Edith first appeared in a worrisome context: rolled over naked, facedown in bed after a session with her Hitachi vibrator, possibly weeping. Several of her 2,072 viewers exchanged concern: “Do you want to stop Edith?”or “What up? I clicked away and I come back and she’s crying?”or “She’s fucking joking”and “What happened??? She’s really upset”and “I can’t stand to see her sad.”Then she cut off her video feed.
From watching her Chaturbate show, I learned that Edith was a nineteen-year-old college student in the Midwest who seduced her audience by dressing like an American Apparel model, revealing the depth of her existential despair, and making every one of her viewers feel as if he and only he were the person who might understand and rescue her from both her tortured soul and her vow of celibacy. This dreamy formula attracted men by the thousands, men who clamored to suggest that Edith read Infinite Jest, Stranger in a Strange Land, the research of Masters and Johnson, or the poetry of Walt Whitman, to beg her for a personal message, and to tip her when she showed them her flawless milky-white breasts, bruised knees, and untamed bush. (She had been inspired in her celebration of body hair by YouTube videos of Siouxsie and the Banshees.) She would read out loud, everything from R. D. Laing to Sam Pink. She would name-drop Michel Foucault and David Bohm. She flattered the men who watched her for their intellectual gifts and for bringing to her attention the obscure cultural artifacts they proffered in the chat bar like hipster magi. Her user name quoted a J. D. Salinger story and the first item on her Amazon Wish List was William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. The second item was a long, ornately printed dress and the third item was a nun’s habit. Men would discover and claim her the way that men discover and claim early electronic music from Poland or a difficult-to-reach Goan restaurant in Queens.
The second time she showed up while I was online was early one Tuesday morning. She wore a white cable-knit sweater and a 1950s-style skater skirt and stood bare-legged in a cold-looking room with white walls and tile floors. Pale winter sun filtered through one window. The room had a coffeemaker in one corner, a guitar in another, and a fabric chair of the sort made for tailgating, with built-in beer coozies in the back. Behind her, a man dressed in a coat and scarf made coffee, ignoring Edith as she stripped down to a pale pink leotard and began fancifully dancing around, occasionally pulling down the leotard’s straps to reveal the rest of her body. In another corner, visible in glimpses when Edith carried her computer around the room, a woman slept under covers on an air mattress. Several sneakers and boots lay scattered around. Someone remarked that the scene looked like a flophouse out of Breaking Bad.
Edith had the sound off, although she would respond to compliments with a tersely typed “thank you.”She breakfasted on a pint of ice cream, gazing flirtatiously at the camera. She sat down on the edge of the air mattress and lifted her skirt. Behind her, the slumbering form drew the covers in around her, and the man making coffee, or perhaps a different man (people wandered in and out—“there are three other people under the bed,”joked one viewer), had now sat down in the beer-coozie chair and was reading a book. Their disinterest was such that it was as if Edith were not in the room at all, as if she were a ghost. This only raised the frenzy of the chatters, who couldn’t fathom how anyone could ignore such an angelic creature in their midst.
One day, Edith did a twenty-four-hour marathon on Chaturbate, which people occasionally did. She began in early afternoon, fully dressed in a blue baby-doll dress patterned with roses, smoking cigarettes in her bedroom and holding forth to an audience of more than two thousand people content just to listen to her talk. “I will be getting naked, absolutely, when the time comes,”she said. “But if you’re trying to bust a nut in ten minutes you might want to go to another room and come back.”She talked about her early forays into webcamming. She had begun some six months before on the site My Free Cams, under another literary name. She was banned when she mimed hanging herself with a Hitachi Magic Wand one day when the people chatting with her started demanding illegal requests, and she switched to Chaturbate. She talked about her favorite pornos, including Sasha Grey Takes Many Dicks. She liked Stoya’s writing but thought she was overrated—too “generic porn girl.”Someone asked her if she liked James Deen. “I’m not really into male porn stars,”she said.
Edith was herself contacted by a porn agent once. Initially the idea appealed to her: living in a house with other porn performers, with their own driver, hairstylists, and a swimming pool. She talked to the other girls in the house. “They all had names like Tiffany and Mercedes and they were, like, ‘I get paid to bone.’”Edith mimed shooting herself in the head in exasperation. The porn agent had talked down to her, like she was a child or naive, and after some evasion of the question eventually told her the job would involve boy-girl sex. (In porn industry parlance men are boys and women are girls.) Edith was a virgin and not interested, so she did not sign up. She said she told the guy he was an “arrogant, condescending asshole”and that she “hoped his dick would fall off.”
The minutes ticked by. Edith’s thousands of viewers settled into their computer desk chairs and she told us more about her life. She talked about how she had graduated a year early from her high school. She took a year off after graduation, with the intention of seeking out “weird adventures.”She “experimented with being homeless,”living in a van for a couple of months with her two cats and integrating herself into the local homeless community. She recounted a near-death experience with elements of psychedelic mysticism. I started to wonder if Edith was some sort of Internet prophetess.
“You know, Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question in life is whether or not to kill yourself,”said Edith with a solemn air of recitation. “Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question in life is whether time has a beginning and an end. Albert Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, and Tom Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm. The real question in life is who knows how to make love stay. Answer me that, and I will tell you not to kill yourself. Answer me that, and I will ease your mind from the beginning to the end of time.
”What the fuck was I watching? I closed my laptop and went out to dinner.
I looked in at midnight and the camera was trained on an empty bed. Even empty, her room held the number-three spot on the website. Twelve hours later, I looked again. For more than 1,700 viewers she sat on the floor naked next to a pair of ballet slippers with an unlit cigarette in her hand. Some of her chatters wanted more sex. Most of them didn’t care. “She can do whatever she wants,”wrote one. “I’m lucky to be here and having fun with the best lady in the universe.”
During the final minutes of her marathon, some of the chatters indicated they had stayed up all night with her, but she did not end with an extravagant sexual act. Instead she had put on another of her endless collection of cute floral dresses and sat against the wall next to a pile of books. She was pale, with circles under her eyes. In the last five minutes she honored her highest tippers by listing them by name. Who were these men? Earlier, I had clicked over to the webcam of one high tipper, who had also served as her moderator. He had posted his location as Germany and hidden his face. All that was visible, in standard desk-light illumination, was the bottom of an unshaven chin, the ends of his long curly hair, his shirtless torso, and a black denim jacket with “Trans-Siberian Orchestra”embroidered in white over the breast pocket.
When the final seconds of her marathon expired, Edith sat up. “Did I make it?”she asked. “It happened?”A chorus of chatters affirmed she had made it. She threw her hands into the air and shrieked. Then she leaned forward, as if to embrace her laptop, and severed the video feed. The time was 2:30 p.m.
I called Edith, but she didn’t want her parents to find out about her activities. She declined to be interviewed after the first phone call and said she was going to quit Chaturbate. On the phone, she had affirmed that she was not sexually active in real life, although she had gone out with boyfriends in the past and had once performed with her female roommate on Chaturbate. She said she was otherwise celibate, and had considered that she might be “Internet sexual.”
Emily Witt, Future Sex, 2016.