Inside the Rapidly Growing Cam Industry That's Changing the Porn Industry as We Know It

It's earning an estimated $1 billion annually.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The idea of appearing on camera is nerve-racking. They say the camera adds 10 pounds, and what if that’s true? What if you make a stupid face? These kinds of thoughts can weigh on you. But what if there was a moneymaking space where those 10 pounds and that stupid face were celebrated?

The camming industry, also known as the live content industry, has blown up in the past few years. And it’s unique in the fact that it’s all but carved a space for every kink out there. When we think of models, actresses, porn stars and all the other faces typically used for masturbation material, we usually think of words like “pretty,” “thin” “big boobs.” And yes, there are certainly pretty, thin, big-boobed women working in the camming industry. There are many. But there are also big women. Transsexuals. Couples. Older women. Pregnant women. Hairy women. Hairless women. Men, smokers, contortionists. The list goes on. But the point is that the camming community mirrors the spectrum of what people find attractive, which is endless.

How It Works

Like almost any other job out there, the end goal is money. And cam girls can make a lot of it. In 2013, the New York Times reported that industry analysts and executives estimate the industry brings in around $1 billion in annual revenue.

I spoke with Clinton Cox, founder of the first annual CammingCon conference, to better understand that figure. He told me, “If you log on to the 10 biggest cam sites on the Internet, and you see the model counts for who is on that day for each of those 10 websites, there will probably be like 20,000 models online at any given time. Imagine when you try to compound that math—20,000 models on 24/7. It just goes to show you how much content is on the web, and if that much content is on the web then there’s that many more consumers on the web consuming that content. “

Then he took a sigh and added, “Holy shit. That’s a lot of humans.”

Most popular camming websites, like LiveJasmin, MyFreeCams, Charturbate and Cam4, encourage visitors to register. That way, they can buy “tokens” to tip performers with. The site Cam4 usually offers 500 tokens for around $100, 250 tokens for $50 and 100 tokens for $18.99. When you crunch those numbers, you’ll see one token isn’t worth very much money. So even though a 20-token tip may seem generous, it’s important to remember what that actually means in dollars. The more money you throw down, the more privileges you’re likely to get, like seeing the shows in full screen, viewing multiple screens at once, private messaging, and private sessions with your favorite performers.

The token system is also how cam performers can price certain acts. Take this one camming couple I found, for example. On their bio page they specifically say that for five tokens, they will kiss and show their feet. For 10, viewers can get a closeup of the lady’s breasts, or her asshole. For 20, they can see her pleasure herself, play with her boyfriend’s member, or see him suck on her nipples. They cap it at 25 tokens, where they are willing to lick and finger one another.

A lot of people go on cam sites to watch some hardcore stuff, not unlike what you would find in the camp of amateur pornography. But camming does offer viewers something traditional porn sites can’t: a conversation. Apparently, fans see something really appealing about a performer looking directly into the camera to respond to something they typed.

It makes sense why the performers choose to work with these kinds of websites, too. They don’t have to worry about handling the backend and bringing in traffic. But it can come at a price. Some sites take large percentages of their earnings in exchange for these services.

For performers who don’t have the proper equipment, or who don’t like the idea of camming from home, studios are another option. There they can charge per minute. Some performers even say their price changes depending on their mood. The studios don’t, however, offer performers the option of choosing their own hours, or working remotely, which seem to be two of the biggest perks of the job.

Then there are those who brave it on their own to avoid paying a commission. They use platforms like Skype and Facebook to host their shows. Others have found additional applications through which they can make money. Some performers even charge for Snapchat material.

But insiders warn that this path can be risky. I reached out to Nikki Night, who is in charge of performer development and training at Cam4. She told me, “A lot of people think Skype is safer because it’s just you and them. There’s not a whole bunch of people looking at you, which I can see they feel like it’s more private. I can see that. But at the same time, to get paid you have to use sources that are not very safe. And you can still be recorded on Skype, and you have no one to complain to. You have no one who has your back. You are exposed, you are out there.”

