Liquid Assets: Camming and Cashing In on Desire in the Digital Age
Kavita Ilona Nayar
Since the first adult webcam platforms emerged in 1996, thousands of workers have registered as cam models in a now multibillion-dollar industry that still somehow eludes mainstream attention.1 Despite its low profile, “camming” has developed a reputation as the new frontier of adult entertainment because it satisfies desires for authenticity with live performances by “amateurs” (e.g., “real people” streaming video feeds), technological experimentation (e.g., use of tel-edildonics and virtual reality), social interaction, and community. The job of a cam model is essentially to interact with and entertain users by hanging out, playing games, dancing, stripping, performing sex acts, and exploring fetishes in shows performed for a group or individual. Because the imagined audience for camming is heterosexual cisgender males from the Global North, the industry caters to their presumed tastes, meaning it seeks young, conventionally attractive, native English-speaking, cisgender women to perform this work. In turn, many women in the US who fit the bill appreciate being courted by this industry. They leap at the opportunity of a work-from-home gig that promises fun, friends, flexibility, and easy money, having come of age in an era marked by the sex-positivity of popular feminism, tech-driven entrepreneurship, and the glamorization of side hustles.
But making a living as a cam model is often harder than workers first realize. As independent contractors searching for work on online platforms, they join a budding class of temporary, freelance workers with “entrepreneurial” spirits who have foregone dreams of a traditional job’s security, benefits, and consistent paycheck in favor of a precarious lifestyle that enticingly dangles the possibility of autonomy. As digital workers, cam models stitch together a livable wage by performing
“microtasks”2 for tips and per-minute fees, routinely on multiple cam platforms, and supplementing this unreliable income by pursuing work in other adult industries such as photo, video, and panty selling; phone sex; and pornography. They face intense competition in an oversaturated field, do their own promotion and marketing to attract loyal customers, and receive a mere fraction of their profits after a platform takes its cut. With no formal hiring process, cam models are not even considered “1099” workers, unworthy of being paid until they reach a certain earnings threshold. Thus, countless models never receive a single payout.
Entering the gig economy is both a choice and necessity for many prospective workers. For instance, a 2016 survey found that workers who were low-income, racial minorities and not college-educated were more likely to consider gigs “essential” or “important” to their livelihood, suggesting social disparities help shape the popularity of these sociotechnical fields. ’ Self-reported reliance on gigs is concerning given digital labor studies that suggest industry rhetoric touting the benefits of “being your own boss” draws more American workers into precarious careers of freelancing and independent contracting, which exacerbate problems like financial insecurity that they sought to escape or solve.4 While illuminating the discrepancies between workers’ aspirations and their lived realities, extant research tends to center male-dominated industries, which leads to gender-biased claims? Scholars have called for more intersectional feminist studies that consider how race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and nationality, for instance, mediate workers’ experiences and the gig economy’s implications/’
Camming is a platform-mediated gig that foregrounds gender, sexuality, and social marginalization, which has been largely overlooked within digital labor and cultural production studies.7 This oversight gives tacit consent to the continued marginalization of sex work. For example, the 2013 US Department of Justice investigation of banks known as “Operation Choke Point” explicitly targeted businesses at high risk for fraud and money laundering such as firearm dealers and payday lenders, but it also made banks skittish about dealing with sex workers, effectively shutting them off from essential economic resources. Similarly, on April 11, 2018, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, known as FOSTA-SESTA (Public Law 115-164), which amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in order to increase the legal liability of third-party providers for the content on their platforms, presumably to regulate sex trafficking and child abuse. However, this legislation also pushed platforms to act more conservatively by instituting or acting on “morality clauses” that bar voluntary and legal sex workers from using their services.
In order to “un-exceptionalize” sex workers, this chapter explores camming as work worthy of inclusion in the academic and political imagination.8 Just as scholarship has informed activism in car-share and care labor industries, sex workers benefit from research that dignifies and destigmatizes their experiences. As some of the most unprotected members of a burgeoning class of precarious workers, sex workers provide experiences, perspectives, imaginaries, and politics that help envision how to make all work more fair, humane, and gratifying. I inquire: What are the perceived benefits and drawbacks of this labor? How do platform conditions shape this labor? What does an intersectional feminist analysis of this labor reveal?
Drawing upon in-depth interviews with 24 US-based women conducted between June 2017 and April 2020, I argue that camming is an individualized strategy for managing systemic gender inequality under patriarchal capitalism. Adopting an intersectional feminist approach, I paid close attention to ambivalences in the social status of women I interviewed and variation in their experiences and perspectives. On the one hand, all interviewees identified as cisgender female, ranging in age from 18 to 54, with 27 being the median age. Two-thirds identified as white. The remaining third overwhelmingly identified as black, but also Latina, mixed, or Asian. In this respect, most interviewees were relatively privileged by their sexual orientation, race, and young age. On the other hand, privilege and oppression are not mutually exclusive. Two-thirds of interviewees lacked a bachelor’s degree, most of whom were cisgender white. Many of these same interviewees juggled full-time camming with parenting and marriage, were taking college courses to improve their access to resources, and suffered from chronic health conditions that made it difficult to retain traditional employment. Their stories of overwhelming life circumstances and events, limited access to education, and disabilities reveal the sometimes subtle ways social status shapes understandings of gig work and what workers value and need.
