Body Talk

Escaping into privacy while naked on camera

Full-text audio version of this essay. Narrated by the author.

The first time I had sex on camera, getting fucked was easier. I’ve never been a particularly adept bottom. I fit the role through and through, but my constricted apertures can make things difficult. That afternoon though, in his sunlit Hell’s Kitchen bedroom and before his phone’s mechanical eye, my instincts for performance snatched the reins. An audience loomed. Eternalization, too. I had to look like I was enjoying it, and so, with a stoutly toughened threshold for pain, I did enjoy it.

It occurred to me after the 30-minute session that my consumption of pornography — continuous but disregarded — had forged a theatrical interpretation of sex. That it had trained me for the moment when fucking, like fitness, friendship, and trips to the beach, would also become routinely spectacularized by putatively private citizens. Where else would I have learned to moan like that, to urge him on, to arch my back, to mindlessly neigh cliches whose equivalents outside the bedroom I’d surely find… repugnant? Hen/egg debates aside, the theatricality also prompted an energetic diversity of positions. During subsequent shoots, I’d hopscotch between five elementary sexual configurations — a virtual “Kama Sutra for Dummies” — with an enterprise lacking in my usual sex. My usual sex, after all, was thoroughly analog.

I was only dabbling in the world of OnlyFans, stepping into the skin of the adult performer, because requests to film casual hookups had come to denote a new frontier of urban gay encounters. Scroll through Grindr these days in New York City or Miami or Los Angeles and you’ll see something that wasn’t happening two years ago: hot guys — the irritatingly photogenic ones whose Instagram followings invariably measure in “Ks”  — no longer link their Grindr profiles to their Instagram accounts. Instead, their profiles are garnished with Twitter’s tiny blue bird, a cipher decryptable to all but the most monastic gays: They are OnlyFans creators, capitalizing on Twitter’s toleration of X-rated content to promote their videos, usually seconds-long excerpts shielded by “sensitive content” warnings.

A number of them ignore me. But an increasing portion tends to throw in a question that is a months-old addition to the argot: “Down to film?”

Half of these dudes only moonlight as adult performers. Off camera, they are marketing associates, web developers, social media managers, servers, stylists, and so forth, blessed with extraordinary physiques and a flair for lucrative exhibitionism. The other half manage to live entirely off their subscribers, who, paying $10, $15, or $25 per month, make for a handsome aggregate when numbering in the hundreds or thousands.

For readers who are unfamiliar or didn’t listen carefully to the first verse of Beyoncé’s “Savage” remix: OnlyFans is a London-based subscription service that allows creators to upload and charge for original content. Launched in 2016, the website initially beckoned social media influencers of all stripes with a promise: “Whether you’re uploading tutorials, tips, behind the scenes footage or just endless selfies, a lot of your followers would be willing to pay for them!” It quickly became a mainstay of adult performers who were either tired of the bleeding professional porn industry or simply wanted to capitalize on yet another digitally paved avenue for a DIY vocation. Content creators can charge fans on a monthly or pay-per-view basis. They can also receive one-time tips. The popularity of homebodies masturbating to other homebodies surged in the initial months of lockdown. According to one report, between November 2019 and March 2020, the number of OnlyFans users jumped from 7.5 million to 85 million.

In a stirring 2018 essay responding to “incel” violence, philosopher Amia Srinivasan wrote: “Grindr, by its nature, encourages its users to divide the world into those who are and those who are not viable sexual objects according to crude markers of identity.” She’s right, of course, but I’d prefer to glide over the thicket of identity politics and admit just how much I enjoy Grindr’s grimy quadrants of torsos and faces. It’s a primordial release valve, modern-day fox hunting for men who live in a concealed sort of wilderness. Of course I hit up the ridiculously sculpted dudes. A number of them ignore me. But of those who yield to the clipped exchanges that lay the groundwork for sex dates (top/bottom? host/travel? raw/safe?), an increasing portion tends to throw in a question that is a months-old addition to the argot: “Down to film?”

At first, I was startled. I emphatically demurred. But then something changed in my private routines. In those twilight hours alone with my computer, I found myself pivoting from scripted, antiseptic, high-definition studio porn to lamplit bedrooms and living room couches. Studio porn had become too clinical, predictable, cheesy, groomed, airbrushed, kosher, mapped out, middling. It left no room for accidents, messes, or yelps of otherworldly pleasure. Its fucking never exceeded a certain temperature.

I quickly realized that the dudes on Grindr asking me to film were some of the same ones whose amateur videos I was getting off to. What ascendance into my prime! My childhood in an Arab country where homosexual acts are punishable by death and where I — a nerdy, unibrowed, braces-speckled adolescent — had resigned myself to a lifetime of doleful envisagement, was being left behind at last. I’d been deemed costar-worthy by my carnal ideals!