She added, “If you’re accepting PayPal then your name is exposed, your email is exposed, your identity is so much more out there. But on a site, no one knows your real name, no one knows anything about you, you don’t have to reveal any personal information.” On some sites, she explained, performers don’t even have to show their faces.

Here’s the other thing about cam shows: they happen in real time and are much harder to pirate. And the content gives fans an opportunity to communicate with their fantasies in a very real way. As Night explains, “They want that raw, vulnerable sexuality. They want to see something real. Everything is so force-fed to us in this plastic way. That when you see someone actually have an orgasm for real and the look on their face—even your ugly cum faces—it’s that raw sexual vulnerability that is the juicy center of amateur and it’s even better when it’s someone that could, theoretically, live down the street from you.”

This kind of interactive erotic material may be just what the adult entertainment industry needs to survive the flood of free, pre-recorded content that’s surfaced in recent years.

What Do Cam Girls Do?

As we touched on earlier, the camming community is not exactly an exclusive one. Or maybe it’s hyper-exclusive. Or maybe there are just so many sexual subsets out there, listing them off doesn’t do anyone any justice. So to sum up what demands a cam girl will be met with is difficult. In a word, everything. In another, anything.

Cox explains, “There’s this new genre of model that’s like the Instagram-famous 400, 500,000 models, the Vine models, Facebook models, so what we’re starting to really come to now is social media models. And, hey, this is cool, but how do we make more money?” He added, “It’s interesting to watch this evolve into a do-it-yourself kind of business. And it’s happening.”

There seem to be a few basic categories you can put yourself into as a cam performer. There’s the "friends-only" category, which is PG: no nudity, no kinkiness. In fact, you don’t even have to talk about sex with your viewers when this area is involved. When it comes down to it, a lot of the individuals who seek out these kinds of shows are simply lonely, and want to talk to someone. The fact that they have to pay to do so doesn’t seem to deter them.

Then there are the "soft-core" shows, which are kind of like a step up from friends-only, but a little dirtier. Performers may be asked to strip, to touch themselves, but nothing too much. And should a performer refuse a request to get kinky, that’s okay too.

Then there are the other things people want to see. When talking about one of her “favorite” clients in A Day In The Life Of A Cam Girl, Lillie Lovely writes, “I don’t actually know his real name, or anything else about him. He just likes me to sit quietly and not look at the camera. This is usually the time when I pick up my book and just go about my business. He likes to see me being me, as if he was literally peeking through my window.”

Now we arrive at what some insiders call the “hardcore” section, which is where the majority of cam performers place themselves. Here is where the stereotypes attached to the industry come out. This is where you go to see girls with their legs spread wide open, vibrators taking up half the screen... and other things, too. As cam girl Lovely writes, “You can say no to odd requests, but mostly (the viewers) just want you to fuck your IQ points away.” But that doesn’t stop performers from getting personal. In one show I sat in on, I saw a girl say “Aww. My sister just had her baby” right after removing a purple buttplug from her ass.     

There are also the times where things get a little amusing. When watching one transsexual playing around in a somewhat ambitious position, the image suddenly turned into a blurred mess, followed by a loud “thump.” The screen went blank, and a message reading, “This broadcast is currently unavailable” popped up. So, yes. Accidents do happen.

Nikki Night told me about when a fan asked her to get on all fours and bark like a dog. No problem, bark away. But then the fan took it a step further and asked if he could purchase a custom-made dildo molded into the shape of his dog’s penis, send it to her, and watch her use it on herself. She declined the request. There was also the time a fan asked her to insert a toy fire truck into her vagina and pretend it was filled with miniature people. Or the guy who liked to pour milk all over himself.

And this is just a “tip of the iceberg” kind of conversation when it comes to what performers actually do on camera. But as strange as some of the shows may get, there is an equally strange fan base waiting on them. When talking about the different types of performers out there, Clinton Cox told me, “The character is the most important thing. They choose their character or they choose multiple characters. And there are so many god-damn humans on the Internet, they will find her, and they will love her.”

