A webcam model (colloquial gender-neutral: camodel; female: camgirl; male: camboy) is a video performer who is streamed upon the Internet with a live webcam broadcast. A webcam model often performs erotic acts online, such as stripping, in exchange for money, goods, or attention. They may also sell videos of their performances.
|Competencies||Communication and negotiation skills, physical attractiveness and sexual attraction, theatrics and exhibition, high libido or hypersexuality|
|Stripper, pornographic film actor|
Since many webcam models operate from their homes, they are free to choose the amount of sexual content for their broadcasts. While most display nudity and sexually provocative behavior, some choose to remain mostly clothed and merely talk about various topics while still soliciting payment as tips from their fans.
Once viewed as a small niche in the world of adult entertainment, camming today has become "the engine of the porn industry", according to Alec Helmy, the publisher of XBIZ, a sex-trade industry journal.
In 1996 an American college student and conceptual artist, Jenny Ringley, created a website called "JenniCam." Her web camera was located in her dorm room and automatically photographed her every few minutes. The camera captured Ringley doing almost everything – brushing her teeth, doing her laundry, doing stripteases – and then broadcast its images live over the Internet. Later in 1998 she divided her website's access into free and paying. Also in 1998, a commercial site called AmandaCam was launched. Amanda's site, like Ringley's, had multiple cameras around her house which allowed people to look in on her. However Amanda made an important early discovery that would influence the camming industry for decades to come – that a website's popularity could be greatly increased by enabling viewers to chat with a performer while online. Within her members section, Amanda made it a point to chat with her viewers for over three hours a day. Since the early days of live webcasts by Ringley and Amanda, the phenomenon of camming has grown to become a multibillion-dollar industry which has an average of at least 12,500 cam models online at any given time and more than 240,000 viewers at any given time.
Payment systems define format
A camming website acts as a middleman and talent aggregator by hosting hundreds of independent models, and verifies that all are at least 18 years old. Camming websites typically fall into two main categories, dependent upon whether their video chat rooms are free or private. In private chat rooms, viewers pay by the minute for a private show. However, in free chat rooms payment is voluntary and is in the form of tips, thus providing the model with an income at a minimal cost for the multiple viewers of her chat room's video stream.
Tips are electronic tokens that viewers can buy from a camming website, and then give to the models during live performances to show appreciation. Tokens can also be used to buy access to private shows, operate a Teledildonic device that a model may be wearing, or used to buy videos and souvenirs from a model. The website provides the transactional platform and then collects and distributes a percentage of the tips to the models. For public chat rooms, the model's portion of a tip is a little less than half.
A personal connection through interaction
Performances can be highly interactive in both public and private video chat rooms. Customers and performers are able to communicate with each other by using keyboard, speech, and two-way cameras. Within public chat rooms the audience can see tips and viewer comments as scrolling text which appears next to the real-time video stream. Camgirls will frequently read and respond to the scrolling viewer comments. The chatter is constant, and is often led by a small band of regular fans.
This is not the first time that conversational interaction had become a boon for the erotic entertainment industry. In the early 20th century, sociologist Paul Cressey noted that within the hundreds of taxi-dance halls of America, "the traffic in romance and in feminine society" would become available when taxi dancers would offer their companionship and "the illusion of romance" for ten cents a dance. The Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre strip club is credited with the invention of the lap dance in 1977 when their new stage, New York Live, pioneered customer-contact shows with strippers that came off the stage and sat in the laps of customers for tips. Enabled with this new revenue stream for strippers, the strip club industry went through a period of extreme growth during the 1980s.
Much of the success of camming owes to its ability to move beyond the borders of erotic video performance, and into the everyday social lives of camming customers. Webcam performers are often highly entrepreneurial, and use mainstream social networking sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Skype, and Tumblr to build and maintain relationships with their customers. Some fans communicate multiple times a day with models through social media.
