I'm in Eevie's bedroom watching her work. She's wearing a little black dress and drinking merlot from a shatterproof wineglass one of her viewers sent her after she'd broken a real one on camera. She makes almost $400 in the 45 minutes I'm with her, and she doesn't do much besides talk to me (offscreen) about camming.
Eevie—like many of the models I spoke to for this article—broadcasts herself through the site MyFreeCams, or MFC. ("EevieLain" is her screen name.) Generally speaking, models get tipped via tokens (which translate to real cash) to masturbate on camera, but they can also create "topics" that aren't sexual at all. Right now, Eevie's goal topic is taking off her dress, and most of the tips coming in are for her topic of drinking wine. Neither she nor her viewers seem in a hurry to reach the topic. Most of her viewers right now are her "friends," who seem happy just to hang out, listen to her talk, and reminisce about their shared stories.
They love to remember the coffee stand.
"People still come into my room asking about the coffee stand," says Eevie. "Everyone misses it."
Eevie got her start camming by setting up her laptop inside the bikini barista drive-through espresso stand she was working at, which is apparently a novelty to people around the world. "People just started flooding into my room. Like, 'Holy shit, there's a girl in her underwear in public.'"
The rules have changed since then. Earlier this year, an Oregon State University student was caught broadcasting from the school library, and now MFC no longer allows its models to cam in public. But almost three years later, visitors to Eevie's room still ask for the coffee stand. The history of Eevie's camming career is collective, a mutual memory that builds and changes with the people she's connected to, and the stories Eevie told me were my first exposure to how personal and meaningful camming relationships can become.
One person Eevie seems excited to see in her room is Boggers (that's his chat screen name). "Hi, Boggers! Did you just get here?" she says.
He replies in the group chat box: "i haven't been around all day but Sarah has been watching." I ask Eevie who Sarah is, and she says that's Boggers's wife. (Sarah's name has been changed for this article.) Boggers asks if Eevie has told me "their story."
He explains over private message: "Eevie has been great, we liked her from the first time we saw her just a real genuine person not fake and all about the tokens and stuff. Which was really nice for us because my wife got sick 13 years ago at age 23. First diagnosed with ALS then Lyme disease now it is 13 years later and she is basically paralyzed from the neck down and I take care of her full time. All of our friends left when she got sick and Eevie has been so sweet she is like family." Boggers says Eevie gives them advice about their teenage daughter, they have each other's personal phone numbers, and she's planning to visit them.
We get a Snapchat a few minutes later from Boggers—it's a photo of middle-aged couple, the woman in a wheelchair, both smiling into the camera and waving, captioned "hi interviewer."
"There's another couple I wound up getting really close to," Eevie tells me after I meet Boggers and Sarah. "They were a younger couple, they had a 2-year-old boy at the time, and they'd been trying to get pregnant again for like a year, and it wasn't working. They watched me, sometimes together and sometimes separate." When the couple finally got pregnant and received the results of the gender test, "They made a video of them opening the envelope together and sent it to me that day, and they named their little girl Eevie Juliet."
It's not that crazy to imagine this kind of intimacy and fondness developing between long-distance friends over years—what's surprising is that these connections grew out of a form of sex work. But this level of emotional investment is exactly where the appeal of webcams resides—it's not like any other kind of porn. It's real, it's live, it's interactive, and it's relationship-based. A cam session is usually hours long, and most of that is spent talking.
"Even when I was camming vigorously almost every day to raise money for my move, I would still only masturbate [on camera] maybe four times a month," said another cam model I met with who goes by the screen name Bambi. "It's a lot less sexual than people think. Especially if you're a medium-income cam girl, it's a lot more about the community... If you're just interested in hanging out all night because you just got off work and you have no girlfriend or friends, then it's a nice two hours. We talk, I make jokes, we listen to music, and I smoke weed and they can drink with me or smoke with me, and it's kind of like hanging out.
"The younger guys are people who work too much, like car mechanics and a lot of blue-collar jobs where they just come home and they're exhausted, and they don't want to go out, and they just want someone to talk to," Bambi continued. "And then there's the whole other clientele, which is married men who aren't getting laid."
These demographics kind of surprised me—all the models I talked to emphasized that most of their regulars are unhappily married men or workaholics, not lonely, single social pariahs. And to further Bambi's emphasis on the community experience, there is a community among these viewers, too. The men recognize each other in rooms, greet each other, and start friendships and feuds. The models refer to the people who regularly hang out in their room as "their guys" and talk about them as a crew, a posse, or a group of friends.