So I acquiesced, but with one condition: I would only appear faceless or masked. I had just set sail into my 30s. I wanted to memorialize my youth, my sex, while my body still bore that manufactured photogenicity for which swathes of gay men devote so many weekly hours to their local gyms. I’d already noted the creeping of wrinkles, a stomach harder to contain, muscles harder to inflate. If I wanted to instate a healthy and disciplined relationship to aging — to preclude any version of the tragic “adult child” syndrome — maybe fossilizing my moving image in some sort of modern tree sap could serve as an amulet.

Of course, the resultant souvenirs would be exteriorized impressions — pecs and thighs and dicks in motion, not the internal experience between and amid those moments of pleasure. The truth is, even in the middle of being nakedly broadcast, I can find myself escaping into privacy, slinking down ontological rabbit holes, silently muttering observations that both riff off and elide the corporeal ostentation.

“It is no accident that the photographer becomes a photographer any more than the lion tamer becomes a lion tamer,” said the photojournalist Dorothea Lange, who famously documented Depression-era suffering in the United States. In Lange’s day, the photographer was deliberate and conspicuous, bravely nabbing worthy records from the lion’s mouth. Today, with cameras as plenteous as eyeballs, and images baked into the experiential present, photographers aren’t lion tamers. They’re flies. This also goes for OnlyFans performers, who certainly don’t proceed with the providence of tightrope walkers or stuntmen or even studio porn stars. Almost everyone owns a phone and enjoys sex.

Still, the OnlyFans guys I’ve slept with do submit to cameras, even outside the bedroom, with a distinctive sort of rapture. Their confidence before the lens — posing, flexing, grinning, and faddishly sticking out their tongues (à la Ariana and Megan Thee Stallion) — is partly innate, partly generational, partly scene-specific.

By contrast, I neither have social media nor find myself anything less than mortified by my selfies. I’m not an OnlyFans performer. I’m a voyeur — of voyeurism’s very wellsprings, no less. My face, for what are boringly obvious reasons, is always out of frame, or blurred, or cloaked in a balaclava. I bear no responsibilities (e.g. fan base maintenance) and no consequences (a famous studio-turned-OnlyFans star once told me he’d bid goodbye to his dream of being a schoolteacher for fear of being recognized). And all the while, I get my taste of anticipatory glorification by the horny universe.

I neither have social media nor find myself anything less than mortified by my selfies. I’m not an OnlyFans performer

I’ve also noticed that my co-performers emerge unscathed on screen — a remarkable feat. My own body never looks as good as I want it to, but this type of faultfinding is different from the unforgiving eyes with which we appraise our photographs, reels, and boomerangs. Sex can be boring, sloppy, uninspired, but it isn’t wildly varied. While selfies freeze the face for scrutiny, humping bodies seem to offer fewer frameworks for quibbles.

Considering my inexperience, I’ve found my on-camera coitus pretty damn proficient, mechanically speaking. Watching the videos post factum in my bedroom, it almost looks as if my body is acting of its own accord. I might be leaning into the theater, but the fellatio, interplay, and rhythmic bouncing are in some senses akin to eating — their ease appears instinctive. (Maybe this answers the hen/egg question after all.) I’ve even found myself masturbating to my own videos, not because I find myself orgasmic but because, in addition to resembling the amateur porn I fancy, they facilitate a supreme sort of fantasizing about past hookups.

Susan Sontag, in her renowned reflections on photography, wrote: “Using a camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually. Between photographer and subject, there has to be distance.” These days, the photographer can be wholly inanimate: an iPhone attached to a $35.99 adjustable tripod replete with a “selfie ring light” and swivel motion capabilities. But the photographer can also be the person fucking you — a sweaty naked dude holding his phone — adding to the one or two standing cameras a penetrational POV feed to splice into the final product. The lens may be far enough to capture some of the action, but its handler and focuser, inches inside his subject, must grapple with the attendant pleasures, powers, and stupors.

Phones, as it happens, are frequently incorporated into the sex. Sometimes every person (or at least every top) in the scene holds their phone, an oddly unsexy sight. The joy of amateur porn lies in its promise of rogue inhibition. Not only do copulating dudes looking at their phones highlight the artificial nature of the enterprise — they also look silly, almost adolescently undisciplined, as if they’re so hypnotized by life’s concurring reproductions on screens, and so eager to possess their own version, that they simply must clutch one while thrusting, even at the expense of momentum and immersion. The best angles, after all, are always those of mounted phones and discrete cameramen, which promise some of (or only) the whole picture. It is the attestation that hot, fully embodied guys are getting it on that consummates this sort of voyeurism — staring at a contextually forsaken penis moving furiously in and out of a rectum begins, after 15 seconds, to look zoological, like earthworms mating.