Based on these interviews, I highlight both the possibilities and the constraints of this work for women in their positions. I argue that camming offers them significant economic, pragmatic, and symbolic benefits, bringing access to money, dignity, and pleasure that should not be dismissed. In recent years, workplace reform has risen in the ranks of liberal feminist concerns, bringing awareness to issues like sexual harassment, gendered pay gaps, and lack of paid parental leave and affordable childcare. Yet progress is uneven and slow, and many women have turned to the gig economy as a coping strategy, cam models included. Women entering this industry are looking for work that is lucrative, enjoyable, and, most of all, flexible. However, cam platforms are also designed, governed, and populated under patriarchal capitalism, limiting the possibilities of this work and introducing risks and concerns. I analyze these tensions not only to advocate for sex workers’ rights, but also to explore what these contradictions can teach us about better advocating for the needs of gig workers at large.
Camming as Gendered Gig Work
For all of the techno-optimism surrounding the gig economy and echoed by many of its millions of workers, emerging research suggests this outlook masks a grim reality. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines a gig as “a single project or task for which a worker is hired, often through a digital marketplace, to work on demand,”9 but scholars critique this definition as misleading because it frames platform companies as multi-sided markets, as “intermediaries” that merely facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers.10 This rhetoric importantly obscures how many platforms dodge the label of “employer” whilst hiring contingent workers to perform low-paying service or manual labor, which allows these companies to save money and offload risks to workers by circumventing traditional labor law. They are not obligated to provide a minimum wage, work-related resources and support, safe working conditions, unemployment insurance, or benefits like health care, paid time off, and retirement savings plans." In a digital economy, gigs are also globally distributed, which increases worker competition and cheapens their labor.12 Thus, scholars almost unanimously agree the gig economy further erodes labor protections that have been vanishing for decades under neoliberal economic policies.
Platform-mediated labor also introduces new ways for old problems to haunt workers. Algorithms and other sociotechnical features of platforms reinforce yet obscure social inequalities by purportedly removing the element of human bias.13 Platforms claim neutrality but create hierarchies by design." According to legal scholars, this makes it harder to detect machinations of power and regulate discrimination using standards applied in other contexts. As more work and social life transitions onto platforms, datafication—the capture and monetization of user activity—adds new layers of value creation, labor exploitation, and surveillance, creating a web of undetected power.15
Still, much sex work scholarship downplays unanticipated outcomes and risks characteristic of platform-mediated labor, highlighting the benefits of added safety, control, and community of platforms to street workers and escorts. Such research importantly counters a dominant political narrative that conflates voluntary online sex work with sex trafficking and promotes policymaking antagonistic to all online sexual content and services. Though important to protecting sex workers’ rights, these studies too often laud technology and gloss over the reification of power in sociotechnical systems.16 However, recent studies, particularly on cam modeling, critique platform mediation in terms of risks to sex workers such as surveillance, privacy violations, harassment, and police targeting;17 the intensity and implications of worker competition;18 and the extraction of value from workers.19
Against this backdrop, workers still see desires for flexibility, independence, and control as guiding their choices to enter the gig economy, but they likely need this work to fill income gaps created by low or loss of wages, representing what Annette Bernhardt calls “the privatization of the safety net.”20 Just as dot-com era creative workers romanticized risk and uncertainty21 Web 2.0 gig workers are emboldened by the rhetoric of entrepreneurialism to see self-reliance as a choice, not capitulation to unsustainable conditions.22 Many workers see themselves as motivated by an enterprising spirit to create multiple income streams, when it may also be an economic necessity,23 demonstrating how habituation to uncertainty has become even more entrenched in workers’ subjectivities. Needing to hold multiple jobs is not new, but its veneration as part of the aspirational identity of a digital entrepreneur with admirable “hustle” is problematic.
Of course, industry discourses do not hail all workers unanimously. Gig work is highly gendered, and women’s inroads into the gig economy differ depending on their race, class, and appearance. Women with racial and/or class privilege are encouraged to identify as “girlbosses,” self-employed entrepreneurs and creative workers trading in self-brands and attention as influencers, bloggers, and digital boutique owners. Their activities are romanticized and filtered through discourses of passion, pleasure, self-fulfillment, self-expression, friendship, fun, and community.24 These discourses cohere in a neoliberal feminist ethos of empowerment and self-improvement, increasing women’s affective investment in gigs tapping into these desires. Though valuable, feminist critiques of women’s motivations sometimes downplay their agency and how intersectionality shapes experiences. Many women, especially women of color or those without college degrees who are more likely to work in low-wage service industries, choose gigs to escape the confines of a rigged system that undervalues them and ignores or derides their needs. For women already marginalized by their racial and class positions, the trade-off is not between a well-paying, reliable corporate job with benefits and a flexible gig without stable earnings and worker protections, but one between two insecure scenarios.25 Sexuality scholars who situate camming and porn work in this nexus have importantly problematized prior feminist framing of women’s desires for flexibility, control, and independence as inherently misguided or unfulfilled.26
By bringing the views and lives of sex workers into the conversation about social media and creative work, interesting potential alliances emerge. Nancy Baym’s research on the relational labor required of musicians helps me conceptualize the added demands of newer forms of sex work like camming, which combine service work with content creation.27 Baym writes, “these jobs raise enormous challenges around maintaining boundaries between personal and professional, paid and unpaid labor, and pleasure and exploitation,” a statement one might assume was written about sex workers, and cam models in particular, if unaware of the context.28 Like Baym’s musicians, cam models enjoy their work whilst negotiating demands to be authentic, emotionally available, and in constant communication with users. They build self-brands, connect with fans, and participate in an attention economy as creative workers but are siloed by the stigma of sex work and what Sarah Banet-Weiser calls the “idealization of white femininity,” which constructs a dichotomy between gendered work that is “empowering” and that which is “pathologized and considered immoral” and usually performed by marginalized women.2’ The isolation of research on stigmatized sexual content creation from other feminized social media professions suggests intersectional approaches are needed to unpack women’s varied motivations for entering the gig economy and the stakes of gig labor for women beyond those whose visibility is most celebrated.
