Sex webcamming (often simply known as ‘camming’) involves people performing sexual acts (‘live porn’) via webcam in front of a paying online audience – sometimes a group or sometimes just individuals – tuning in for a private session.
OnlyFans, a social media site that allows users to subscribe to view creators’ content feeds that would be deemed too pornographic for more mainstream sites like Instagram, is, as writer and campaigner Julie Bindel observes, “the latest kid on the block to be billed as a safe, consequence-free way of selling sex and home-grown porn that empowers women.”1J.Bindel, The Spectator (15.04.2020) There’s nothing ’empowering’ about the sex work on OnlyFans
OnlyFans is fairly normalised among the younger generation, many of whom do much of their socialising online. What’s more, various commentators and media outlets are endorsing it as something that has ‘‘put X-rated entertainment in the hands of its entertainers.”2J. Bernstein, New York Times “How OnlyFans Changed Sex Work Forever” (09.02.2019) This assertion is based on the argument that its subscription-based business model means most of the money (80%) stays with the cam models, alongside the fact that OnlyFans is sold as an easy, flexible way to make money without the risks involved with in-person sexual encounters.
However, just because something happens online does not make it less ‘real’. Virtual interactions still have serious real-world effects and implications; is it possible that the popularity of camming stems from the fact that so many of us are ‘completely uneducated and naive about what risks it can involve’ in the words of OnlyFans creator, “Grace”?3A. Bryant, ‘How high rents are forcing Irish people to open OnlyFans accounts – with potentially devastating results’, Extra.ie (15.0.2020)
Attracting the vulnerable
Webcamming sites often sell the service as an attractive, easy and flexible way to make money. OnlyFans has a Creators blog section where women discuss how ‘empowering’ the site has been for them. These success stories seem designed to draw in vulnerable women who are incentivised to engage in increasingly degrading sex acts by the promise of higher pay.
“Economic desperation absolutely drives some women to camming. Some use it as a platform for prostitution. And some women, particularly overseas, are forced into it, sex slaves just working in a new medium…”Matt Richtel, New York Times4M. Richtel, New York Times ‘Intimacy on the Web: With a Crowd’ (22.09.2013)
Alongside women who are on the breadline and who have no other stable form of income, this kind of ‘easy money’ narrative also readily attracts children. Though OnlyFans sets restrictions for underage users, many adolescents bypass them without difficulty. In a new BBC documentary, one 17-year-old girl from Scotland admitted she had been selling nude photos of herself on the site for about a year. It’s now a full-time job.
All that glitters…
“The distribution of income on OnlyFans is highly unequal, with the top one percent of creators making 33% of the money.”XRUS, The Economics of OnlyFans5xrus, “The Economics of OnlyFans” (24.04.2020)
Although some women get rich through webcamming, this is not the norm. Income is more usually unstable and unpredictable, varying wildly from day to day or month to month. In fact, as the blogger Thomas Hollands discovered in his detailed analysis of the OnlyFans model, such rags-to-riches cases are highly unusual; most women on the platform probably make a loss, given the amount of time they spend creating content and engaging with users.6L.Perry, The Spectator (4.11.2020) How OnlyFans became the porn industry’s great lockdown winner – and at what cost
Often, the initial surge of interest that cam models attract by way of their novelty quickly fades, and they find themselves instead having to hustle to keep up their earnings. This pressure is heightened when poverty is involved, and where the women are offered incrementally higher amounts of money to perform more explicit acts.
As Claudia, a woman who previously uploaded content to OnlyFans, explains to journalist Julie Bindel: “I needed to get as many subscribers as possible so I could pay my rent, which means posting new images all day every day, and agreeing to more and more explicit stuff. In the end I felt exhausted and degraded and cancelled my membership.”7J.Bindel (15.4.2020) The Spectator, There’s nothing ‘empowering’ about the sex work on OnlyFans
OnlyFans’ popularity does not necessarily translate to a growth in earnings for the cam models – in fact, quite the opposite: the more women who sign up, the higher the competition for customers’ attention (and tips) and the higher the pressure for women to take risks and push boundaries.
Leaked content and piracy
Just because sexually-explicit content isn’t public does not mean that it’s private or secure. There’s technology out there that enables users to take screenshots and recordings, accessing content and then sharing and trading it with others, compiling it into files and even posting it on other networks or porn sites. And once something is online, it’s almost impossible to get it removed for good.
With camming, models have to go with the demand if they want to be successful; their pay is contingent on giving male subscribers what they want – on becoming or acting out their sexual fantasies, no matter how dangerous, degrading or humiliating.
“I have been asked to dress as a schoolgirl and pretend to masturbate myself. Once I was told to tie a rope around my neck and pretend to choke. There are some real weirdos out there.”Eloise, OnlyFans content creator8J.Bindel (15.4.2020) The Spectator, There’s nothing ‘empowering’ about the sex work on OnlyFans
Cam models will always be asked to do more, and the ‘black hole’ of demand is incredibly difficult to resist. Even if they succeed at first, the constant pressure often drives creators in a downward spiral and they end up crossing the boundaries they previously set for themselves, going further and performing more explicit acts than they had intended to, in order to maintain or gain attention.