Unlike traditional pornography, the interactive nature of the camming medium titillates with the promise of virtual friendship. Princeton University sociologist and author of The Purchase of Intimacy, Viviana Zelizer, states of camming: "they're defining a new kind of intimacy. It's not traditional sex work, not a relationship, but something in between." Cam models perform not just sex work, but also perform through their hosting duties, conveying authenticity, creating and animating fantasies, and managing relationships over time.
Within Cam Girlz, a documentary film about the industry, male fans often say that they come to camming sites as a way to fulfill emotional needs. The film's director, Sean Dunne, states of the fans, "they said it's not like a strip club – it's like a community, and you feel it when you’re in these chat rooms. It's a community and entertainment that goes very far beyond sexuality."
However Dr. Kari Lerum of the University of Washington suggests that men are more open and vulnerable in cam rooms than in strip clubs, and can become very invested in relationships which only exist on the screen.. This proposition was supported by a 2019 study of over 6,000 webcam users by the webcam platform Stripchat. The found that over 40% of its users had developed significant relationships with their cam models, ranging from friendship to deep emotional connections.
When webcam models create their live webcasts, they perform the activity known as camming.
A third-party hosting website which transmits multiple webcam models' video-streams is known as a camming site.
Webcam models mostly perform individually in separate video chat rooms, which are frequently referred to as rooms.
The camming industry
As of 2016, the money generated by camming sites was upwards of US$2 billion annually. The pornography business as a whole is estimated to be about $5 billion. According to the web traffic analysis service Compete.com, LiveJasmin generates more than 9 million unique viewers a month. Similar webcam model hosting sites such as Chaturbate, CAM4 and MyFreeCams.com boast 4.1 million, 3.7 million and 2 million unique monthly visitors, respectively.
The decentralized business model of camming has upended the pornography industry in multiple ways. Camming revenue has been severely cutting into the profits of the pornographic movie business, which has also been eroded for a number of years by piracy and the distribution of free sexual content upon the Internet. Additionally, the pornographic film industry used to be male-dominated except for the performers. But since camming requires only a video camera, broadband service, and computer, there has now been a power reversal and female webcam performers are driving the industry. Todd Blatt, a former pornographic movie producer, has said, "If you're the middle guy who has been eating off this industry for 20 years, it's a big change. The girls don't need anybody."
The new revolution that the decentralized camming industry has brought also challenged many cultural stereotypes concerning both the camgirls and their customers. Ethnography researcher Dr. Theresa Senft became a camgirl for a year while doing four years of research for her 2008 book Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks. Senft has described herself as "the first academic camgirl" while becoming a “camgirl writing about camgirls.” Anna Katzen, a camgirl who has a postgraduate degree from Harvard, stated during an interview:
The men I meet online rarely fall into the category of anonymous asses who have abandoned all social etiquette, nor do they resemble the pasty, calculator-wristwatch-wearing forebears of chat rooms past. Many, in fact, are successful professionals in their field – whether it be law, the arts or academia. Some of my most popular performances entail me reading erotica, perhaps Anaïs Nin or the Marquis de Sade, in the buff. Oftentimes, the books are gifts from fans, who will probe me for literary analysis, if I don’t probe myself with something else first. I have unwittingly created a powerful 'brand' for myself: the wild intellectual, the bluestocking in garters. 'I came for the tits, but stayed for the intellectual banter,' remarked one of my visitors, and another stated, 'most guys aren’t looking for some airbrushed Barbie. They want real, intelligent girls – like you.' [emphasis in original, links added]
Webcam models typically make use of third-party websites to stream their real-time video performances on the Internet. Some sites charge viewers a fixed fee per minute, although many allow free access for unregistered visitors. These Internet hosting websites, known as camming sites, take care of the technical work–hosting the video feed broadcast, processing payments, providing an intuitive interface, advertising–so that the cam model only has to focus on the actual shows for their video chat room. Most cam models are independent contractors for camming sites, and are not employees.
By presenting hundreds of different models via individual chat rooms, a camming site becomes a talent aggregator and middleman – but only in the sense that Apple is the middleman for bands selling music on iTunes. Though a camming website may carry many hundreds of models, they frequently provide an interface for the viewer to easily switch between the most-visited models' rooms, and that interface occasionally resembles the multiple channel selection of cable television.