A Financial and Pragmatic Choice
Camming’s low barriers to entry attracts those needing quick access to cash. With a computer, webcam, internet connection, and legal identification, it is easy and inexpensive to start camming, at least compared to the onerous process of securing traditional employment. Models lacking capital may work for a studio that provides resources, support, and a staged set in exchange for a percentage of their profits, a compromised arrangement that nevertheless appeals to cash-strapped models. Camming also does not require background checks, providing access to jobseekers with criminal records who may not be approved to work in other fields, including adult films and strip clubs. Ex-offenders are vulnerable to discriminatory hiring practices that reduce their chances at procuring steady income, leading to recidivism. The ease of entry to camming is a relief. Also unlike traditional jobs, being new works in a model’s favor. Platforms privilege newness by using algorithmic rankings and search filters to increase a new model’s visibility on a site and induce a surge of traffic into her room for a limited time. During this honeymoon period, money flows to models. Though this success is fleeting and misleading (models report a dip in traffic and tips when their “new” tag disappears), many models find this initial boost sets them up for future success by allowing them to find fans and their niche in the community.
Dissatisfied with the wages and workloads of other service industries, women turn to camming because it is more lucrative and time efficient. Between tips, per-minute fees for exclusive shows, and merchandise sales, models can end up averaging a higher hourly rate than they would from other work they are qualified to do. Josie,30 for instance, worked at a coffee shop and was pursuing a career in film animation when she began camming. Already busy with unpaid internships expected of her as a creative aspirant, she cams because it saves time. In three to four hours of camming, she makes what it would take a week to make as a barista. Similarly, Alexa said camming gives her “more time, more freedom, and more financial stability to afford school again,” an opinion shared by other interviewees who cam to pay off or avoid student debt. Women strip at clubs for similar reasons, and generally make more money in a single night, but their access and choice of venues is limited by their physical location and/or ability to travel. As remote online work, camming can be done from anywhere it is legally sanctioned.
Many women compare camming to feminized fields in which they also worked such as office administration, education, and healthcare, household, and childcare services, finding camming better rewards their skillsets. Penny, a former hospital worker, felt “underpaid, overworked, [and] under-appreciated” when she started camming part-time for extra money. She eventually quit, but skills she honed as a healthcare professional such as geniality, self-motivation, and time management were helpful for developing a fan base, increasing her earnings, and consistently producing content for multiple outlets. Disillusioned by the demands and low pay of care work, she describes camming as offering her a better quality of life and financial stability. She and her husband have used her camming income to take vacations, buy investment properties, and build savings. Others shared similar stories of drawing on skills gained in devalued economic sectors and finding greater monetary success as cam models. Considering sex work is socially devalued, it is puzzling that many cam models report earning more and feeling valued than they do in socially acceptable feminized professions. Some allude to what I call a “stigma bonus,” the payoff of doing work that other women, fearing or sitting in judgment, are unwilling to do. Choosing this life is difficult but brings a sense of possibility given their alternatives.
Camming also feels more approachable and inclusive than do other adult industries. Stories about successful “non-nude” models circulate as industry lore, encouraging women to believe it is possible to cam without being naked or sexual on camera (none of my interviewees were non-nude). Models also appreciate the range of workers’ bodily appearances. Abbie, a model in the “Big Beautiful Women” (BBW) niche, rejects the presumption that thinness or conventional beauty is required to cam. Still, she emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and avoiding false advertising when creating tags used to attract interested users that describe one’s physical appearance. A thin woman, she argued, would perform just as poorly using a “BBW” tag as she would not using it. While valid, her point does not address potential differences between categories such as average number of users, money made, and treatment of workers. Similarly, the women of color I interviewed claimed industry-driven racial inequalities are less of a problem in camming than in other sex trades. Avery told me fans embraced her when she came out as a “fat black woman” after a decade of promoting herself using a “skinny white woman” persona as a phone sex operator. Josie, a Mexican-American model, even recommends models emphasize their ethnic differences to attract fans.
