Turned On: The Women Behind Webcam Porn

By Rachel Rabbit White

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How can I make money?” Lit by the electronic blue of a laptop, Brittany Jean scrolled through the responses from Google. She tried again: “How can I make money with naked photos?”

Hours later Brittany Jean stripped down, set the self-timer on her digital camera and posted her photos to MyGirlFund, a site that allows women to sign up and sell nude videos or photos to a community of members. When her husband came home from the late shift, Brittany Jean pretended to be asleep and, after he’d drifted off, slipped back to the computer. “The first two days I made $400 from photos alone. Then I started camming at $5 a minute,” she says. This was what she led with when breaking the news to her husband days later: “Five dollars a minute—I mean, that’s what some people make an hour!” Skyping from a cream-colored bedroom in her Arkansas home, wearing a black top and smoky eye shadow, she shifts, revealing pajama pants below the screen, a look any girl who works from home would recognize.

The new job brought out her sense of competition. She watched hours of YouTube makeup tutorials, lost weight and got her boobs done—a splurge with the money from camming, her first “real” job. “At first I wanted to brag on myself,” says Brittany Jean, who has lived in the same small town in Arkansas all her life. She laughs, touching her ash-blonde extensions. “I told everybody. But now I’ll go out and a girl I don’t know working a cash register will ask if I’m still camming. I didn’t realize at first that I would get the judgment.”

At any given time thousands of Brittany Jeans are available on cam sites such as MyGirlFund, LiveJasmin, Streamate and MyFreeCams. For a fee they allow strangers to see them naked or watch them have sex. Or masturbate. Or wash their hair. Or smoke. Becoming a cam girl is relatively easy: The application process involves submitting photos and answering a few questions: “Are you at least 18 years old?” “What is your full legal name?” “Tell us a little about yourself.” In the world of sex work, it’s a good gig: It’s legal, and unlike other iterations it involves no physical interaction and no pressure from producers or directors. Cam girls can kick out rude users, make their own hours, set their own rates and keep a large share of the money.

All these factors have helped the camming industry thrive at a time when the rest of the porn world is shaky: Streaming is killing DVDs, pirating is killing streaming, and amateurs are using Vine and Snapchat to make their own porn. Basically, the Ferraris have been traded for BMWs. Camming is the bright spot. In 2011 LiveJasmin was declared the most popular adult site on the internet, period. Today it generates more web traffic than Hulu, Best Buy or FedEx. “It’s hard to pinpoint exact numbers, but annual revenue for camming sites is well over a billion dollars,” says Stefan Patrick, director of business development at MyGirlFund, where Brittany Jean got her start.

But on the business end, the two industries—porn and camming—are increasingly one and the same. Porn companies see cash in the intimate experience offered by cam sites and view it as amateur content that can be monetized by the industry—or rather by the handful of global-reaching companies that bought up most of the industry during the recession. Culturally, our views of obscenity shift with each new technological advancement—print to film to home video to the internet. Now technology has us once again rethinking our definition of pornography as webcams relocate the porn star from the Valley to the house next door.

Aaliyah Love, petite, blonde and wearing an aqua satin bra, moves fluidly across a bed. A watermark stamped over the center of the video reads VIVID CAMS. We are watching a training video that Vivid Entertainment, one of adult entertainment’s biggest companies, sends to cam-girl recruits. As Aaliyah demonstrates how to act on camera, slowly moving onto all fours, she gives sensible advice about money. “The thing that will determine how successful you are and how much money you make is how you act. You have to be happy, bubbly and inviting at all times, even if you are not in a good mood,” she says, her voice in a high girlish octave you keep expecting to drop but never does. “Repeat customers are where you make most of your money,” she reminds the viewer while writhing in lingerie. Vivid offers 10 training videos for new cam girls, including examples of how to do private shows: “Most of the time it is just simple masturbating with a toy and talking dirty,” Aaliyah says matter-of-factly, waving a glass dildo like a baton.

A tour of Vivid’s Hollywood Hills headquarters—a stucco office park with ribbon windows and the Vivid corporate logo looming large—proves that porn is alive but changing. In the upstairs editing room, rows of men sit squinting at close-ups of slow-motion penetration—content that will stream on the site. Vivid has stayed afloat in a time when many companies are being bought out. Camming helps. “Vivid got into cams in 2012,” explains Eli Mattar, manager of operations for Vivid Cams, a division of Vivid that works in tandem with Streamate. (One industry insider divulged that though the internet appears to be littered with cam sites, most of the smaller sites are owned by Streamate, MyFreeCams or other, larger companies.)

