It's boom time for veterans of the cam-girl trade, but they have a warning for newbies: Don't try this at home.

By Beatrice Hazlehurst
Apr 23, 2020 @ 3:00 pm
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Photo Illustration/InStyle.com; Photos: Courtesy

In a recent Rolling Stone article, a massage therapist-cum-part-time mermaid discusses her decision to delve into cam work during quarantine. In lieu of requesting money from the financially strapped in exchange for online yoga classes, she concluded she would “just ask perverts for theirs.”

Camming has never seen more coverage. Unending reports detail how many of the 22 million out-of-work Americans — forced to get creative overnight — are exploring the online sex industry. After the abrupt halt of porn production, directors are encouraging actors to pivot to solo work in self-isolation. And through it all, there are apparently legions of “perverts” with a time surplus, locked down and loosening their pants...and their purse strings.

For veteran cam girls, however, daily life looks a little different to the existence narrated by media outlets en masse over the past month. Concerns that leagues of camming amateurs are jeopardizing careers by over-saturating sites, or rumors of unprecedented engagement are both somewhat unrelatable to those nearing the top of the food chain. Instead, porn and cam performer Maitland Ward believes the industry’s flush of newcomers is overwhelming regular cam site-goers, reaffirming their loyalty to their go-to girls.

“[New girls] think it’s easy,” explains Ward, “It’s not. A lot of effort and work are put into shows and videos.”

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The actress began posting nudes to Snapchat and Instagram in 2013, appearing in her first porn film last year before trying her hand at camming to connect with new fans. It was her adult entertainment background that set her up for camming success, says Ward, claiming amateurs can be “gun shy” when it comes to the nitty gritty of sex work. “Perverts,” aren’t perverts at all, but valued clients with whom relationships can span many codependent months, or years. And this, Ward adds, is where she finds fault in the massaging mermaid’s approach: She and several other sex workers explained that their clients (most of whom are men) don’t want to feel like a means to someone else’s end; that tarnishes their entertainment. They want the cam girls to like it — and them.

“People think, Oh, I’ll just get naked on camera and I’ll make money — that’s not how it works,” agrees ONA, an artist whose devoted cam fanbase started from a millions-strong Instagram following who tune in for quirky photoshoots featuring her derriere. ONA can’t imagine anyone who explores camming as an alternative source of income in self-isolation will have a long-lasting career, or even hit it big financially. Even on a good, pandemic-free day, sex work requires the same client-committment and work ethic you’d need to develop a reputation in any industry. ONA will dedicate several hours a day to posing for promotional images for her Instagram, or taking more explicit content (nude videos and photos) for her subscription website and private Snapchat. That’s on top of fitting in individual camming sessions, the price of which she increases due to demand, so she has to do no more than several a day — they start at $500 an hour.

“There are a lot of other online options for starting businesses, I would encourage people to get into sex work only if they really want to,” ONA says. “You have to put your all into it or people will lose interest.”

“On one hand, everyone loves the new girl,” offers Whitney Wright, adult performer and long-time cam girl, “but more often than not I see girls come into the industry and not treat it as a business.”

The business of sex itself is certainly booming. After offering free premium membership worldwide, Pornhub has been enjoying a tremendous spike in engagement despite waning new content (late March saw the US climax at a 41% traffic increase, the site reports). There’s been a vibrator boom across the globe; the Guardian reported sex-toy sales tripling in New Zealand in the 48 hours post mandated lockdown alone. Ashley Madison has seen a noted increase in would-be cheaters signing up for its matchmaking services. And from early April onwards there has been 15% uptick in online shoppers searching lingerie. Over the past few weeks, dominatrix Eva Oh’s BDSM training site for wannabe cam and real-life sex workers has seen sign-ups increase 40% compared to March last year.

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As to whether there’s enough demand for the supply, that depends on a performer’s point of difference. While Oh thinks he Euroasian descent serves to her advantage in both Asian and Western markets, it’s mostly her extensive experience as a dominatrix that helps her to stand out from other cam girls. Due to her real-life clients' withdrawals for in-person BDSM sessions, Oh says she has been able to charge $1,000 for 30 to 60 minutes to replicate the same “dominating” services to her submissives over webcam.

Prior to self-isolation, Oh’s focus was almost completely on in-person appointments, with camming only accounting for one percent of her annual earnings. Now, she says camming makes up 80% of her income, and she's able to match her pre-pandemic pay by substituting real-life for virtual sessions. She thinks camming could emerge from quarantine as the epicenter of sex work. Considering she was previously traveling the world to fulfill client needs, working from home means a lot less jet lag.

"What Tinder did for dating, the popularization of camming in this time could do for human connection," suggests Oh. "Perhaps an acceleration of our culture into the borderless virtual realm is around the corner."

Maitland Ward’s background in mainstream television and film (you may remember her as Rachel McGuire on Boy Meets World, or Brittany Wilson in White Chicks), attracts much of her clientele. As such, she charges $300 for a brief, personalized video — think the Cameo celebrity messages app, but sexy. Lacey London, a 24-year-old Denver native, credits the fact there aren’t many other Black women embracing the anime aesthetic for her ability to secure $50 for a 15 minute session. A traditional one-on-one can range from PG flirting to teasing, stripping, self-pleasure or trying on gifts — it depends on the girl, and her client’s preferences.

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Now, marketing one’s individuality requires almost as much investment as the sessions themselves. Despite her 3.2 million Instagram followers, ONA maintains she’s frequently punished by the algorithm when it comes to online promotion: She says because of having a smaller chest, she needs to use “ass shots” to attract the same attention as a less-taboo — by Instagram standards — picture of surgically enhanced breasts. At the same time, these natural assets have made her highly popular among clientele seeking the-girl-next-door type. The performer has also been crowned by fans ‘the queen of cam girls’ and was one of the first to offer unlicensed therapy sessions over cam while in the nude, a phenomenon now known as ‘Naked Therapy.’ (Another service that’s seeming prescient and all-too necessary these days.)

Because of all that demand, none of the better-known cam girls say they are particularly worried about the heightened competition. The ‘fresh meat’ effect wears off, they say, and while cheaper rates seem enticing in the short-term, they can’t replace a high-quality experience.

“It may put vets in a position to lose viewers to someone with a lower price,” Lacey London says, “but fans can be fiercely loyal to the cam girls they like no matter who else enters the industry.”

ONA feels similarly: “I think it’s the amateur girls who will ultimately suffer. People are spending on [the cam girls] they already know. The increase in engagement hasn't been crazy and I think is somewhat offset by the lack of income many have.”

While Whitney Wright has adapted to the economic shift by charging less to better cater to clients, she’s less concerned about finances than what the newcomer influx might mean for sex work as a whole. "I have seen certain performers voice concerns about [new girls], specifically whether there will be more [advocacy] for sex workers’ rights when this all goes back to normal and the amateurs return to their civilian jobs — if they even do.” She begs the question as to whether these amateurs, say, women who are bored at home and playing around online for fun or a little extra cash see themselves as sex workers to begin with.

“A client emailed me recently saying I seem like a genius now,” ONA reveals. “I hope this makes sex work as respected as any another business. Probably at this point every woman who has lost work has considered the possibility of sex work online, so maybe in the long run all will be less mean to those who do it.”

Interestingly, ONA claims she’s seen a whopping 800% increase in young women attempting to recruit her as a consultant on their own self-presentation, promotion, or online prospects. It makes sense. Whether propelled by the perverts or just genuine curiosity, cam girls found themselves ahead of the curve, long before it’s flattened.