Race play, a fetish for roleplaying racial power dynamics typically requested of black female performers, is popular on cam platforms, suggesting a demand for diversity even if it reinforces white patriarchy. Some black female performers I interviewed refused to do race play out of self-respect, while others dismissed the potential for damage and used tactics to depersonalize the interaction, framing their thick skin as good business sense. Blair, for instance, retorted, “If you want to pay me to call me the n-word, go ahead! You could have done it for free.” Either way, models felt they had a choice to refuse and still earn money. Commodifying and sexualizing cultural difference is a complex phenomenon that other scholars have addressed better than I can here.31 Still, models’ outlooks suggest the atmosphere created by the camming community promotes feelings of racial inclusion. This sensibility increases black performers’ enjoyment of the work regardless of expectations to perforin sexualized racial tropes and difficulties gaining traction on platforms like MyFreeCams, which cater to mainstream (i.e., white middle-class) tastes.
Like other gig workers, cam models value flexibility and working from home as individualized strategies for managing their needs. With multiple jobs and college coursework, some interviewees appreciated camming as a gig performed at night, on weekends, and during free time, allowing them to preserve normal business hours for other commitments. Working from home is also a respite from the pressures of traditional workplaces to optimize productivity at the expense of personal relationships and family matters, an expectation women negotiate alongside the persistent gendered division of labor in which they are overwhelmingly responsible for managing the household, childrearing, and elderly care in their extended families. Blair, for instance, started camming to care for her grandmother, who recently suffered a stroke and has Alzheimer’s. Abbie and Stephanie homeschool their sons and cam while the boys sleep. While the flexibility of gigs is likely overstated, it is also not an abstract virtue of camming but a concrete gain that gives women control they are sorely lacking in other labor sectors. Many cam models have worked in industries without paid or unpaid leave and risk being fired if they miss a pre-assigned shift.32 For these workers and caretakers, flexibility is all they have.
Traditional workplaces can also be inhospitable to workers with chronic physical, mental health, or behavioral conditions who might need to take more breaks. Kendrix started camming after she had two car accidents that left her with severe brain trauma. She had to quit the jobs she previously held and defer college enrollment due to physical and cognitive limitations. Jessica also suffered a car accident that halted her work as a nurse supervisor at a medical office. She began camming after a doctor told her to do less physically taxing work. Other interviewees had anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, or autism spectrum disorder. They all appreciate camming as a job without rigid protocols. Flexibility, then, is less about neoliberal mantras of freedom and choice and more about recognizing individual needs and limitations, an instinct that is discouraged, shamed, or even penalized in traditional workplaces. Whether camming is truly flexible is beside the point. Workers’ preference for flexibility over stability calls attention to the underlying systemic failure to create humane employment policies that address their needs and reflect their values.33
The Pleasure of Creativity and Community
Some women frame their choices to cam in strictly economic and pragmatic terms, as survival strategies, but those who are most active in the business and community also imbue it with cultural meaning and symbolic status. Full-time models are more likely to see themselves as independent content creators, with live cam sessions representing only a fraction of their creative output and revenue, which includes more lucrative ventures such as photo and video clip production for social media and fan club subscriptions. Successful models operate like one-woman multimedia companies, perpetually creating and promoting shows, content, and merchandise. As sex work becomes more mainstream or at least more visible, some models hope to leverage their experiences in the adult industry as expertise they carry over into careers in media, sex therapy, business consulting, marketing, and sales. After a decade as a phone-sex-operator-cum-cam-model, Avery has authored two books, offers one-on-one consulting with models, and delivers an online teaching series. Callie runs an online industry publication and hosts a podcast on camming. An industry that represents the marriage of sex, performance art, business, and technology', camming is a hotbed for innovation that appeals to women invested in becoming “sexual entrepreneurs.”
Sexual content creation can become a source of creativity, self-esteem, and community even if begun under financial strain. Several interviewees proudly told me how they had earned “best cam show” and “fan favorite” awards at conventions. These achievements are noteworthy since gaining recognition for female amateur content production is unusual in other creative industries. Networking with models at events or in online forums and group chats also satisfies desires for community built on shared experiences. Penny recalls feeling “empowered” while attending a convention. Struggling with the stigma of sex work, she felt a sense of belonging that helped overcome her fears. Vanessa, who also works at strip clubs, sees the camming community as less judgmental. Even amongst exotic dancers, she finds “prudes” who judge her. She speculates that women who strip are more private or ashamed than cam models, who are open and free with publicly broadcasting their sexuality, a style she admires and embodies. While her opinions and experiences regarding the limitations of stripping may not be shared, her appreciation for this community built on celebrating sexual freedom suggests it is one reason models remain loyal to this industry.