Camming sites typically supply each webcam model with an individual profile webpage where the performer can describe themselves, and more importantly create a virtual store where they can sell items like videos, photos, personal clothing, and memberships to their fan club. The profile page's virtual store creates a stream of passive income, meaning that even if a camgirl is not online and performing, she can still generate money while fans come to the ever-present profile page to purchase its wares. Some of the most popular items are homemade videos that cam models make of themselves. While most these videos are sexual in nature, they often include elements of comedy, fashion, and a narration of their lifestyles. The affordability of and access to new video recording technology has spawned new variations and genres of pornography since individual women, as well as industry players, can now create content. A profile page might also sell contact information like a personal phone number, a spot on a model's Snapchat contact list, or the ability to send her private messages through a camming site's friends list. The profile page may also suggest tip amounts for real-time performance requests, like a sexy dance, a song request, removal of clothing, or a particular sex act. All prices on a profile page are listed in quantities of tips, which are electronic tokens that the viewer can buy in bunches from the cam site to be given to various models during performance, or in later purchases upon the profile page.
The camming site keeps a percentage of the tips, but the amount varies. Big earners can get a bigger chunk of their tips. Commissions earned by webcam models vary widely by website, but are usually based on a percentage of gross sales, although sometimes they are in the form of a flat fee. They may also earn money through advertising or earn commissions by convincing customers to sign up for membership at adult pornographic paysites. Many sites also encourage viewers to purchase items from online wish lists. Some webcam models cater to particular fetishes, such as a fascination with feet and might earn additional money by selling worn socks to patrons.
Camming sites specify rules and restrictions for their cam models, which in turn tend to give the camming site a distinct style and format. For example, one major free-access site, which only allows female models, fosters an environment where the camgirls are not necessarily obligated to do masturbation shows, or even display nudity. Consequently, some of that site's models create a more relaxed "hangout atmosphere" within their rooms that occasionally resembles a talk show. Conversely, another major cam site, which allows men and couples to perform, tends to be more sexual and show-oriented. Other cam site rules might prohibit working in a public place so that the model does not get a public indecency arrest, the way that Kendra Sunderland was charged after her 2014 performance inside the Oregon State University Library. Models who violate a camming site's rules may be subjected to a temporary or permanent ban from the cam site.
Webcam models often rely on social media to interact with existing customers and to meet new customers. This has some potential disadvantages, however, as mainstream social media platforms often have poorly-defined and changing rules that sex workers can inadvertently break. Having a social media account closed for any reason – legitimate or otherwise – can severely affect a performer's ability to earn income.
Resources for performers
Cam studios allow models to rent facilities outside of their home. These businesses can supply models with video equipment, Internet service, computer, lighting, and furniture. One example was the pornographic film company Kink.com, which rented individual cam studios in the San Francisco Armory by the hour, from 2013 until the building was sold in 2018.
Within some studios the cam models can work by the percentage of business that they bring in, instead of renting studio time. The cam models do not have to pay to join this type of studio, but they are also not guaranteed a salary. These models can typically choose to charge customers between $1 and $15 per minute, and then the studio keeps half of the gross while the model gets the rest.
Various support websites supply general information about business strategies, upcoming conferences, tips for performance, and reviews of studio equipment. Support sites also give advice about how to protect privacy, discourage piracy, avoid Internet security lapses, and how to prevent financial scams.
Lawrence Walters, a Florida lawyer who is an expert in obscenity law, said that there was nothing inherently illegal about web model camming shows, as long as the models were over 18 and performed at home or in a model's studio.
