Sex & Relationships

How Web Cam 'Sex' Is Transforming the World of Internet Porn

Web cam models enjoy all sorts of job benefits that aren't available to traditional sex workers.

Photo Credit: Lucky One/Shutterstock

Alice* spent a month and a half working at a BDSM dungeon in New York City. During her first solo session, a 70-year-old male client requested that she dress up as a dentist and administer an oral injection of lidocaine, a common anesthetic that causes numbness. Then she used tools and sounds to imitate teeth removal. But this was far from the strangest experience she had during her stint at the dungeon. People asked her to perform everything from golden showers to fisting to different forms of cock and ball torture. One client requested she blow cigarette smoke into his mouth for two hours while they watched gay porn and listened to music he had recorded.

“You never really know what you're going to get into unless they are your regular client and you've built a relationship with them,” Alice, 23, told AlterNet via email.

Unusual requests aside, Alice says she wasn’t explicitly threatened while working in the dungeon. Each room had a panic button, and she only met with clients who had been previously vetted by other women. Still, she concedes she never felt entirely safe because management did little to protect the women. “The money outweighed the girls’ safety a lot of the time and I didn’t like that,” she said in a phone interview. Eventually, Alice left the dungeon because the work left her with a wealth of negative feelings. Some of the acts she performed fell into a legal gray area, and some acts the other girls performed were downright illegal, which still put her in jeopardy with the law, even if she wasn’t doing anything wrong. “I felt like I was suffocating under that pressure.”

These feelings of pressure began to transcend the legal issues as her experiences at the dungeon bled into her personal life. “I went there one day and I realized how much I didn’t want to be there and how much it was draining me. I was consenting to things that I normally wouldn’t do because I knew it would make me more money.” She is in a committed relationship, but recalls that when she would go home after a day of work, she “didn’t want to be touched.”

Alice has since moved over to the Internet, where she exchanges messages with clients and is considering working as a cam model. Emotionally, the differences are already apparent. “I don’t feel sexually dried up,” she says. She works on a “girlfriend” cam site, which is distinct from the group rooms hosted on popular webcam sites like MyFreeCams.com. Men go there to meet her and message her individually, making the experience more personal. She likens it to a dating page, aside from the fact that she’s not allowed to share any personal information. If she violates this rule, her account will be terminated.

Alice gets paid for every message she receives. At the time of our interview, she had been working for the site for two weeks and had already made over $100 in messages alone. If she decided to start camming, it would be a private show, and she could decide the rate-per-minute. Within the field, payment seems to vary widely. Another web cam model wrote to me on the Internet forum Reddit and told me she works eight-hour shifts, typically making $500-$600 every two weeks for a total of $1300 a month. She explained that she can make anywhere from $10 per shift to $200. Income ranges depending on both the clients and the women; some models she knows make $300 per month while others make $3000. Though the numbers could well be inflated, MyFreeCams says its most popular models can make over $50,000 a month while several others earn $10,000 per month.

On the site Alice works for, live chats are free, so she’s using these as a less pressured entry point to the unfamiliar world of webcams. “But if they want to talk dirty or something, or they are really obviously trying to get off, you can tell them, ‘okay this conversation ends unless you put so-and-so amount of credits in my account.’” This way, she can set the tone and decide how much money she wants to make.

In a recent New York Times piece, Kari Lerum, a sociologist from the University of Washington Bothell desribes the comfort and independence that comes with web cam modeling compared to other types of sex work. “The women work out of their homes, it’s safe, they have more control over working conditions,” she said. MyFreeCams expressly addresses this as a pull for would-be models. It tells them “as a model, you are always in control of your chat room, and you have hundreds of different options and settings to make the site fit your needs." VividCamModels even gives potential models the option of blocking entire states or countries from seeing their live feeds.

The Internet also affords both sex workers and clients a clearer way of establishing consent. It allows models to set their limits before they step into the chat room. As Betabeat notes, they are less likely to be exploited by a director or a costar, as one may experience in traditional pornography. Moreover, solo performances put models at a decreased risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections.