“Men began offering more money to move their conversations to Skype and Jana says this was the start of a string of private sex shows that she found shameful. She says her clients pushed her into demoralising sexual acts… ‘I wanted to say no but because the callers had often prepaid, they told me I was obliged to do what they asked.’”Jenny Francis, Journalist9J.Francis, The Sun (23.2.2016) Webcam work is fast track to the sex trade’: Warning to women seeking ‘easy money’
Few people who decide to take up webcamming consider the emotional impact of the work before they start. Cam models spend a lot of time alone in front of a computer screen, where all interactions are based on them having to act in a certain way, appearing sexy, happy and confident in order to please anonymous men. Over time, putting on such a performance takes a real emotional toll, as internet forums for webcam models readily testify.
“Camming is an incredibly isolating job….I have days where I no longer feel like my real self.”Anon, Cam Model10M. Richtel, New York Times (21.09.2013) Intimacy on the Web, With a Crowd
What’s more, the entire value of a webcam model lies in their sex appeal and appearance. They’re valued not as people but as sex objects – over time, this can corrode self-confidence and self-esteem and lead to a sense of shame and humiliation.
“The media are quick to glamorize this job, but the truth is, it’s emotionally and morally draining. I hate objectifying myself.”Anon, Cam Model11Anonymous, The Guardian (25.06.2016) What I’m really thinking: the cam girl
Sexual harassment might be considered as a virtual job requirement of web camming; all day long, models must engage, interact and surround themselves with paying customers who (as a general rule) only value them for their sex appeal. The entire business model supports men’s sexual entitlement, and there is a particular risk of being subjected to crude propositions, sexual harassment, offensive language, abuse and threats. No one can endure this kind of treatment without it being affected by it to some extent.
In the camming world, some men prefer more of a ‘girlfriend’ experience, where they pay the cam model to behave as if she were a ‘real date.’ OnlyFans is set up to create the illusion of intimacy, and although cam models are incentivised to sustain this pretence, it seems reasonable to argue that any so-called ‘relationship’ that’s predicated on payment is really little more than role play. The model is obliged to give the paying customer exactly what he wants, which completely undermines any notion of equality, mutuality or authenticity.
“…men that subscribe have found yet another platform to treat women as little more than their own personalised sex toy.”Julie Bindel, Writer and Campaigner12J.Bindel, The Spectator (15.4.2020) The Spectator, There’s nothing ‘empowering’ about the sex work on OnlyFans
Over time, being treated in this way changes the way webcam models see themselves and the world – and the impact grows over time. As Harmony Grillo, who used to work in strip clubs, puts it: “It’s hard because, essentially, you’re not a real person anymore. I was a compilation of other people’s fantasies. I became more and more disconnected to my authentic self. Who we are doesn’t even matter any more.”13H. Grillo (13.02.2021) WHAT NO ONE’S TELLING YOU ABOUT ONLYFANS (onlyfans advice)
Being on the other end of a camera only does so much to protect cammers from real-life stalking and harassment. The set up of these sites can make customers believe the fantasy line that they genuinely are getting exclusive, “intimate” access to the lives of the cam models. Some, for example adolescents with mental health issues, may be vulnerable to developing unhealthy obsessions and imagining that they have a ‘real’ bond. This, or the sense of sexual entitlement men feel as paying customers, can lead to stalking. Unsurprisingly, there have been numerous reports about paying customers researching models’ private information and leaking it online.
“He ended up tracking down my real name and mobile number and put up a fake advert… on a porn site.”Anon, Former Onlyfans Content Creator14J.Bindel, The Spectator (15.4.2020) The Spectator, There’s nothing ‘empowering’ about the sex work on OnlyFans
Working in isolation, on the very margins of society, cam models sometimes resort to drugs or alcohol in order to cope. Desensitised as a result of being habitually treated as a sex object, others become involved in other aspects of the sex industry, such as strip clubs or prostitution.
“The longer they do it, the more vulnerable they become to going to the next stage and the next stage.”Kathryn Griffin, Former Prostitute Turned Sex-Industry Recovery Coach15M. Richtel, New York Times (21.09.2013) Intimacy on the Web, With a Crowd
Many cam models have other life ambitions and don’t recognise the extent to which it interferes with future goals.
“It could disqualify you for potential future careers such as working with children and may pop up in background checks when emigrating or applying for government jobs.””Grace”, Former OnlyFans Content Creator17A. Bryant, Extra.ie (15.02.2020) What It’s Really Like To Have An OnlyFans Account
And few consider the potential consequences for relationships. Working in any area of the sex industry has an impact on people’s capacity to form intimate and healthy relationships, since relationships require vulnerability – and, as Harmony Grillo, who used to work in strip clubs found “it’s hard to trust that others will accept you for something other than who you are sexually.”18H. Grillo (13.02.2021) WHAT NO ONE’S TELLING YOU ABOUT ONLYFANS (onlyfans advice)
“Camming is like doing small-scale porn. Your image is out there forever. You have to be OK with that before you get into it.”Lacey, Cam ModelM. Richtel, New York Times (21.09.2013) Intimacy on the Web, With a Crowd
Even people who only work in camming for a short period of time can never be totally free of the haunting fear that their intimate images and videos are still somewhere online. They leave a lasting legacy. Ultimately, camming is about the commodification of sexual intimacy. As Louise Perry writes in the Spectator, Onlyfans “…does not profit from promoting the well-being of its users or creators, but rather from encouraging growth: more content, more subscriptions, more time spent on the site.”19L.Perry, The Spectator ( 4.11.2020) How OnlyFans became the porn industry’s great lockdown winner – and at what cost
Until we recognise this, there will always be a stream of vulnerable young women who fall prey to a system that ultimately cares little for their wellbeing.