That’s just the performance end of things. Then there’s the promotional wing, which almost always finds a home on social media. Take for example a randomly selected post from Night’s Twitter page, “Getting naked on #cam4 in 15 mins.” The message is clear, concise and doesn’t exactly leave much room for confusion. When asked what advice she would give to performers, she said, “Tweet your stuff, tweet crazy things, tweet pictures of you, funny pictures of you. They don’t all have to be sexy. Go on Instagram, be the Instagram model, hashtag the shit out of everything."

Some cam performers have gained upwards of 40,000 social media followers.

Cox explains, “Social media is pretty much it nowadays. I mean, that’s where the fans are, so the fans sign up to get their notifications, and/or hit them up directly on their model site. So social media is the ultimate platform for them.”

What Life Is Like As a Cam Girl

Apart from the intricacies of the business, one has to ask, what is life actually like as a cam performer? Night helped walk me through some of the basics.

The first question that usually comes up is, does working in the industry make having a relationship hard? Night told me, “It really, really depends. But I found that either guys are really, creepily into it, like too into it. Or, we like to call them Captain Save-A-Ho. So, Captain Save-A-Ho always is like, ‘Oh you’re better than this, I want to save you.’ And you’re just like, 'Really dude? It has nothing to do with you.' It’s just they want to be Prince Charming as much as girls want to be princesses. Disney movies have fucked us up."

When asked if jealousy ever factors in she said, “A lot of guys get really, really jealous, and I ask them why? One guy I was dating I was like ‘Come stand in the room to see what I see.’ And after he was like, ‘It was hot but I kinda got jealous.’ And I was like, did you see that I was seducing a robot, and that it was words on a screen? How am I supposed to cheat on you with words?"

It’s hard to keep life separate from work. And when you work in the sex industry, it’s hard not to have sex on the mind. When I asked Night if she found herself getting hornier outside of work hours she said, “Yes. Because before I started camming, I never masturbated, I never even owned a dildo. I mean, there were the times in the shower, like any normal girl. But after a while, your body gets so used to it. Like I went from camming to the office, and I remember sitting there being like, I want to do… something."

She added, “It’s funny, you think you’d be burnt out. And I mean, you are tired. But after a while you actually crave that human touch. So it does make you a lot hornier outside of camming as well. Like yeah, you’ve just busted a few times, but after your show you turn off the camera, and there’s this silence, you realize, I’m the only one in this room. And, you’re like, I want a human, I want affection!”

If asked to list the risks of camming, most people would probably jump to things like hacking, stalkers, digital pimps and the like. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But Night introduced one hazard that doesn’t seem to get nearly as much attention: the risk to your own body. She told me, “A lot of the girls actually end up getting bladder infections, because you’re fucking playing with yourself for hours at a time. It’s actually quite common.”

When asked how camming changed her life, she told me, “I never thought that I had a hot body until I cammed. You think that everyone wants a skinny little thing. No. Not even close. I went from big to small and I actually found I had more fans the bigger I got. And when I started losing weight I had fans that would come in and say, Oh did you lose weight? And I'd be like, Yeah I did! And then they’d say, eh… I liked you bigger. And then they would leave! And I’m like, what just happened? So when people say I don’t know if I’m hot enough and this or that. Dude, yes you are. You are so much hotter than you know.”

Of course, there is always the darker side of things. Especially when it comes to the sex industry. While it is true that many performers can land comfortable, well-paying jobs camming, that seems much easier to accomplish in the North American context. Countries in eastern Europe and southeast Asia are known to use camming platforms to exploit already at-risk individuals. In such places, “studios” are often code for dingy locations where performers go to access the web. Those in charge frequently take a larger cut of the money than warranted. 

Here, the ability to speak English is essential to success. Competition is widespread, and well-paying jobs are hard to come by, so being able to communicate with the majority of consumers proves incredibly important.

There are other dangers, too. Nikki Night told me about having to ban one country because of how frequently it advertised underage performers. Sam Biddle details some of the biggest risks cam performers face in his article, Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money."

That being said, there are a lot of places where cam performers can make a very acceptable living. And while they may not necessarily get rich doing so, it does allow them a way to pay their bills and clothe their children, often from the comfort of their own homes.

