Let’s get something out of the way: Almost everyone masturbates. Wanting to experience sexual release is a natural part of being a human. Yet, the act of a man pleasuring himself is often portrayed on-screen as something shameful. Think Jason Biggs and the cherry pie in American Pie or Kevin Spacey’s pathetic shower masturbation scene in American Beauty. It’s so often played to depict anger, weakness or deviancy. In contrast, women masturbating is a film spectacle: Cécile de France in High Tension or Sharon Stone in Silver. But Ben Hozie’s PVT Chat attempts to rewrite how audiences think about masturbation on-screen by viewing it as just another part of the human experience, particularly in a time of digital intimacy.
PVT Chat follows Jack (Peter Vack), an amateur online gambler with a penchant for cam girls. His favorite is Scarlet (the phenomenal Julia Fox), a dominatrix dressed in black latex who humiliates her clients at their request. Jack masturbates as Scarlet calls him names and commands him to demean himself. This is what gets him off, and he becomes infatuated with the person who can make him cum. What he forgets is that this relationship is purely transactional—a means to an end for Scarlet. Here, Hozie creates a complex portrayal of digital pleasure and what it means to have self-stimulated sex.
Part of the complexity in this portrayal is navigating the role of sex workers in the world of online intimacy. Here, sex work is a job, plain and simple, that involves providing digital pleasure with images and videos through cam sites, OnlyFans and more. From a user perspective, there is a higher perceived level of intimacy as viewers become loyal fans of single creators when subscribing to specific people instead of patronizing larger, more nebulous porn sites. In PVT Chat, Hozie pays respect to the labor involved in sex work, and how these jobs include performance to woo clients, through his construction of perspective.
Halfway through the film, PVT Chat switches from Jack’s perspective to Scarlet’s to show her as more than a cyber fantasy. She is a woman trying to survive by performing for Jack, while he places her on a mythical pedestal. She is compensated to be his dream girl—this is her job. And yet, their relationship morphs into something more complex as Scarlet seems to develop feelings for Jack. A strange grey area develops when the client-creator relationship blurs into something more than transactional.
Hozie portrays the nuanced reality of their initial relationship in the way he films the acts of masturbation themselves. It isn’t sexualized, instead filmed cinéma vérité, which makes these scenes appear as if they’re in a documentary. The camera observes Jack’s actions with a neutrality that doesn’t want to make this a spectacle—just another part of his routine. There’s no exaggerated editing to make this into a piece of comedy or a moment of shame; porn is just another part of the internet that’s become a reprieve.
And this reframing isn’t just about male masturbation. Scarlet is shown masturbating as well, not just for Jack, but for herself. She does it because she wants to experience pleasure. This is not framed voyeuristically, where the male gaze objectifies her as acting for both Jack and the camera. When she begins pleasuring herself on camera for Jack, it cuts to her with her webcam unplugged, laying on her stomach and touching herself in a way that isn’t “pretty”—it’s not some picturesque display for a man, but instead designed only to get her off. There’s also a connection made between her pleasure and her potential attraction to Jack. Hozie creates tension between performative pleasure and actual pleasure where Scarlet’s actions move from sex work to finding comfort in a client.
In this way, Hozie is examining how masturbation has become a staple of intimacy in the internet age. Both Jack and Scarlet have IRL partners, but they don’t find any satisfaction in those relationships. Jack drops his girlfriend like a hot potato when Scarlet texts him and Scarlet is constantly fighting with her boyfriend. They’re lonely and isolated, as neither of their partners seem to understand their wants and needs. Intimacy in the real world does not necessarily equate to pleasure, which is part of why these two people are attracted to one another. Being online lets them build fantasies around one another, and each becomes an escape from their respective realities.
When Jack and Scarlet finally meet, masturbation replaces the act of sex. Instead of finally being able to touch Scarlet, Jack can’t get aroused enough to do the deed. He can only get an erection by masturbating next to her. Self-pleasure has become prioritized over real life connections—illustrating intimacy’s shift from physical contact to an ethereal, individual experience built upon fantasies.
Transactional sex and the nature of one-sided romances become a way to cope with persistent loneliness in a time when people crave connection. In these times, the internet becomes a sexual refuge where physical connection is not always necessary to achieve pleasure. Hozie explores this reality through focusing on masturbation as a human act that provides a temporary release from loneliness and a longing for touch. PVT Chat knows that jerking off, for both men and women, should no longer be stigmatized, and sets a standard for other media touching on the subject. There’s nothing wrong with touching yourself; it shouldn’t be rendered into spectacle. There’s no shame in seeking pleasure on your own terms.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.