While a lot of porn companies struggled to adapt to the internet, Mattar says, starlets especially took a hit. “But you do see more and more stars using webcams now, which used to be strictly amateur. Of course our stars are guaranteed placement on cam, but we want middle America. That’s what we want—the girl next door.”

That’s what Aaliyah Love was when she started camming. A preschool teacher from the Midwest making $8 an hour, she thought the flexible gig would give her more time for her passion, following the jam band Phish, which she did while living out of her SUV and wearing fairy wings. “There were days I didn’t see a mirror, but I didn’t need to. I didn’t need to wash my face. Glitter was the only makeup I wore,” she says. This year Aaliyah spent $4,000 on her nails alone and is now getting the last relic from her hippie days—a Grateful Dead bear tattoo—removed. “I swear I spend all my money on hair extensions and cat food,” she says.

Aaliyah was around for what she terms the golden era of webcamming, about a decade ago, which is shocking considering her youthful look. At the time, most of the other women online were from former Eastern Bloc countries: Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic. There were far fewer cam girls, and Aaliyah was one of the few English-speaking American models. Savvy to this, the site Flirt4Free offered to make Aaliyah a featured model with the stipulation that she dye her hair from brunette to blonde and change her name to Aaliyah for a better alphabetical listing (her first pick was Molly); the salon appointment had already been made. “We were working 25 hours a week, making $4,000 back then,” she says. But as the sites flooded with American women and a new party-chat model that allows men to lurk for free became the norm, prices plummeted—$5.99 a minute became a dollar or pennies. It’s a topic much lamented on private cam-girl forums, where countless posts decry the difficulties of making any livable wage from camming.

In the 1990s cam sites were often produced out of studios or BDSM dungeons. Women logged shifts from elaborate rooms in physical work spaces complete with co-workers. When Aaliyah started, the culture of this model remained. Companies expected women to wear stockings with garters and full makeup with false eyelashes. They trained employees to be bubbly at all times and never say no to a customer. It’s a stark contrast to the Wild West of a site such as MyFreeCams, where there is little control from the top and models have free rein over how they conduct their shows. The result is a stream of women who rely only on tips, offering hardcore content in public chat rooms or conducting “voyeur shows,” which mostly involve the women sitting in their bedrooms, scrolling through the internet. Regardless of approach, the way to make money camming, says Aaliyah and every cam girl interviewed, is through regulars—big tippers—whose phone numbers are programmed into your phone.

Nestled into a booth for brunch at the Standard hotel in Los Angeles, Aaliyah recalls the customer who never talked but would pay for private chats by the minute, then stand in the corner and lift weights. Not sure what to do, Aaliyah would carry on and masturbate. “He would get this really mean look on his face,” she says, pretending to lift weights and puffing her cheeks with air. “I would say, ‘Oh yeah, baby, pump that iron.’?” There was the guy who tipped Aaliyah and a friend $20,000 during a girl-girl show. “We found his house with Google Earth, and it was just this regular place in Wisconsin.” There were lonely guys, virgins, all the clichés. “I worry maybe we’re doing a disservice for these guys,” Aaliyah says. “Maybe some of these guys who spend a lot of time on adult sites think all girls orgasm in two minutes from nothing at all. When you’re not paying a woman $5.99 a minute, they might not laugh at your jokes as much.”

Despite the occasional big tip, Aaliyah worked 12-hour shifts to sustain a middle-class lifestyle, resulting in carpal tunnel and cysts in her wrist. She switched to brushing her teeth with her left hand and continued to cam. “I would zoom in on my butt so I could eat my lunch really quick. I’d shake my butt at the camera so I could text my dad—‘I’ll call you back, Dad!’”

During off-hours she felt guilty for not being on cam. Any time at home was time she could be making money. But Aaliyah also found herself procrastinating, wandering around the house with a full face of makeup before going on. “You just never know what is going to happen when you get on cam,” she explains. She could spend hours waiting for tippers or be asked to masturbate for two hours straight or be made to watch men do bizarre things to themselves.

