The “gig economy” helps people around the world find side jobs for a little extra income. Maybe Uber, Airbnb, or TaskRabbit come to mind. If you need a job done or have a talent you can monetize, there’s an app to help you do it.
This style of temporary, contract, or freelance work is found in almost every industry today, including pornography. As free tube sites entered the adult entertainment market, overtaking profits from traditional adult film production studios, porn performers sought additional ways to make money. One example is webcam performing/modeling.
Webcamming has grown in popularity for both models and consumers. Data from a webcam management agency reported the average number of viewers has risen by 29% in the past year, and the industry is estimated to be worth almost $10 billion annually.
This line of work is often praised by fans and for its entrepreneurial spirit. Performers can supposedly be their own boss, choose their hours, and set their own terms, including turning down client requests in a way an in-person prostituted person is unable.
While touted as “safe” for models, we should be wary of an industry built largely on women trying to make ends meet.
The poverty link
Reports suggest there is an increasing number of women, in particular, supplementing their income with webcamming.
Here’s how it works: They create a profile on one of the major webcamming sites—which takes a significant cut of the cam girl’s profits—and try to attract clients who will pay to view a live stream. The interactions range from sex acts to dancing to chatting, and literally everything in between. Some consumers prefer softer content that mimics the “girlfriend” experience, while others seek performers to satisfy their sometimes violent fetishes.
Webcamming has very few qualifications to entry. No work experience or university degree required, which is why there are rising numbers of university students now webcamming to help pay tuition fees. The number of mothers in low-paid jobs entering the industry is also on the rise.
Poverty is often at the root other issues like sex trafficking, where women in lower socio-economic situations are vulnerable. The reports of single mothers and university students turning to webcamming suggest a similar financial struggle.
But webcamming has a perception problem: It’s widely believed that webcamming is different from and less stigmatized than prostitution, also that it is safer than meeting a buyer face to face. But as we will see, the idea of webcamming being a risk-free industry is a fantasy.
Not safe behind the screen
Throughout the world, the webcamming industry has become saturated. Cam girls in Western countries compete with models from lower-income countries like Romania, Columbia, and the Philippines. These countries are known as hubs for the webcam industry, and models usually work under contract to studios sometimes working in exploitative conditions or as cybersex trafficking victims.
The huge number of webcammers means performers need to be creative. To actually make money, they need to find a niche audience and have some marketing and relationship building skills to entice clients.
The industry may have begun with “stripteases” on camera, but just like in mainstream porn, consumers get bored with basic sex acts and request something new. One of the supposed perks of webcamming is the ability to say no to requests a model may be uncomfortable performing, but saying no can result in poor reviews hurting their ability to book other clients. Make no mistake, consumers can and do make degrading fetish or even violent requests.
One extreme case shows how the webcam industry can be deadly.
In June, a 21-year-old woman named Hope Barden died performing asphyxiation sex acts in a webcam session for a 45-year-old man, a regular client of hers. He made no call for help, glued to his screen as Hope struggled to breathe. The man reportedly requested for Hope to perform increasingly dark and dangerous sex acts that ultimately lead to this tragedy.
In the wake of Hope’s death, cam girl Elysia Downings confirmed that she too had been the recipient of extreme requests with clients asking her to choke, suffocate, and hit herself for their sexual pleasure.
Other girls shared stories of being stalked by clients or recognized in their daily lives. A 30-year-old woman who has been webcamming since 2010 said she has had men email her to say they saw her shopping or going for a run, leading to a feeling of being “surveyed.”
If a consumer does stalk or harass a model, there is little protection from the industry that employs the models. Too often outside of the webcamming and porn worlds, the response is victim-blaming and something like, “What did you expect to happen?”
Instead of asking why cam girls feel coerced into complying with these dangerous requests, we should be asking why these requests are being made in the first place.
Because a webcammer’s work takes place online, they are at risk of being harassed there too. The biggest concern is doxxing, when an individual’s personal information such as contact details and private documents are published online. Combined together, webcammers can feel unsafe in the online and real world.
For sale: your body
When one 20-year-old woman found herself homeless and needing to provide for her three-year-old daughter, she turned to webcamming. She hated logging on for the first time because she said she has “zero tolerance for sexism and views porn as incredibly damaging for women.” (The same is true for men, too.) But she made a deal with herself to do it until she got back on her feet. Here’s what she had to say about how perception problem:
“The media are quick to glamorize this job, but the truth is, it’s emotionally and…draining. I hate objectifying myself.”
I hate objectifying myself. That’s really what webcamming is. Objectification and exploitation of people, often women, who are struggling financially or living in countries with fewer career opportunities.
One ex-cam girl who wrote to us explaining how her value to the webcamming world was based on how pretty she was, how much she was willing to show, and how extreme she was willing to act. She said she began to believe these lies about herself, that her value as a person was dependent on her sexuality. This is often the case with objectification and leads to negative psychological effects.
While webcamming is considered safe and empowering by our general culture, this is clearly not the full story. Taina Bien-Aimé, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, put it this way:
“As long as men can consume pornography, as long as they can consume a woman in the sex trade, we will not have gender equality. They will not perceive any woman as equal to them. They will always be purchasable, always be objectified, always be sexualized.”
This is why we stand against sexual exploitation in all forms, and we invite you to join us.