“Most modern reproducers of life, even including the camera, really repudiate it,” wrote the poet Wallace Stevens. But I believe restraint and equilibrium can and should persevere amid the camera’s most transactional, parasitical, and exteriorizing temptations — amid photography’s tendency to, in Kafka’s words, “obscure the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade.” Even the most performative among us can till below the topsoil.

A new OnlyFans rule forbids creators from featuring anyone in their videos who’s not also a registered creator. What’s more, in an effort to fight trafficking and exploitation, all collaborators must be tagged in videos if they “can be identified from it.” Since I’d rather not register, I’ve taken a sabbatical from my experiments. (It bears mentioning that similarly configured platforms, such as JustForFans, are less strict about this.) Still, I’ve walked away with some fascinating lessons. I’ve come to appreciate how much of my own life is off camera. When Beyoncé is on tour, she watches every single performance on video immediately afterwards, before going to bed, studying her movements and missteps and handing her dancers and bandmates pages of notes the next morning. It takes that sort of studiousness to so intimately master facial and body movements — and to appear nightly, no less, before 85,000 people with all the poise and grandeur of Aphrodite.

I’m struck by the extent to which I’ve already internalized the collective eye. But this practiced composure begins to give way, in the way heat liberates atomic free radicals. I forget I’m being filmed

Perhaps I find this especially fascinating because, having neither Instagram nor Facebook, I rarely find myself making micro-appraisals of my social performances by way of posts and stories. And yet, when I watch my own OnlyFans cameos, unedited and for my own amusement, I’m struck by the extent to which I’ve already internalized the collective eye. And not just in terms of the sexual mechanics. I’m also less eccentric, less effeminate, than I imagined. I think I used to be weirder. My mannerisms and voice, habituated by the hectoring of high school bullies and my own preference for masculine men, appear to have converged within culturally orthodox parameters — parameters deemed to be aspirationally attractive by billboards, cool kids, bad boys, TV stars, porn stars, hipsters, and surely Beyoncé too.

But this practiced composure begins to give way as the sex becomes more passionate, the way that heat liberates atomic free radicals. I forget I’m being filmed. My voice gets higher, breathier. I pull him close, wrapping my legs around him like retracting sea anemone and selfishly disregarding our horny universe of spectators. It is during those moments that I disappear into my head, privately narrativizing and assessing my body’s ecstasies from within. Of course, this is true of sex generally. My “hidden life” takes over, abandoning all overtures to the external eye for which the image is performed. Sometimes, I inwardly revisit essays I’m writing, intriguing conversations, the news, existential qualms, things entirely unrelated to the sex at hand. It’s as if my consciousness is throwing a tantrum, insistent on having some say as my body is at peak synergy and exposure. Or that it’s simply bored — a desire has been vanquished and inner-communion, weirdly forbidden in the middle of sex, impishly beckons.

Watching those instances when I lose control, I’m reminded of the hapless people we see on CCTV surveillance footage right before some sort of disaster strikes. They tend to look innocent, unremarkable, almost clumsy, going about their daily lives without a clue that they’ll later be ogled on news sites by idly desirous audiences waiting for the thrilling moment a robbery or explosion or earthquake wreaks havoc upon their blithesome routines. The gulf between this wretched sort of oblivion and Beyoncé’s divine composure is immense, but it bears mostly upon exteriorized impressions and much less so upon the glimmering, ephemeral private life whose intelligibility might actually have an inverse relationship to bodily awareness. Any flâneur worth her salt will tell you that the mind comes alive when the body is occupied, and vice-versa.

Last week, I posed nude for a Japanese portraitist in East Williamsburg. For sixty minutes, with intermittent breaks, I sat on a stool, a wooden staff in one hand, listening to the scratches and scribbles of his charcoal. I understood in that hour, perhaps better than ever before, the “anguish of an uncertain filiation” with which Barthes had described his relationship to photographers: “An image — my image — will be generated: will I be born from an antipathetic individual or from a ‘good sort’?”

Instead of anguish, however, I felt relief. Cameras aren’t antipathetic. They’re apathetic. During filmed sex, they watch us coolly on behalf of the public and we thus fuck for the public. There is a distance of heed between my co-performer and me, even amid our enmeshed bodies. What Sontag called “the shady commerce between art and truth” becomes instead a negotiation between truth and exhibition, and those whom we are trying most to impress are neither present nor watching (yet). The analog portraitist, on the other hand, is several feet away, but he blocks out the world.

That evening, I felt like both art and truth were on my side. The portraitist and I had chatted for a while before I posed, about our respective crafts, lives, and interests. The atmosphere was tender. He, sweating as his hand swept intently across the canvas, was earning my image, just as I was suffering my impression. I trusted that he would honor, not prey, that he would extract, not thieve. And so I drifted into myself, away from my image, slackening my jaw, unfocusing my eyes, relinquishing my composure.

Shaan Sachdev writes about ontology, Beyoncé, the military industrial complex, noise, and other things.