"It's really cute," Bambi said. "My guys will stick up for me. If I do have some basic or random guest who's like, 'Show me your asshole,' these guys will be like, 'Get the fuck out of here.' It's a community of people jerking off to you, but they're also your homies. It's really strange."
Filmmaker Sean Dunne interviewed dozens of models—and a few of their fans—for his recent documentary Cam Girlz, which was shot partially in Seattle. He said one guy described the experience as "less like a strip club and more like a pub with a hot bartender who everyone wants to make laugh," which seems pretty accurate. Another described the models as "therapists who get naked."
"I think the main appeal, for both models and members, is the instant connection," Dunne wrote in an e-mail. "People need that outlet... Camming is like love on tap, and as the community grows and evolves, it only becomes more nuanced and plentiful."
So what's the money like? It varies wildly, though several models I spoke to said that on MFC, the average is $20 an hour. This $20 "average," however, includes the models in the top rooms making six figures a month and those making less than a cent an hour. Even women with moderately reliable camming incomes, like Bambi, can sometimes earn hundreds of dollars and other times nothing at all. (The sites that host the rooms take a significant cut of the models' tips; MFC has one of the most generous policies, taking 40 percent.) It's especially hard to calculate income when you consider how infrequently successful cam girls work. For example, Eevie works only about 14 hours a week. (She declined to disclose exactly how much she makes, but let's just say it's more than what most middle-class families earn.)
From what I've heard, virtually every woman with a friendly personality is capable of making a meaningful amount of money camming if she keeps at it. Men, however, make very little, which is why they compose such a tiny sliver of the internet's camming population. Many sites, including MFC, the largest hosting site with more than 100,000 models and more than one million members, won't even allow male models—they'd rather invest their bandwidth in women.
I talked to someone who cammed with his partner off and on for about a year, under the name dadandson69, on the site Cam4. Only after they gained a significant following did they start making any money, and even then it was only about $40 to $50 a day. Despite having an average of 1,000 viewers, most of what they were making came from the same few people. Especially for a two-person show, that's a pretty meager take.
"Most of the men on the site we were using did it for fun," said Ralphie, which is not his real name. (I'm calling him that because his viewers would often comment on his resemblance to Ralphie from A Christmas Story.) "The ones that did make good money generally had other jobs in sex work, so they already had a following." Ralphie said that, like most of the men on Cam4, he originally started camming just as a "sexy activity I could do with my partner." The few times he cammed by himself, he made almost nothing. "We stopped because it was making our sex life less fun," he said, "and we weren't making enough money for it to be worth it."
If you spend a few minutes browsing the rooms on Cam4, you can see just how abysmally few tokens most of those guys are getting. There seems to be something peculiar to the heterosexual male psyche that motivates them to spend sometimes thousands of dollars to help, impress, or reward women they'll never meet.
Of course, camming is a fickle business, and extreme perseverance is needed to gain any foothold. The steep experience curve is especially brutal when you're just starting out.
"My first night, I made $100-plus in one hour," wrote Lainey, a cam girl I e-mailed with after she had been camming for only about two weeks, "and I never did anything more explicit than flashing my breasts and chatting. That was a pretty exciting introduction for me. However, the next night I went on, I made 75 cents in the same amount of time."
Lainey's experience appears to be pretty typical (Lainey is neither her real name nor her MFC screen name). When new cam girls first join MFC, they're given a banner that distinguishes them as new, which generates a lot of initial traffic. But the momentum is hard to keep up.
"There are thousands of models on any given site, and it takes a lot of work to carve out your niche," Lainey wrote. "You can't just show up and think that because you're cute, people will start throwing money at you. They won't. It takes a lot of self-promotion, consistency, and show development. The most successful models aren't successful by luck—they're intelligent business people."
It's true—the entrepreneurial savvy of these women is nothing short of inspired, from overall branding and social-media strategies to the small spin-off hustles. As Bambi told me, "You can turn any aspect of your life into making money if you're willing to share it with the internet." Bambi said she ran a bidding contest one month to determine if she should shave her bush or not (the bush stayed). Two women I talked to said their best moneymaking gambit was a monthlong contest at the end of which whoever had the lower cam score had to lose their anal virginity live on cam.
