on links to a few good articles. She feels glad she read something today.
I have it, BombsAway666 messages her on AIM. She had accidentally left her account logged in because of the events of yesterday. Mary didn’t mean to stay logged in and gets angry at herself for allowing him to be able to contact her again.
Have what? She decides to respond. She is a bit scared.
Part of your video. Nice, real nice.
What are you talking about?
You’re such an idiot cunt. You think I’d really pay to see your ugly pussy? I ripped the half you sent me before you canceled using a VLC player. So now, you’ll send me the rest. Or else I’ll post this video everywhere.
I don’t believe you.
Within a few minutes Mary receives an email from TashRenedy@yahoo.com. It is another alias of BombsAway666. He attached the first half of the video she made to prove he wasn’t lying. She opens the video and watches. She looks at herself naked and awkward, moving the webcam closer to her vagina and then taking her vagina lips and spreading them wide over the camera. Before the webcam is lost inside of her, Mary catches a glimpse of her own face, grimacing back at her. Her insides are dark, nearly impossible to make out. The video ends on a shot of Mary passing the camera around back to her butt.
Mary cries. I didn’t want it to be this way, she thinks. Thank god he didn’t see the anus part and Mary cries some more in self-pity. I don’t want to be on the internet anymore!! She screams this statement in her head. But Mary knows it is too late now. There are virtual traces of her everywhere. And even though she never used her real name on the webcam site surely at some point someone will be able to connect it to her Facebook, her Twitter, even her old Tumblr. How did she get so entangled in this mess? She’ll never be able to get out now. David will hate her forever. He will never trust her. No man will.
In her head, Mary knows her body is not a temple, despite the concessions she has made for David, but to BombsAway666 it is. And he would like to desecrate it. I thought I could avoid humiliation by declaring that there is nothing to be ashamed of. But Mary is about to be humiliated, because no one else agrees with her.
I’m not sending you the rest of this video.
Oh really? So you’re fine with me posting this everywhere?
No. How do I know you won’t post the full video once I send it?
You have my word. No one wants to see this ugly ass except me anyways.
Ok, I’ll send it.
But Mary doesn’t send it and she has no intention to. She wants to see how long she can string him along for, making him think she’ll send it to him soon. Over the next few weeks he asks her repeatedly to send it, with vague threats of dispersal. She promises again and again to send it soon. But Mary never does. Eventually, she never signs onto AIM again and gets a new e-mail account so he can’t contact her again. She doesn’t tell David, she wouldn’t want to worry him. She can take care of his mess herself.
The mid Atlantic heat burns the back of her neck as she moves into her senior year dorm room. I’m not nearly far enough away from home here, Mary decides. She spends months waiting to see if a video of the inside of her vagina pops up somewhere, for some annoying boy in her dorm to give her a funny look, for people to whisper. But it never happens and eventually Mary mainly forgets, assuming if it does exist out there, it is lost in the infinite world of amateur porn. And she is thankful for the eternal depths of the internet, for the millions of other videos other young women like her have posted, or have posted of them, of their own ugly bodies, so that hers doesn’t seem special or unique in any way to anyone who might happen upon it.
Ann Hirsch (b. 1985) is a video and performance artist based in New York. Her work engages with the contemporary portrayal of women in media.