As the site grew, Flirt4Free sent Aaliyah and another cam girl to adult-industry conventions. The other cam girl noticed that all the porn girls had last names. “We should have last names too, to look professional,” she suggested. Everyone they met asked the same question: Who do you shoot for? Aaliyah eventually made the jump from camming to porn. She just recently started shooting boy-girl scenes, and aside from the work being more glamorous, she’s also found it is more lucrative. “Girls ask me how to get what I have, and I tell them, ‘Work your ass off for 10 years like I did,’?” she says, never breaking her sunny demeanor.

It’s this positivity that shows in the Vivid training videos. In person Aaliyah laughs at a mention of the videos. “I always worry about those,” she says, face falling in her hands. There had been little in the way of script, as Vivid expected she could speak from her experience. “When you’re starting out, you may not have any chatters in your room,” she explains on-screen. “But don’t just sit there and say, ‘C’mon, guysssss!’?” She glides a hand to her hip. “What I do is literally talk to myself, like ‘Aren’t these panties pretty, guys?’” she says to a blank computer screen, running her hands along her body.


Nikki Hearts, a model for alt-porn hub Burning Angel, moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles six months ago to do porn and has since acquired a sleeve tattoo depicting a postapocalyptic Hollywood Boulevard and social cachet as Dave Navarro’s “lesbian wingman.”

“We go to goth parties and creep on pale girls with dark hair who are really tiny and creepy,” she says, tinkering with a white bass she says once belonged to Glenn Hughes from Deep Purple, a gift from Navarro.

The first month Nikki moved here, Measure B passed. It’s a Los Angeles County law that requires porn performers to use condoms, something many in the industry protested. “I was like, Oh my God, is no one going to make porn anymore?” she says. The alt-performer had already been having a hard time finding work because she shoots only girl-girl and has tattoos and short hair. Nikki, who may qualify as a “tiny creepy girl” with her twiggy arms and giant brown eyes, lives with her long-term partner, Lindsay, in a small luxury apartment in Hollywood. She has no plans to shoot scenes with men and dreams of starting her own lesbian-porn studio.

Nikki’s agent warned that shooting only girl-girl would cut out 75 percent of her work opportunities and that she wasn’t sure how to market Nikki. “She asked if I was in porn for money or fame. I said that porn was the best job I’d ever had and I just wanted to show people how I, as a queer woman, actually have sex.”

She has shot a few scenes she’s proud of since being in L.A., but during the day-to-day grind she finds herself camming a lot. This day she sat on MyFreeCams for hours. Guys came into her room but weren’t spending. To shake off the negativity, Nikki is soaking in a hot tub with her girlfriend and another friend, Courtney Trouble, an indie queer-porn producer.

Post–hot tub, the trio sits on marigold love seats with the air conditioner turned on high. “So when you’re on cam, how do you get guys to go into private chat?” Courtney asks, tucking Nikki’s tiny Chihuahua into her cleavage. “As someone who has tried to cam, that seems to be the tricky part,” she explains as the dog looks around.

Instead of trying to get guys to chat by the minute, Nikki does group shows. She sets a goal amount and a timer, and if guys’ collective tipping reaches the goal, she will do whatever was promised—a private hardcore show or something as simple as bringing the cam poolside while she skinny-dips.

“I think the average porn customer is changing,” Courtney says. “You can make money if you’re really being yourself these days. People don’t want cookie-cutter starlets anymore. Porn is free on the internet, but if you’re captivated by a person, you will pay.”

Courtney advises Nikki not to give up on her lesbian porn-star dreams. “That’s the thing,” Courtney says. “If you’re just doing what you are told and no one gets to know you, then you are just an interchangeable body. You are not going to stand out and make money.”

In a way it’s a good time to be in porn, says Courtney, because it’s more socially acceptable than ever before: “Now it’s cool for celebrities to pose nude,” she says. “I mean, having a sex tape with Vivid just boosts your popularity. It’s the mainstreaming of porn that has allowed porn stars to be themselves. In part, it’s that the view about women in the industry has changed. It’s no longer thought that you were forced into porn.”


“Welcome, gentlemen. I am Amber Lynn, your porn star goddess,” says the woman next to a four-poster bed with stage lights clipped to its columns, just out of sight of the webcam. On the duvet is a towel and a wooden tray of sex toys. “You may recognize me from some of your favorite adult films,” she continues as men ping in from her Twitter feed or from browsing the “porn star” tag on Streamate.