You can buy videos, photosets, panties, raffle tickets for a date, and a spot on a model's Snapchat contact list. You can pay to get text-message access through Kik, and if you tip a model a certain amount, she'll add you to her MFC friends list, enabling you to send private messages. Almost all the women have Amazon wish lists, with items such as sex toys, groceries, and furniture. And sometimes their male fans will use Amazon to send spontaneous presents, like Eevie's wineglasses.
I asked two highly successful Seattle models who perform under the screen names Aella and AwesomeKate about what first motivated them to cam. Aella said she had heard about it from an ex-boyfriend who'd cammed and suggested it to her. "I didn't have a job, and I was sleeping on a friend's couch with no money," she said. "I gave it a shot by myself. I was really scared, got super drunk, and made $80 my first night. I was like, 'Oh my god, four hours to make $80?' That was more money than I'd ever made, like ever."
Kate, like many models, first learned about the financial possibilities of camming by following one of the pop-up windows from a porn site. "I watched this one girl put up this ridiculous amount of money she wanted to make and, you know, told her room, 'I'd like to make a thousand dollars right now, and then I'll do a show.' And I was like, 'Yeah right, how's she gonna make a thousand dollars?' And then she did. I watched her do it in, like, 20 minutes.
"I also got extremely drunk, because you know you have to, to suppress the terror, and then I made more money than I'd ever seen, and I remember going to the store that night to go food shopping... and I realized I could get everything that I needed. Like I could get a whole chicken if I wanted, and all the cans of food, it didn't matter. Definitely wasn't gonna stop then."
Aella and Kate met each other through MFC, while Aella was living in Australia. "I started peeking in on her show," says Kate of Aella, "and she was absolutely crazy. She was like banging her feet and boobs on a piano, dressed in costume." Kate visited Aella in Australia, they became fast friends, and about a year ago they moved to Seattle together. They have both become advocates of camming, figures within the industry, and self-taught self-promotion experts (both maintain a careful and constant online presence—they have personal websites and more than 14,000 Twitter followers each).
"No other job even compares in terms of freedom and pay," said Aella. "I never want to work at a job where I have a boss ever again. It's so incredible to feel the sensation of making your own success, and to be self-driven and creative, and to be so in control of what you do."
Kate and Aella have very different personalities and approaches, and meeting with them emphasized that there's no cookie-cutter cam girl type or routine. Kate is flirtatious and outgoing, and was even doing sexy webcam shows for strangers online before she was getting paid. Whereas Aella said, "I never have really been comfortable being seductive or sexy as a woman," and approaches camming as a sort of performance art. One of Aella's biggest publicity breakthroughs was when a photoset of her dressed as a mime being dragged off by garden gnomes went viral through Reddit, and she attributes a lot of her success to weirdness, spontaneity, and a blend of comedy and nudity that most people don't expect.
Kate is a singer and guitarist, and one element of her performance is playing songs for her room. In fact, she once turned down a career singing in order to cam. "[When I first started camming,] I think I was two weeks out from leaving to go work at Disney World and try to be a Disney princess. I'd already been accepted and had bought my plane ticket. That's what I wanted to do, ever since I was little, and instead I just sing those songs naked online. And don't make minimum wage."
It's important to note that all the people I talked to for this piece were English-speaking, Seattle-based American models working for themselves—but for many, especially outside the United States, camming is a form of exploitation and even sex trafficking. There are institutions called "studios" where someone (almost always a man) provides the computer, room, and internet connection in return for a large cut of the earnings, usually for a multitude of women, and with varying degrees of legitimacy. The studios of the Philippines were notoriously so exploitive and brutal that MFC banned all models from the country, but the studio business still thrives elsewhere, especially in former Eastern bloc countries like Romania.
A Vice article examining Romanian cam studios states that there are an estimated 2,000 studios in operation in the country, and that the average Romanian studio owner takes 60 to 75 percent of a model's earnings—and that's after the site itself has already taken a cut of 40 to 65 percent. Most Romanian studios explicitly forbid models from speaking Romanian or mentioning that they're from Romania in order to put the American mind at ease.
A 2012 article on Gizmodo states that many of these studios are run by the Mafia and are used to launder money, which is easy to do when the corporate structure of most hosting sites is a tangled, intentionally obscured mess of fake addresses, ghost companies, and subsidiaries around the globe. For example, the webcam site Streamate is a subsidiary of Flying Crocodile, both of which are supposedly headquartered in Seattle, but no one answered the phone numbers I found for them online. (I couldn't find an e-mail address.) And when I went to the Belltown addresses these multimillion-dollar companies list online as their headquarters, I found spooky, abandoned-looking, dilapidated office spaces barring public entry.