What the Fans do and How to Be a Good One

Fans come in all different shapes and sizes, and as the industry would suggest, variation is a good thing. But there are certain behaviors fans should favor if they really want to stand out from the crowd.

The one thing you’ll hear cam performers say over and over again is, “If I’ve already said I won’t do something, don’t ask for it.” They’re not asking viewers to be mind-readers. On most sites, cam performers put together a bio of sorts, specifying which acts they’ll partake in, and how much they charge for it.

Another way to warm up to a cam performer is to talk to them. And not always like a masturbation-crazed degenerate (though there is plenty of room for that). Sometimes, the best way to communicate with a cam performer is as a fellow human. “Hey, how was your day,” isn’t exactly a hard sentence hard to type… even when doing so with one hand. Small gestures can go a long way for people who spend a good portion of their day reading dirty messages from strangers.

Another obvious way to be a good fan: Tip. Camming is their job. Yes, cam performers are there for the lonely masses looking for some company. And some stimulation. But they’re not humanitarians, they’re professionals. And part of their game is rewarding the highest-paying customers. Some performers are known to give their best clients free (or almost free) shows from time to time. If fans want to take it a step further, they’re welcome to send gifts to their choice performers, many of whom have wish lists on Amazon.  

What Does the Future Look Like?

It’s tough to say just what the future holds for the camming industry. There are those, like Clinton Cox, who remain staunchly optimistic about what’s coming. He’s currently preparing for the second annual CammingCon conference, set for June 2015. He expects, like last year, for cam performers to come in droves. Some by plane. Some by bus. And some driven there by their mothers.

Within the past few years, the organizers of the EXXXOTICA Fan Choice Awards decided that “Webcam Girl Of The Year” deserved its own category. One of the directors told me, “Webcam is (now) probably the most trafficked category, because you have such a broad group of girls that are competing for it.”

That seems pretty promising. But when asked if camming could remedy the hit the adult film industry has taken in recent years, he said, “Web cams have certainly gotten bigger and more prominent over the past five years, but that being said they’re also being compared to a large majority of the rest of the adult industry, which is kind of withering away. So not only have they gotten bigger, but everything else has gotten smaller, which makes it look that much larger. For that reason it looks like they have a larger cut of the pie of the adult entertainment industry.”

He added, “The adult entertainment world is no longer ruled by three top adult stars. There are hundreds of them, and then when you bring in the webcam girls there are thousands of them. So financially, it has a much broader appeal. But when it comes to the world of adult entertainment, I think it’s more something a lot of people can use and make a decent living off of, not necessarily become a superstar.”

That being said, the potential for innovation shouldn’t be overlooked. There are a lot of opportunities left to explore. Nikki Night told me about “Battle Cams,” for example. Two performers appear side by side in a split screen and can compete in a variety of acts: dance-offs, gum chewing contests, squirting contests—whatever they want. Whoever walks away with more tips wins.

Then there’s the idea of using green screen, where cam performers can literally put themselves in any context they want while never having to leave their bedroom.

Night told me, “The future of camming, I think, is going to be things to make it even more interactive. The whole glitz of, you can talk to the person who's masturbating onscreen is still titillating, if you will. But I think the future will be about giving the viewer even more control.”

She listed a few more examples. Like vibrators you can control with a phone app. So performers could, in theory, tell fans to download the app, and allow them to control what they see onscreen, for a price, of course. She told me about one performer who even found a way to program her vibrator to pulsate every time she receives a tip. Others have found ways to allow fans to access and control their cameras (again, for a price).

There’s also the possibility of programming dildos to work in conjunction with fleshlights. The idea is, the harder a girl penetrates herself with her dildo, the tighter the fleshlight will squeeze its user's penis. It’s a physical form of virtual sex. As Night explains, “Imagine if you got that thing, and gave the fleshlight away as a raffle. It’s like you actually get to fuck.” And that is something a lot of fans would pay big money for.  

The camming industry is dense. But the best way to understand it is by hopping onto a site and exploring it on your own. And those who are hesitant can take comfort in the fact that they can interact with performers as faceless, voiceless entities, if at all. As those in the camming industry will insist, “All are welcum.”

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture. 

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