Camming is known for its permissiveness, and the anonymity of internet interactions attracts users looking to safely explore fetishes with models up to the task. Not all models I interviewed enjoyed fetish work, but many seemed proud of skillfully playing a role and providing pleasure to audiences. Nearly all models I interviewed do female domination, a roleplay fetish that eroticizes patriarchal power reversal by positioning women as “goddesses, art, and superior to men,” according to Jessica. “Men are always in charge, so it’s powerful,” she said. In these shows, men expect women to demean them with services such as small penis humiliation, orgasm denial, sissy training, and jerk-off instruction. Fetish work can be emotionally draining, but it is also fun and different from the monotony of everyday life. Some unleash sides of themselves they otherwise repress. Recently married, Tessa finds camming to be a “safe outlet” to receive the sexual attention she craves outside of her primary romantic relationship. An accountant by day but a “flirtatious extrovert” at heart, she is free to be “an amplified version” of herself while camming: “I get to share a part of myself that I had to put away in the real world.” Additionally, part of a cam models job is to “hang out” and “have fun,” highlighting self-expression and pleasure. Some showcase and practice their skills and talents for an audience; models are known to paint, sing, dance, cook, and play videogames as ways to entertain and interact with users. Acknowledging that sex workers feel pride and pleasure in providing services is sometimes elided in order to legitimize their labor as “real work.” But these joys differentiated cam modeling from other gigs my interviewees considered like catering or car-share service work. The search for pleasure and passion in camming and other gig work is important to take seriously as indications of what is missing in workers’ everyday lives under increasingly unstable and alienating economic conditions.34 Still, the “freedom” to “have fun” is neither problem-free nor equally available to all models. Aspirations for money, creativity, community, and pleasure are not always achieved on cam platforms, which constrain workers’ experiences in particular ways.
The Constraints of Platform-Mediated Sex Work
Camming can be lucrative, pragmatic, and meaningful, but it is also an individualized solution to systemic problems. As such, camming is subject to terms set by patriarchal capitalism; it reformulates conditions of dependence that workers seek to escape, despite appearing to offer them greater autonomy. This section examines two ways patriarchal capitalism undergirds platform-mediated sex work: (1) platform design, governance, and relations that devalue and exploit models’ labor, and (2) dependence on cultivating a mostly male fan base and relationships to compensate for the lack of worker protections as independent contractors in this digital creative industry.
Platforms aim to squeeze the most value out of cam models’ labor. Because they provide servers, user interface, traffic, and payment processors needed to professionally cam, they justify collecting 40 to 70 percent of models’ earnings. Models whose followings drive regular traffic to cam platforms sense their worth to companies boasting billion-dollar revenues, but they fear repercussions of contesting low payouts since companies have a steady influx of workers. Some attempt to circumvent cam platforms and keep their profits by using video chat applications to perform private shows, but they do so at personal risk. Sexual transactions violate “morality clauses” in companies’ terms of service, and payment processors are known to freeze and close accounts with suspected ties to individual sex workers (though some work directly with major platforms). Customers also abuse models’ precarity by contesting payment after receiving services, knowing models have little recourse to regain their money.
Marginalization of sex workers gives platforms more control over their labor and the ability to institute unfair terms and conditions with little pushback. For example, Birdie revealed how a platform immediately suspended her for three months after monitoring a conversation in which she and a customer violated one of its terms by agreeing to meet on a different platform: “I was like, ‘it’s Christmas time! Are you kidding me? You can see he started this. I bring a lot of money to this site. No slap on the wrist?” While she scrambled to financially recover, the customer received a warning, indicating a double standard in this two-sided market. Birdie’s story also epitomizes the precarity of platform labor and chronic stress caused by platform surveillance?5 Monitoring workers’ data is a form of organizational policing that is not unique to online contexts, but platform policies are opaque and inconsistently enforced. Their actions seem haphazard or even discriminatory, leading to more uncertainty for these unprotected workers.
Sociotechnical features are decisions dictated by stakeholder interests and profit motive, but they are misrecognized as inevitable, even natural, aspects of technology and of practical and aesthetic value for consumers. This paradox matters because, much like human language, platforms are not simply conduits of information and social connection, but in fact constitute and legitimize forms of sociality based on how they are designed and governed.56 Tech companies make decisions that are not neutral or benign but actively construct the constraints and possibilities of digital cultural work even when they feign a passive role. For example, companies standardize platform transactions by making users pay models with tokens they purchase from the platform company. Each token costs approximately SO. 10 depending on the package (of which approximately $0.05 goes to a model). This decision makes token packages affordable to buyers and likely prolongs time spent on the platform, but it also reduces the scale of models’ compensation to a US dime. Token-based systems also devalue a models’ labor by masking the true exchange of money for services rendered. If not in token form, paying models in such minuscule increments would perhaps too starkly reveal the low valuation of their time.
Further, some platforms require models to perform unpaid labor, entertaining users in “free chat” areas and working for tips. While tipping is expected, models complain about “freeloaders,” lurkers who never tip yet frequent their rooms. Platforms give models the option to “silence” freeloaders and only interact with token-carrying “members,” but this feature bypasses the larger issue and is more likely designed to persuade buyers to purchase tokens than to help models.
This solution benefits platforms in two ways: They are able to claim they “empower” models with a feature that tackles the freeloader problem and avoid addressing their unpaid labor. They also make models individually responsible for converting free users into paying members. Converting users into consumers involves promotion and marketing, the cost of which platforms conceal and offload onto workers to increase surplus value. Josie laughs at her initial naivete, when she believed she could simply turn on her webcam, talk to people, and make money. Though she originally hoped camming would free up her schedule to make more art, she realized the job is more “time consuming” than she imagined. Now, she feels obligated to constantly create content to maintain her social media presence and grow her fan base.
According to Kitty, camming is not actually a moneymaker. Models who claim to make money actually work multiple platforms and industries—cam sites, clip subscription sites, phone/text services, panty selling and so on—to assemble a livable income. They then promote and cross-market themselves and their products, unpaid work that benefits each platform and their payment processors in user traffic and transactions. Self-promotion has worked for models. However, recently increased competition means they do even more unpaid promotion to be noticed, a dynamic that only benefits platforms.