One Romanian model working in a studio in "semi-legal conditions" did a Reddit AMA last August. She said her experience is both voluntary and generally positive, but she still works at least eight hours a day, five days a week, sometimes camming for 16 hours at a time, for about $1,300 a month. She made a list of things people had asked her to do on cam (which she refused), including "pee/drink pee, poo/eat poo, vomit/eat vomit, insert a hairbrush into my anus, insert a bottle into my vag, insert shoe heel into my vag, watch someone cut his dick off, cut any part of my body, racial play saying the n word, sissy play calling someone a 'fag,' incest role-play, suck on a used tampon." Getting asked to do repugnant things is part of the job for cam models everywhere—being in a position to refuse, block users, shut the webcam off, et cetera is a privilege that unfortunately not all enjoy.
There are American studios, but more common are cam girl "mansions," where multiple cam girls live and work together without a studio "owner." Until very recently, Kate and Aella were living in a house with two other cam girls, and the four of them would often collaborate on shows, which increases both revenue and exposure. When Kate visited Aella in Australia and they cammed together, Aella described it as "the best thing that happened to my career."
Unfortunately, Kate and Aella's relationship is rare, and most models cam alone and lack any avenues of networking. Even though you're forming relationships with the viewers, as Eevie said, "You don't have coworkers or classmates." This solitude is compounded by the competitive nature of the industry. Most models block other models from their rooms. It's very common for a model to enter another model's room and link to her own site in the chat, or for models to poach each other's high tippers. "Models are really possessive over their tippers," said Eevie. "I've had models be in my room and see that one of their regulars tipped me, and they'll lay into them and I'll never see that person again."
One of the most famous models in the industry is Sophia Locke, who founded an event series called the Cam Girl Mansion, and its importance cannot be overstated for model networking and empowerment. The Cam Girl Mansion is an annual event where Locke invites 20 models to a rented Las Vegas mansion to live together, cam together, and attend parties and conventions.
Locke said she was motivated to found the Mansion by what she saw on cam girl discussion blogs. "I found out that so many cam models had never even met another cam model, or had never been to a convention, or simply didn't have people that they could talk to openly about their professions when offline," she wrote in an e-mail. "The stigma attached with camming at the time kept all the models pretty much isolated from one another, leaving them prone to the whims of the cam sites they work on."
Talking with models, I wasn't surprised to hear that they have difficulty networking.
"I prefer internet relationships to real-life relationships," Kate told me.
"Most of my friends are on the internet," echoed Aella. "I feel weird in real life now. When I walk around, it feels like a video game."
Aella recently conducted a survey of about 230 models on MFC, partly because she intends to write a book about the industry. "I asked them if they considered themselves more introverted or extroverted, and almost three-quarters of them said they were introverted," she said. Camming is a way to express sexuality that feels safe and insulated, and the distance created by virtual space makes possible a kind of introverted exhibitionism. Bambi, who also works as a waitress at a strip club, said she finds being face-to-face with her audience inexplicably overwhelming and is very hesitant to try actual stripping. "I'll masturbate in front of 500 people on the internet," she said, "but I won't get up in front of 10 people at the club and take my top off."
Locke has tried to create a community among women who spend most of their time alone in their bedrooms, and through that elevate the agency of everyone in the industry. "[The Mansion] was first conceived as a place where models could not just network with other models on a personal level," she wrote, "but because they would be living with each other (and even sleeping in the same bed with other cam models), it was hoped that they would develop friendships and partnerships during this time. And that was exactly what happened."
Dunne's documentary, Cam Girlz, was one of the collaborations to come out of the Mansion project. Initially shot at the Mansion, it features the stories of 37 models—Kate and Aella among them—and showcases the dignity, opportunity, and freedom that come with camming.
"Our subjects really run the gamut in terms of background, age, body type, race, and reasons for camming," Dunne told me. "But the one thing that seemed to bind all these seemingly disparate stories was the sense of empowerment and independence they've gained through this line of sex work."
Locke hopes that by improving networking and visibility among cam girls, and decreasing the stigma and rivalry surrounding it, models will enjoy an elevated level of economic bargaining power. She believes that the power structures are shifting, and that "to be able to continue to benefit from models, cam sites need to learn to recognize that partnering with them will mean that the old model of business will no longer work.
