Sex & Relationships

A Safer, More Lucrative and More Interactive Form of Porn

Webcam models offer something real, raw and relationship-based.

Photo Credit: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

Despite the estimation that 37 percent of all internet searches are porn-related, since the early aughts, there’s been a marked decrease in porn revenues and access. Google has tried to lower the rank of porn sites in searches. Apple and other mobile devices have banned smut from their app stores (Android is a bit better, in that it has a third-party adult app store). Then there’s the staggering amount of free and pirated porn content, which makes it far more difficult for pornographers and models to earn money. (Not to mention the whole global recession thing, which has affected almost every industry, porn included.)

One of the biggest surprises porn has faced in the past few years is web camming, an interactive show people pay for to watch and engage with a model in real time. A considerable amount of money is being made in camming now, and porn has had to scramble to keep up, with most tube sites now offering cam videos. You can find plenty of ex-porn stars on cam sites, where many can make a lot more money, as well as enjoy independence from the (often) male-owned porn business. As traditional porn revenues drop, web camming has only grown more popular and lucrative. Some stats claim web camming is a $3.5 billion-a-year industry. What accounts for the inverse?

Camming veers from more traditional forms of porn in a number of ways. Whereas in the past a performer would be paid a flat fee for a shoot, no matter how much the film made, web camming tends to work on a tipping or token system. The site will take a cut of the earnings—between 20 and 70 percent, depending on the site—but in many cases, the performers themselves earn the bulk of the profits. According to some estimates, the average cam girl takes in about $1,200 a month. (Take that estimate with a grain of salt, however. There are many levels of earnings, since cam girls number in the tens of thousands. Some models earn $200-$400 a day and even much more in some cases.)

The tipping model is another way camming turns porn on its head. Broadly speaking, most models get tipped via tokens (which equal real cash, and sometimes other forms of currency, like BitCoin) to masturbate on camera, but they can also engage in shows that aren't explicitly sexual. Some cammers’ broadcasts involve acrobatics, playing music and singing, talking politics, and other non-sexual themes. The tipping system also gives viewers something no other form of pornography offers: a chance to have a personal interaction with the model, and potentially to influence the show.

On MyFreeCams (MFC), many models use remote-controlled sex toys by Lovense, whose vibrations increase with the amount of tips the model receives. Tippers can also make requests of models, and those aren’t always explicitly sexual. One cam aficionado told me about a request she made for a model to sing a song from the video game Skyrim, in Dragontongue, the game’s invented language.

Though tipping can influence certain acts the model engages in, she (cam models are overwhelmingly female and their clients overwhelmingly male) is still in charge and has final say over what she does on camera. “Camming is a way that ultimately puts the model in control,” says JessicaSage69, who broadcasts on Stripchat. “It's her space, her schedule, and her guidelines or rules of what she will or won't do. If anyone is breaking those rules or trying to ruin her time, or even attempting to take control of her room, she can easily get rid of them without having to worry about something happening....That’s empowerment.”

Camming “puts control of art/entertainment—erotic or otherwise—back into the hands of the artist and the fans,” says Harley Rose Lee, who broadcasts on MFC and JustTheMusic.org, a site for cam models to showcase their musical talents. “[MFC] takes its cut as the host (as it should) and they have their basic guidelines (totally valid and important), but aside from that they try to stay out of the way and let people make their content and have a relationship with their fans. It makes for better art, happier artists and more satisfied members.”

This sense of control is another way camming differs from traditional porn shoots or other kinds of sex work. Models are not physically present with clients, so they are safeguarded from many of the usual kinds of abuse, threats and physical danger. They also have some tools at their disposal to ensure their protection. “Stripchat (where I mostly broadcast) has an easy feature for geoblock that allows you to have more privacy,” says Naomi Courtney. “So you can block countries and even certain states if you want to stay private.”