Amber recently celebrated her 30th anniversary in the adult industry. She is approaching 50, though according to Amber, in porn, age doesn’t matter as much as whether you look good, which she does. When Amber walks past the pool outside her apartment building, heads swivel at her toned legs and striking features. We are at a small one-bedroom apartment in L.A. that Amber uses when she shoots porn and now also as her place to cam. Before going on, she brushes her teeth and touches up her makeup. “Someone called in to the show I host on XXX Porn Star Radio and said camming is like a cross between porn and prostitution,” she says, coating on two different Chanel lipsticks. “But even with stripping you have to directly engage doing lap dances. Here you don’t.” In the 1990s Amber made money visiting strip clubs as a popular porn star and a featured dancer. “Now everybody cams,” she says.

Sitting behind an old Dell laptop, Amber sees two chat rooms on the screen, one with site members and the other with nonpaying guests. As Amber moves around on cam, messages pour in. “Is it really you?” they ask. “You look great. So sexy!” Sometimes they’re mean, though, with the obligatory “old” and “ugly” comments and, worse, the men with disturbing requests. This is something every cam girl interviewed wants to talk about: the astounding number of bizarre or disgusting requests. “Which is fine,” Amber says, until they cross the line into illegal or just plain gross. “Most of my guys are great, though.”

Amber moves the entire time she is in general chat, blowing kisses, dancing and enticing the guys to bring her into private chat. “Oh, look at the rack on that girl,” she says and then looks at the comments. “Oh, you guys always want to see ass. You don’t even care about tits anymore. Ass is the new tits.” Amber lifts the webcam and shakes it behind her. “We’ve got a free Snuffleupagus!” she says.

When someone requests a private chat, Amber jumps on the bed and slips out of her lingerie. On the other end of the camera is a man with gray hair and a baseball cap, his eyes cast downward. She immediately begins masturbating with a toy. “I am going to come,” she screams minutes later. When the customer closes out of the chat, she is quickly thrown back into group chat. Near the end of the three hours, Amber does a group show with double penetration, using a bendable pink jelly dildo.

“It’s hard work, right?” she says afterward, sweaty and buzzing as a tiny clock on the screen counts down a two-minute break (designated by the site) before she’s thrown back into chat. “I mean, you have to jump on the bed, dildo your pussy and act like you like it, you know?” she says, laughing and out of breath.

Three hours later Amber has made hundreds of dollars. She brushes her teeth again. “Camming is the new porn,” she says into the bathroom mirror. “Porn is crumbling. The internet is melting the industry, and now a few companies own everything.” Driving through the Hollywood Hills, Amber talks about how different the industry was when she started, in the early 1980s. “It was just a handful of people, and we were all hippies. You’d close the set at the end of every shoot to try to get both actors to have actual orgasms,” she explains and then points—distracted—toward West Hollywood and her old apartment. “But now to make any porn it has to be really twisted and niche. Now it’s a circus act. It’s just about trying to fill as many holes as you possibly can without tearing anyone’s skin.”


Exiting a hunter green convertible outside a hotel-casino bar, Houston is striking in a well-kept California-housewife way, but up close certain things stand out: the beauty-mark tattoo, the plastic surgeries, the huge jewel-like eyes. Houston, 44, moved to Las Vegas in 2003 after quitting porn, and in the bar she goes on a rant. “I mean, we were the last Mohicans, the total last porn stars,” she says in a throaty southern California accent. “Dude, we shot on film!”

Houston’s antics got her inducted into the porn hall of fame: breaking the world record for biggest gang bang (620 guys) and going to a prom with a teenager who had asked her via Howard Stern and whom she ended up dating for a year. All of which, Houston says, boosted her career. It was all worth it. “I mean, if I dropped something on set, there was someone following me around to pick it up. Now you’d have to be crazy to get into porn. Are you kidding me? There’s no money.”

After leaving porn, Houston worked for five years as a real estate agent, which she calls the best job of her life. She was putting her daughter through private school, and things were good and quiet until—inevitably—Houston was called in to meet with her company’s CEO. “I thought, I’m getting another promotion,” she says and then pauses when Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” shuffles onto the playlist. Houston was fired for being recognized, an all too common problem for those who try to leave the high-profile sex work of porn. Weeks later Houston was diagnosed with cancer (she is now cancer free). During this time she spoke at churches about her history of drug use and her negative experiences in the industry. All this is chronicled in the book she just wrote.