It is also a precarious strategy: The promotion of adult content is subject to platforms’ terms of service and ever-evolving public policy, making these unreliable tools. In fact, social media frequently ban or “shadowban” (hide from view, but still allow) models, both of which can greatly impact their income. Still, models accept this arrangement, believing that platforms are intermediaries and, as independent operators, they are solely responsible for their success or failure on a platform. “The pay scale really is all over the place. It really depends on how much time you put into it and how dedicated you are,” Alexa admitted. This individualist logic reinforces a sense of meritocracy and autonomy, the myth that a model can create her own wage stability. Models see unpaid work as part of the entrepreneurial experience, which relieves platforms of responsibility.
Platforms conceal the investment costs workers typically incur, banking on models to front this capital in order to build their personal brands. To be successful, models invest in professional lighting, camera equipment, high-speed internet, sex toys, personal grooming and appearance and intangible resources such as IT skills, social support, and business acumen. Models working alone, with rudimentary equipment or technological literacy, have little success keeping people in their rooms, much less building a following, even if they have an attractive personality and look. Not only do users lose interest when there are technical glitches, but models are also convinced that platforms hide those with low-resolution cameras and slow internet connections from view in order to preserve a better user experience and quality brand. Platforms are close-mouthed about their algorithms, so arguments about their intentions are moot. However, platforms are not incentivized to create algorithms supporting a democratic field for models, nor do they invest in models by subsidizing resources needed to succeed. Models are simply the content that platforms offer and moderate for buyers: they are algorithmically sorted, searched, showcased, or hidden according to platforms’ needs.37 For instance, MyFreeCams uses “camscores” to rank models by a monthly calculation of time spent and money made. Jordan sometimes feels “defeated” by these algorithms because she works hard but knows there is a ceiling to her success. Not only does a low score reduce a model’s visibility on the platform, but also many users confer status to high-scoring models. Preferences for high-scoring models doubly disadvantages mid- to low-tier models struggling to find an audience. Thus, the industry perpetuates a meritocratic myth that anyone can make six or even seven figures camming; in reality, camming requires more time, energy, and resources than advertised, creating hidden hierarchies of remuneration like other digital creative work.38
Though reaping exorbitant profits, platforms position themselves as “intermediaries” connecting sellers to buyers, making a model’s income and financial stability contingent upon continued user interest. Models sometimes feel uncomfortably beholden to male users who will “hold the money over your head,” according to Cora. Big tippers, she said, expect a model to bend her rules for them, pressing her for sensitive information like her real name and location and retaliating when rebuffed. Several models reflected on fans who would remind them they had discovered the models’ real names and even home addresses but did not intend to use the information. Ophelia received a greeting card from a user at her home, which disturbed her, but she did not want to alienate the user who never tried to meet up, remained friendly, and continued to pay her. Models tend to downplay these threats and individually manage incidents of harassment or coercion because they fear the financial ramifications. This dynamic shows how workplace sexual harassment follows women onto online labor platforms but is not addressed, since “cyber” forms of harassment, stalking, and abuse are seen as less harmful. In this case, many see those affected as putting themselves in harm’s way because they are sex workers.
Models endure such incidents due to the inconsistency of traffic and earnings on platforms. Even successful models experience days when “you’re camming for six hours, and it’s crickets,” Birdie told me. Then, there are days when one tip from a “whale,” a big spender, meets a model’s weekly or even monthly goal. In these moments, Birdie will “cam for as long as it goes away.” Her experience demonstrates how this unpredictability leads to not only dependencies on regular tippers, but also working erratic and sometimes grueling hours, which takes a psychic toll and causes models to burn out. Alexa trains models to “take a day off” when this happens “because you’re not going to make any money.” Birdie reiterated this sentiment: “If you’re having a bad day, it shows. Even when you try to cover it up, if there’s something else bothering you, people pick up on that.” While a helpfill form of self-care, this advice is moot if a model needs to work that day and does not have the freedom to let her emotions dictate her schedule. As Penny put it, “some girls, they depend on this to eat and if they don’t have a good day, they’re not eating or they’re not paying rent.” Thus, relying solely on individual consumers to pay the bills, who are almost entirely male, taps into a familiar gendered power dynamic in which models intensely manage their emotions to please a male consumer and stabilize their income.
This emotional labor is most pronounced when they confront requests for fetish work that undermine their values.39 “We just see all of these sick guys that are into kids’’ Penny complained, “and they flock to cam sites because they can openly do it without really doing it.” Penny finds pedophilic fetishes “disgusting,” but she feels backed into a corner. “I can’t react and go, ‘You’re fucking sick.’” Unlike the emotional labor of maintaining a cheery demeanor, pretending to accept fetishes that go against one’s moral code and then embodying them can be mentally and spiritually draining. Recognizing these are exceptional work conditions, models are used to being containers for people’s desires and seek to neutralize their feelings when they perform uncomfortable or offending acts such as incest fantasies, pedophilia, and race or religion play. Nearly all models revealed the same advice to newcomers: “Never do anything you do not want to do. You always have a choice.” The popularity of this advice is apt—and telling. Models do have a choice, but the advice resonates because self-determination is notoriously slippery. Their dependence on satisfied users and good ratings to maintain their reputation on platforms softly massages their desires and decisions.