Geoblocking is part of a vast and growing suite of tools sex workers use to protect themselves from potential harassment and exploitation—from clients and law enforcement officials alike. Even with such tools in place, there is still a danger of people illegally recording and releasing cam shows online at the expense of the models. This can be especially devastating to models who work outside the U.S. Romania, for instance, has a staggering amount of cam studios, 2,000 by some estimates, and with the average monthly wage in Romania being less than $300, pirated content can take a huge chunk out of models’ livelihoods. There are also occurrences of women being discovered or outed intentionally by boyfriends, acquaintances, family, or employers, which can have lasting damage.

Part of ensuring a better workplace environment in informal and unregulated economies like sex work falls to the models themselves, who create their own communities and networks and share advice. “Female sex workers are the most loving, caring, thoughtful, intelligent, hard-working women across the board,” says Allie Knox, who cams on I Want Clips and MFC. “Being able to be included in this space of beautiful, creative women is the hugest pro. It’s so wonderful.”

Harley Rose Lee echoes the benefits of online communities she’s found through camming. “I have so many amazing members and models in this community,” she says, noting that Amber Cutie Forums (ACF) was an important resource for her when starting out. “It was started by a model as an extension of her website and has become a huge networking resource for models of all genders to be able to commiserate, share tips, ask questions... And it's entirely free!”

The community aspects apply not just to models, but to the relationship between models and clients as well, and speaks to another appeal of camming—vulnerability. Users feel connected to the models. Sex may be the currency, but it doesn’t negate the larger desire viewers have for connection. In some cases, clients aren’t even paying for sex.

“My base is lonely men, 100 percent,” says Knox. “The people that come to me want to talk about tacos or politics or whatever. They’re way more into a connection. Like, I have one who works in Canada in the oil fields and they don't see women for 24 days at a time. So to have a girl ask them, ‘Hey, how was your day?’ you know, just this female interaction, I think it’s really important, and that's a service that cam girls certainly provide long-term, almost like a girlfriend.” 

A.V. Flox, who spent time on MFC as a journalist, found herself sticking around the site long after her piece on public cum shows was published. “While working on the piece, I would leave one of my screens open on MyFreeCams. I freelance and tend to work alone late at night, and grew to really enjoy the company. So I kept coming back. But I know that this is labor and I respect performers' time and ingenuity, so I paid them. I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being about equal to what I made writing that post.”

Unlike traditional, mainstream porn, with its performativity and spray tans and fake orgasms, camming offers something real, raw and relationship-based, which is especially alluring in a world where we’re increasingly connected via smartphones, but spend less and less time in face-to-face interactions. “Camming is helping us show a different version of ourselves—the human part,” as DeliciousAngel, a model on Stripcast, put it.

No form of sex work is without risk, of course, and even with safety measures like geoblocking and moderators who cleanse the trolls from cam sites, camming is still sex work, and hence not free of harassment or threats. “I've actually had to deal with some pretty serious death threats last year that caused me to leave Cam4,” says Chelsea Poe, a porn director, star and cammer, who mostly broadcasts on Chaturbate. 

“Sex workers are often treated with less respect, up to and including people thinking that because their job may be to provide sexual entertainment, the laws of consent no longer apply,” says Rose Lee, who notes that cammers may be more prone to this than other online entertainers because of the social stigma of sex work and increased threats of violence.

Rose Lee is heartened, however, that the tide is changing. “The recent flood of people going public about Hollywood's sexual predators and speaking out about sexual misconduct in mainstream media is an important watershed moment for all industries. Hopefully that same outrage, support and momentum that the mainstream is rightfully getting will happen for the adult industry, too."

Indeed, almost all of the cam models I talked to agreed that moving online has made engaging in sex work easier and safer for them. Hopefully the trend will continue moving in that direction and camming will continue to work with models in order to foster independence, safety and protection. As DeliciousAngel put it, “We can be our own managers and casting directors. We can choose what we feel comfortable to do and what not to do...Camming is a step forward to realizing safer workplaces for people in the adult industry.”

Anna Pulley writes about sex and queerness. Find more at annapulley.com

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