The increased control afforded by the Internet extends outside the world of web cams. An article in the Economist explains how the Internet has normalized prostitution, allowing prostitutes to create personal websites to brand and market themselves, and clients to consult review sites to gain honest feedback about their experience, similar to Yelp and other user review sites. Women and men in the sex industry can do business on their own terms. Since prostitutes now have alternative ways to access clients, pimps are less likely to be abusive, as sex workers do not need to rely on them to market. Websites and apps can even help verify identities and share STD test results. One website, Britain’s Ugly Mugs, even allows sex workers to share information on dangerous individuals. In many ways, the Internet affords sex workers more choices, allowing them to accept and reject clients as they see fit, making acts between sex workers and their clients more consensual.

The health and safety benefits that come from formalizing sex work bring us one step closer to providing the basic labor rights that workers in other industries enjoy. As journalist and former web cam model Melissa Gira Grant explains in the Nation, even labeling sex work “work” changes its perception and the resulting conversation. Grant argues that “to do so is to insist that those who do sex work, in all of their workplaces and in varied conditions, deserve the rights and respect accorded to workers in any other industry.”

Nationcolumnist Katha Pollitt doesn’t agree. She responds to Grant in her column saying that when some feminists call for the normalization of sex work “they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area.” She suggests it perpetuates rape culture by placing the power in the hands of males because they are permitted to obtain sex without attracting a woman or even meeting her needs.

Yet, while some cam models may have entered the field under coercion or out of desperation, many others haven't. And the playing field between female workers and their male clients is leveled by the intimate setting of the web cam experience. Lerum told the New York Times that men are more open here than they would be in a strip club, for example. They can start caring about a relationship that may not exist outside of the Internet. She calls camming a “mutual objectification,” contrary to Pollitt’s view of sex work.

Cam sites also provide models with more economic security. Because live shows are harder to pirate than prerecorded videos, they are a steadier source of income. The numbers speak for themselves. The Times notes that the top cam sites receive 30 million users a month, according to Compete.com, which measures Internet traffic. The article explains that, “At any given time, hundreds of models are online, some being watched by 1,000 or more people, others giving private shows. The money generated by cam sites is hundreds of millions of dollars at least, and very likely a billion or more, according to industry analysts and executives.”

Yet despite the money and relative safety, cam modeling is not a positive experience for everyone. One model I spoke with, who goes by the pseudonym Bethany Bellvue, started modeling to have some extra money to pay off her massive amount of debt. She found the experience exhausting. When we spoke, she had gone on hiatus and switched to making amateur porn clips instead. Back when she was live camming, she worked out of her one-bedroom apartment and every time she wanted to broadcast, she’d have to set up her camming area and take it down again. It became a burden, and the money wasn’t worth it.

Unlike Alice, Bethany found it difficult to get over the initial hump first-timers often experience and build a devoted fan base. She explained that a lot of successful web cam models have a day job to fall back on, but she didn't have another job. “They could just sit online...not worry about if they were getting paid,” she told me in a phone interview. “There’s just no time to do that when you’re actually relying on the money at first.”

The Times article describes other risks of camming, including clients outing the model, family members finding out, and feelings of isolation. Kathryn Griffin, a former prostitute and sex industry recovery coach, told the Times that cam modeling can act as a gateway, turning workers on to stripping or prostitution, for better or for worse. Cam models also run the risk of experiencing low self-esteem and using drugs to combat feelings of shame.

When sex workers experience shame, it raises questions about the validity of consent. In any other offline, unfinanced sexual encounter, post-coital embarrassment or remorse could indicate assault, rape or at the very least a lack of established and direct consent. The inclusion of money complicates the issue, but that’s the case for any type of service worker. How many waitresses would willingly bus tables if they weren’t getting paid? For Alice, at least, web cam sex work offers the best of both worlds. She can make money and feel in control. Physically, it’s a step removed. “I feel much freer to set my rules, my boundaries, and my hours.” For other sex workers, that could make a huge difference.

*Names have been changed by request.

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