Developing a fan base is the most popular strategy cam models deploy to stabilize their incomes, illustrating the importance of relational labor to sexual content creation in the Web 2.0 era. Camming is intimate work that involves providing users digital companionship unrestricted by boundaries of time and space and professional and private selves. Many models create subscription-based fan clubs, where users get exclusive photos, videos, and live shows and access to a model via phone, text messages, and social media. Ophelia, for instance, commodifies all aspects of the process: posting behind-the-scenes photos and videos that lead up to an exclusive live show, offering those willing to pay more the option to watch her take a shower after a particularly “messy” show, and selling the lingerie she wore during it.
Nina, a former adult film actress who recently transitioned into camming, describes it as more demanding because of the intimacy models are expected to forge with fans. While she used to get paid to “pretend and leave” when her scenes were over, now she is expected to be real and never leave. Like all relationships, those between models and fans take ongoing work to maintain. The emphasis on being present, talking, and listening to users’ needs and desires leads models to report feeling like an on-call therapist. Sensitive and nurturing, Kitty attracts fans who confide in her, leaving her feeling drained and underpaid for the level of care they seek. Models certainly may find the relational labor of this gig rewarding and enjoyable, but creating ongoing connections with mostly male users as sex workers heightens the ambiguity of these gendered transactions and requires models to be on guard to combat its pitfalls. As these relationships develop, models struggle to maintain their boundaries, with several reporting that some male regulars mistake them for genuine “friendships” and expect to “hang out” without paying them, while others treat it like a game, seeing how much they can get for free. Thus, being “authentic” builds a following, but the emphasis on friendship and connection can undermine a model’s bottom line by subverting the value of her professional labor.
In this chapter, I have argued that camming is both rewarding and restricting for women who are seeking relief from the gendered expectations and disappointing results of traditional work available to them, frequently in service, care, or other feminized industries. On the one hand, this work holds economic, pragmatic, and cultural value. Not only do workers appreciate camming’s low barriers to entry, potential for higher pay, flexibility, and the ability to work from home, but they also feel creatively fulfilled, supported by a community, and pleasure in doing it. For these workers, sexual labor and content creation is a gendered strategy for staking claim to their always already sexualized bodies under patriarchal capitalism. In the #MeToo era, American women are publicly exposing coercive relationships with men across many industries, making salient the ways in which sexuality is always a factor. Recognizing that sex workers are not the only women who experience sexual and gender exploitation is not groundbreaking, but it does trouble feminist aversions to talk of empowerment in sex work if we are able to see the gendered and sexualized aspects of women’s work in other industries and how their positions situate them as both empowered and exploited. Cam models are arguably more inclined and better equipped to deal with these issues too, having developed tactics as sex workers that protect themselves from coercion, strategically redeploying patriarchal constructions of sexuality as a form of capital.
On the other hand, platform-mediated sex work is both a tool that women use and an artifact of patriarchal capitalism, a tension that cannot be discounted. Despite promoting themselves as “sex worker friendly” corners of the internet, cam platform companies still devalue and exploit the sexual labor of their mostly female workforce, leaving them to fend for themselves with mostly male consumers who can leverage these relationships in ways that put models at risk. Some of the constraints mentioned in this chapter—hidden hierarchies amongst workers, algorithmic bias, the vulnerabilities of visibility, offloading risks and capital costs to workers, and the labor of developing a following and fan relationships—are somewhat germane to creative work in the gig economy. But the ways they manifest in camming suggest a need to take a serious but not defensive look at how the marginalization of sex work, rather than sex work itself, creates barriers for women.
Ultimately, the constraints and possibilities of platform-mediated sex work reflect broader issues affecting gig workers. The inclusion of their tactics, strategies, and politics in this conversation brings a fresh perspective to the fight for bringing pleasure, dignity, and humanity to all forms of work. We might draw on these perspectives in the struggle to make all work more humane, starting with sex work.4"
This involves challenging not only platform companies’ policies, but also the marginalization of sex workers by legal, moral, and social codes that put unnecessary burden on cam models by making their gig work especially precarious despite being legal in the United States. Sex workers, activists, and allies have become adept at contesting and advocating for better legislation that impacts this marginalized community (and all citizens) even during the drafting process. For example, in spring 2020, activist groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Project
(SWOP), HackingZ/Hustling, and Decriminalize Sex Work were at the forefront of tracking, protesting, and informing the public about the newly introduced EARN IT Act (S. 3398), another bill intending to chip away at platform immunity afforded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the name of ending sex trafficking. Granting the government “the power to compel online service providers to break encryption or be exposed to potentially crushing legal liability,” the EARN IT Act has been called “a disaster for Internet users’ free speech and security” by the internet civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, which acknowledged how sex workers had so far been among the first and most invested groups to bring attention to the issue and fight its passage because the stakes for them are so severe.41
Despite these efforts, sex workers are not typically centered in discussions of gig workers’ rights and the future of the gig economy. It is important that we center marginalized groups like sex workers not only to learn from their approaches, but also to ensure that the research we conduct and policies we advocate for are not in vain, offering unwelcome one-size-fits-all solutions to ideal gig worker dilemmas and resulting in unintended outcomes for those without seats at the table. Taking sex workers’ perspectives and lived experiences into account, as I have attempted to do here, is imperative in order to develop an intersectional feminist framework for addressing the inequalities reproduced in the gig economy. Such an approach earnestly acknowledges how patriarchal capitalism is not uniformly felt and managed. Therefore, we must humble ourselves by asking workers better questions. Only then might we understand the peculiar appeal of compromised structures and find transformative potential in the creative ways people cope with precarity in their everyday lives.
