The bustling business of online camming
College tuition is rising faster than the rate of inflation, leaving the average student with almost $30,000 of debt after graduation. More and more students are working to pay for the steep costs of higher education, but while some students wait tables or work retail, others turn to the accessibility of the internet and their own bodies to make end’s meet.
It’s almost a cliché, the down-on-her-luck college girl turns to stripping or porn to pay her way through school. These stories almost always end negatively like some sort of bad Netflix movie. But this is far from the reality of many forms of sex work, especially with webcamming.
Camming is a type of sex work where performers participate in sexual acts, usually solo or with a few other performers, in front of a live streaming webcam. These cam girls are essentially paid via tips through webcam sites. Users sign up and purchase in-site tokens to give to girls for specific acts, from undressing to masturbation with a specific toy, or even to support an art performance. The tokens then translate into real dollars for the cammers, and those dollars add up.
A college-aged cam girl can make on average $800–2,100 per month for less than 10 hours of work a week, according to the website Webcam Startup. Meanwhile, popular performers can earn an estimated six figures a year. This potential to earn hundreds of dollars over a matter of a few hours can be quite attractive to college students trying to pay bills and make ends meet.
“It can be really quick money. And especially in our society with how expensive things are, they need to depend on quick money for bills and college tuition every semester,” University of Minnesota student Korrina Griffith said.
And payment doesn’t come just through tokens. Many performers have public Amazon wishlists which they encourage their fans to send them gifts from. Sometimes they receive items they want, other times, not so much.
Griffith is a double major in psychology and gender, women, and sexuality studies and is a sexual assault advocate, who knows about 20 people who have done some type of sex work, most commonly camming and/or stripping. About half of these people cammed while in college, Griffith said.
“I’ve been able to go to school full-time and still manage to pay my bills. […] I wouldn’t have been able to do that with a full-time job,” a performer in the 2015 documentary Cam Girlz said. As she hula-hooped on a bed in front of her computer, she discussed her plans to continue camming to fund graduate school.
In 2004, the average debt for a Minnesota student was less than $20,000, but by 2014, that number reached almost $32,000. From 2008 to 2012, college debt increased by 25 percent, and it has been rising since, with some reporting an increase of 325 percent from 2004 to 2015. But these numbers only take into account student loans used to pay for tuition, not including housing costs, bills, groceries, and other day-to-day expenses.
Camming performers are their own entrepreneurs, with potential earnings much higher than minimum wage. They make their own hours and choose their own tasks, all while working from the comfort of their bedrooms.
Unlike prostitution or stripping, camming has not received much research attention. It’s difficult to know hard numbers or information of how many active performers are really out there. But take a look at any of the many websites and you can get an idea. At any point, hundreds of thousands of worldwide live performers are on various camming sites, said University of Minnesota Mass Communications Ph.D. candidate Chelsea Reynolds.
“When you think about, you know, the global scale of live camming, it’s not just women who are in our time zone; it’s women all over the world,” she said. Reynolds, who studies the intersection of new media and sexuality, said camming draws in performers who break the mold of the stereotypical sex worker, especially older women, queer, and trans performers of every background and race.
Unlike porn, camming occurs spontaneously in real time. Paying users are able to participate in the performance by buying specific acts for the “cammer” to perform, along with the chance to interact with them via chat boxes. Though this work may seem nontraditional, the live aspect also helps to keep the business safer for cammers. It’s more difficult to save or pirate live-feed video, and the performers maintain control of their shows and online personas.
“The dominance and submission are totally different in an online environment. It allows women to move beyond that physical threat,” Reynolds said. “Women who do camming have more control over themselves than in traditional sex work.”
With camming, performers find safety in the digital environment. There are no pimps or handlers, no sketchy neighborhoods or dangerous situations, and the clients sit miles away. These women don’t physically engage with anyone, aside from an invited fellow performer. There’s no fear of violence or attack, and they can shut their laptops at any time.
Although forced camming business models do exist, primarily in South Asia, the majority is done consensually, out of a place of active choice. Griffith distinguishes these coerced setups as forms of sex trafficking.
“Sex work and sex trafficking are two different things in my head. It’s obviously on a continuum and not black and white, but you can’t say [all sex work] is trafficking,” Griffith said.
If you think sex work is “selling your body”, but athletes, manual laborers aren’t, etc. it’s a moral hang-up you’ve got, and that’s on you.
— Lucy Everleigh (@LucyEverleigh) February 4, 2016
Camming busts the trope that sex work is all coercive and objectifying. Through their cam work, many performers feel a reinforced sense of agency and their own sexuality and sexual expression, as seen in Cam Girlz. Others even cam just for fun, Griffin said. Cammers are in control of their jobs and have freedom in ways most of us do not; they tailor their brand identity and social media how they choose and ultimately decide what they get to do day to day. But camming isn’t all smiles and roses, these folks are putting in lots of hard work both on and off the screen. For them and many sex workers, their jobs are no different from another laborer’s job—it’s simply a way to make money to pay the bills.