"With the rise in the number of models signing into cam sites every day, it's only a matter of time before models are the ones that will be dictating the industry," wrote Locke. "So my own advice to the industry would be for cam sites to recognize that the rules have changed, and start working with models instead of trying to churn them, as if this was still the 'chew them up and spit them out' kind of porn days from decades ago."
There are lots of ways cam sites can make themselves more appealing to models: They can increase their payouts, permit alternative revenue sources like selling videos, side with models in member disputes, and investigate studios to ensure fair and voluntary working conditions.
They can also change their site layout to put less pressure on the infamous "cam score," a complicated calculation of time online, tokens, tips, and ratings, about which every model I talked with complained. On most sites, such as MFC, the highest-scoring models appear at the top of the page, and the struggling models and most new models are hidden far down the list, meaning less traffic, less money, and less chance to cultivate a following. Even successful models suffer because of the cam score—nobody knows exactly how it's calculated, but Eevie told me that if she made a certain amount one month, and the same amount the next month, her cam score would drop, meaning she's not only in competition with every other model on MFC, but she also has to outdo herself.
"As a tool to get models to get on cam, it's fantastic," Locke wrote of the cam score. "The cam sites want their high earners on the top page... if you're not earning money based on the bandwidth a cam site is providing you, then you get lower placement; otherwise, the site is spending money (bandwidth) on the model but isn't getting any income in return.
"But," Locke added, "the method used is also a tool to get the models to work longer hours and push the members to tip more... It's actually kind of a shitty thing to do because it pits models against each other and will make them appear to members as if the tokens are the only thing that matter... But, cam models are becoming savvy to these kind of unfair tools that cam sites use to keep them competing."
The sweeping changes made a few years ago by one of the top cam sites, LiveJasmin, support Locke's projection that the industry is "making a dramatic power switch over to the models." In late 2011, LiveJasmin restructured its payout system. It had previously offered models a 35 percent payout across the board. The new system is scaled, beginning at "aspiring" (30 percent payout), up to "legend" (60 percent payout), with opportunities for further revenue in contests and offline. And in 2012, LiveJasmin redesigned its website, deemphasizing rank or "score" and putting more emphasis on navigational tools like categories.
"We believe that punishing lower performance, as some of our competitors are doing, will undermine the business instead of improving it," LiveJasmin spokesperson Melanie Delannoy wrote in an e-mail. "This is why we are encouraging the models/studios by rewarding good performance, and it has since paid off in terms of good quality of content... as well as in loyalty on the part of our partners." She described the changes to the website layout as "part of a quarterly plan to generally improve our service for the benefit of all stakeholders."
Whenever Delannoy mentioned these "partners" or "stakeholders," she emphasized that she means models, studios, and members—LiveJasmin considers the models vested parties in a business model that needs to be increasingly symbiotic to survive. When I asked about the effect the influx of new models is having on LiveJasmin, Delannoy replied, "The emergence of a new business model that will make the business more lucrative for all parties may be under way with the industry's newfound popularity," so it sounds like LiveJasmin still isn't done evolving.
"I, personally, choose to work with cam sites that are more forward-thinking," wrote Locke. "If the site is brand-new and traffic isn't there just yet, but they have the right ideas for growth, those are the kind of sites that I like to work with." Locke currently works with a new site called PlayWithMe, which offers models an 80 percent payout rate if members pay through a link provided by the model, and Locke says that PlayWithMe is "completely indicative" of the direction the industry is moving in. She also thinks that it's "only a matter of time" before "the right, motivated model becomes aware that she has the revenue to start her own cam site."
And as camming changes to imbue models with progressively greater agency and stake in their own business, it's also changing the nature of porn and sex work in general. Mainstream porn tends to be fake, impersonal, demeaning, and misogynistic, but camming—inarguably a form of internet pornography—succeeds because it offers exactly the opposite of that experience.
"As far as what [camming] has done for sex work in general," said Eevie, "I think it's really humanized us. We're not just an idea of a person, we're actual people. Even if you come for the fantasy and just to see boobs and stuff, you're gonna have to work through me first."
Eevie told me a story about one of her longtime regulars, who once contacted her when she was still working at the coffee stand.
"I was online, and we were talking, and he was like, 'Would you ever be mad if I found you where you work?' And I was like, 'No, not really.' And he says, 'Okay, good.' I go to make a bunch of drinks and go back to my computer and he'd logged off, and the next guy that came up to the line was like, 'Told you I could find you.'
"I walked out and said, 'Take, like, 10 steps back,' and he thought I was gonna be angry at him, and I just did a running, jumping hug."