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Turned On: The Women Behind Webcam Porn
  • January 19, 2014 : 23:01
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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.

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read more: Sex and Dating, sex, porn, interview, issue december 2013

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