Now Houston is back in the industry. “My boyfriend tells me, ‘Make your coin while you can, babe.’” She travels to L.A. for the occasional shoot and cams regularly out of her home in Vegas. “There is a stigma with camming, because people think, Oh my God, aren’t you rich? Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take a couple of extra grand a week. I say I’m on cam to promote my projects, my book, whatever, but I’m here for the money, dude.”

Houston has to be up early tomorrow to cam (waking up at five to run and then doing her hair and makeup, which takes forever), but she is easily convinced to stay for another drink. Applying lip gloss in the bar’s bathroom mirror, Houston reiterates, “I was making millions, man. I really was. But now a few companies own everything in porn, and you’ve got to take what they’re paying if you want to work.”

Some girls come into the bathroom, and for reasons unknown, Houston takes selfies with them in the bathroom mirror. “How do I Instagram this to my boyfriend?” she asks a few times, creating nonsensical captions with auto-correct. (Later she does a perfect series of cartwheels in the hotel hallway—three in a row, landing with gymnastic precision on the paisley carpet.)

In the bar Houston squints at someone in the casino. “I thought it was this DJ guy. Never mind.” She takes a sip of her wine and returns to the topic. “Camming is what people do now. It’s a grind, dude. Thank God I have a big name. I don’t know how these nobodies make any money. You have to be on, you have to have a full face of makeup, you have to answer all their stupid questions.” In the background Shania Twain sings “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.”


Today is Aaliyah’s first day off the porn set in a long stretch, and she’s booked with hair and nail appointments, STD tests and a tanning session. Since she started doing boy-girl scenes she’s been working 12-hour days and is trying extra hard to please everyone on set so she’s invited back. “Sometimes it’s just, like, you’re hot and exhausted and all your muscles are burning,” she says in a singsong voice. “And you’re super hungry and things are getting sore. But it’s funny, when the editor puts the footage together, none of that shows—thank God!”

Aaliyah could do shorter, internet-y scenes—she describes a studio where girls pop in to shoot a quick blow job for a few hundred dollars—but she prefers the glittering sets, scripts and makeup artists of feature films, a type that is increasingly rare. Aaliyah is grateful she’s able to get this work and chalks it all up to her camming fans. “I mean, I’m not the youngest or the prettiest or the dirtiest, but I have 10 years’ worth of fans, and that’s why I’m here,” she says.

The studios make less money now, and competition among starlets has increased dramatically. All this has changed the atmosphere of porn, Aaliyah explains. People used to make fun of those in the industry who took it too seriously, she says. After all, it’s just porn. People used to party on set. Aaliyah has heard stories about people smoking pot and having sex in the bathroom. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” she says. “Now when you arrive you hold your ID to your face, and they make you answer things on camera, like ‘Are you on drugs? Did anyone make you do things you didn’t want to do?’”

What it means to be a fan has also changed. To get off work, Aaliyah has to tweet that she’s turning off her phone and then disconnect. “I have made myself so available to the fans from camming. I see this with porn girls too. With social media, fans can get to know their favorite girl, and camming with them makes you less dependent on that porn check. But now it’s made the fans expect this interaction. They want their favorite porn star to do exactly what they want.”

As she calls for the valet, Aaliyah apologizes that her car is dirty and then apologizes for saying that. “Porn stars are obsessed with cars. It’s a Los Angeles thing to live above your means in general. But the thing is, no one is getting rich doing porn anymore,” she says, checking the rearview mirror. “No one is making millions, that’s for sure.”


Brittany Jean is on vacation in Vegas. It’s her first time outside the South, and in between trips to the mall she has been signing in to MyGirlFund to make more money. One of the guys on the site said he was sure he had walked right past her on the Strip. This shocks Brittany Jean, whose small-town infamy tumbles only through the gossip mill.

While her husband gambles, Brittany Jean hopes to meet up with Sheridan Love, a cam girl who broke into porn through her fan base, asking her 26,000 followers to tweet specific directors and companies and tell them to cast her.

“It would be awesome to just stay in Vegas forever,” says Brittany Jean. But for now, she explains, camming provides an escape. In her real life she has obligations to her family, and she doesn’t have much of a social life; on cam she can pretend to be someone else entirely. “I think it would be so cool, so awesome to do porn,” she says. “I watch YouTube videos of L.A. and just picture myself there sometimes. It all looks so glamorous and free.”


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