A sex work researcher, Rachel Stuart, notes an interesting paradox in British law which tends to focus on the uploading of pornographic recordings, but does not deal with erotic performance when streamed upon the Internet through camming. For instance, the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 ban certain acts from being depicted and uploaded by pornography producers in the United Kingdom, and the Digital Economy Act 2017 seeks to restrict minors’ access to pornographic material online. And yet both laws will have no effect if the performances are streamed as opposed to being recorded. Stuart states of the legal conundrum in England, "Performing an explicitly pornographic act via a webcam carries no repercussions, but if the same show is recorded and uploaded, the performer can be liable to a fine."
In December 2017 the American FCC voted to do away with Net Neutrality rules, which previously ensured that Internet service providers treat all data on the Internet as the same, and to not charge differently by user. But without the Net Neutrality rules, Internet service providers could dramatically increase costs for companies that need significant bandwidth – like CD Baby, Spotify, and Netflix. CD Baby is an online music store specializing in the sale of CDs and music downloads from independent musicians to consumers. Like camming's hosting sites, CD Baby is an aggregator of independent performers' digital media in the same way that camming sites enable cam models to sell their videos for tips. Since the free-access business model of the camming industry also relies on large bandwidth, these possible new costs could eventually be passed on to camming hosting sites, as well as to the cam models themselves. A politically alert camgirl, Melonie, states: "How many camgirls and webcam customers are going to be able to afford a $200+ monthly bill from their ISP for a high bandwidth connection capable of HD video streaming? How many camgirls are going to be able to continue to devote time to create webcam host programming if the payout percentage is reduced from 30% to 15%?" As of early 2018, the new ruling has yet to be leveraged by ISP's to increase costs. However bandwidth hungry companies like Netflix and CD Baby nervously await the eventual Internet service providers' response to the new FCC ruling that they lobbied so hard to bring about.
In October 2014 a 19-year-old Oregon State University student, Kendra Sunderland, had been working as a camgirl before she made an hour-long video for MyFreeCams.com of herself at the Oregon State University Library, in which she stripped and masturbated on camera for a live audience. She was then charged with public indecency after the show was recorded by someone who was watching MyFreeCams.com online, and then posted it on other sites. Sunderland faced fines up to $6,250 and one year of jail. She pleaded guilty, paid $1,000, and avoided jail. The incident generated headlines around the country and landed Sunderland reported deals with Playboy, and a contract with Penthouse's parent company Friend Finder Networks purportedly worth six figures. The incident greatly increased Sunderland's popularity, and she has continued to do camming and speak positively of it as a career.
In Arizona during 2015 a fan took his appreciation of camgirls to an illegal level when he was indicted for spending $476,000 on a company credit card, which he used for tips on camming websites. He spent more than $100,000 on MyFreeCams.com alone, and sent $26,800 to one cam model in particular to pay for her college tuition bill, and new tires for her car. According to the indictment he also purchased flowers, chocolates, electronic equipment, shoes, a TV, a handbag, laptop computer, and an iPod for some of his favorite camgirls.
Webcam models have occasionally been the targets of cyber-stalkers and blackmailers. Sex work researcher, Rachel Stuart, reported that while doing her PhD research she encountered webcam models who were concerned about viewers filming and sharing their performances on porn sites, or acquiring personal information which could be used to stalk or blackmail them. In 2013 the New York Times interviewed a woman who prefers to conceal her real identity while working as a camgirl. She revealed that she had been cyber-stalked by a heavy tipper who started making threats and demands about what outfits she should wear. A short while later she found out that her real name and address had been posted on the Internet along with her cam name. When she complained to the police, they said that they could do nothing, because "putting real information on the Internet is not illegal." She later found out that the same individual had also threatened and outed several other camgirls.
A New York Times report described the story of Justin Berry, a 13-year-old boy who, after hooking up his webcam and listing himself on an online forum in order to make friends, was propositioned by older men to strip and masturbate on camera. CNN referred to him as "in the language of cyberspace... a cam-whore". He started his own paysite, prostituted himself, sold video recordings of his encounters with Mexican prostitutes, and helped hire other underage models. He made several hundred thousand dollars over five years before turning all information over to prosecutors in exchange for immunity.
In one case, sex traffickers who operated illegal brothels forced an indentured victim to have sex in webcam shows.
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