- 1. Linda Pressly, “Cam-Girls: Inside the Romanian Sexcam Industry,” BBC, August 10, 2017.
- 2. Uttam Bajwa, Denise Gastaldo, Erica Di Ruggiero, and Lilian Knorr, “The Health of Workers in the Global Gig Economy,” Globalization and Health 14, no. 124 (2018), https: //doi. org/10.1186/sl2992-018-0444-8.
- 3. Aaron Smith, “Gig Work, Online Selling and Home Sharing,” Pew Research Center, November 2016.
- 4. Nicholas Fiori, “The Precarity of Global Digital Labor,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 45, no. 3 & 4 (2017).
- 5. Julia Ticona and Alexandra Mateescu, “Trusted Strangers: Carework Platforms’ Cultural Entrepreneurship in the On-Demand Economy,” New Media & Society 20, no. 11 (2018).
- 6. Niels van Doorn, “Platform Labor: On the Gendered and Racialized Exploitation of Low-Income Service Work in the ‘On-Demand’ Economy,” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 6 (2017).
- 7. Helen Rand, “Challenging the Invisibility of Sex Work in Digital Labour Politics,” Feminist Review 123 (2019).
- 8. Heather Berg, “Labouring Porn Studies,” Porn Studies 1, no. 1—2 (2014): 75.
- 9. Elka Torpey and Andrew Hogan, “Working in a Gig Economy,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2016.
- 10. Ticona and Mateescu, “Trusted Strangers,” 4385.
- 11. Steven P. Valias, “Platform Capitalism: What’s at Stake for Workers?” New Labor Forum 28, no. 1 (2019): 48-59.
- 12. Ibid.
- 13. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018).
- 14. Van Doorn, “Platform Labor,” 907.
- 15. José van Dijck, David Nieborg, and Thomas Poell, “Reframing Platform Power,” Internet Policy Review 8, no. 2 (2019): 7-8.
- 16. For a discussion of the limitations of this early research and the affordances and limitations of digital sex work, see Angela Jones, “Sex Work in a Digital Era,” Sociology Compass 9, no. 7 (2015): 559.
- 17. Angela Jones, Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 120.
- 18. Niels van Doorn and Olav Velthuis, “A Good Hustle: The Moral Economy of Market Competition in Adult Webcam Modeling,"Journal of Cultural Economy 11, no. 3 (2018).
- 19. Antonia Hernandez, ‘“There’s Something Compelling About Real Life’: Technologies of Security and Acceleration on Chaturbate,” Social Media & Society 5, no. 4 (2019).
- 20. Annette Bernhardt, “Making Sense of The New Government Data on Contingent Work,” Medium, June 10, 2018.
- 21. Gina Neff, Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2012).
- 22. Brooke Duffy, (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 10.
- 23. Leslie Regan Shade, “Hop to It in the Gig Economy: The Sharing Economy and Neo-Liberal Feminism,” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics 14, no. 1 (2018): 45.
- 24. Duffy, (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love, 9.
- 25. Melissa Gregg and Rutvica Andrijasevic, “Virtually Absent: The Gendered Histories and Economies of Digital Labour,” Feminist Review 123 (2019): 3.
- 26. Heather Berg, “A Scene Is Just a Marketing Tool: Alternative Income Streams in Porn’s Gig Economy,” Porn Studies 3, no. 2 (2016): 168.
- 27. Kavita Ilona Nayar, “Working It: The Professionalization of Amateurism in Digital Adult Entertainment,” Feminist Media Studies 17, no. 3 (2017).
- 28. Nancy Baym, “Connect With Your Audience! The Relational Labor of Connection,” The Communication Review 18 (2015): 20.
- 29. Sarah Banet-Weiser, Authentic: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 85—86.
- 30. All names provided are pseudonyms I have chosen to protect interviewees’ identities.
- 31. See Angela Jones, Camming; Mireille Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Siobhan Brooks, Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010).
- 32. Stephanie Denton, “Workers’ Access to and Use of Leave From Their Jobs in 2017— 18,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2020.
- 33. Nicholas Fiori, “The Precarity of Global Digital Labor,” 323.
- 34. Jones, Camming, 17.
- 35. Bajwa et al., “The Health of Workers in the Global Gig Economy.”
- 36. Tarleton Gillespie, Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018): 22.
- 37. Ibid.
- 38. Duffy, (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love, 219.
- 39. Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
- 40. David Burr Gerrard, “ ‘Do What You Love’—Oh, But Not That! On Recognizing Sex Work as Work,” The AWL, March 6, 2014.
- 41. Daly Barnett, “Sex Worker Rights Advocates Raise the Alarms about EARN IT” The Electronic Frontier Foundation. June 1, 2020.
THIS IS GIG LEISURE