Cam girl reality: an enticing illusion leaves many models poor and defeated

Sofia Barrett-Ibarria

Katlyn Carter got her first cam girl job in 2014 after responding to an ad posted on Craigslist by a fetish modeling studio in Van Nuys, California. Carter and her partner, Kayden, were struggling to make ends meet despite working full-time office jobs, and she was intrigued by the potential for financial security.

From a nondescript office building in a studio with about five rooms, Carter and other models broadcast live sex shows for online audiences. Fans paid them in virtual tokens (online currency that cam sites use to get around financial institution regulations regarding the purchase of adult content) to strip, masturbate and chat in real time, with the option for a private show away from other viewers at a higher price.

“The set-up was, essentially, showing up for 12-hour shifts, during which I had to be ready and on camera the whole time,” says Carter, who is now 27. Studio managers monitored her broadcasts from down the hall and gave her feedback through an online messaging service. In exchange for a built-in audience and workspace, the studio took a 40% cut of her revenue.

Related: My life in sex: the woman who grew up in the porn industry

On most cam sites models use to stream from home, performers can choose to accept or turn down audience requests at their own discretion, and set their own rates for private shows or fetish requests such as foot worship, role-play or penis humiliation. They can also block viewers who are rude or overly demanding from their chat rooms. But at the studio, management wanted Carter to accept any and all requests from viewers, including vomiting and urination. Carter says she got in trouble for turning down these requests, and on multiple occasions.

The demanding viewers, pressure from management and grueling hours took a toll, and Carter left the studio after only two months.

About 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, in southern California’s “Porn Valley”, webcamming has become a popular form of adult entertainment. Big-name traditional porn studios struggle to compete not only with the rise of free porn, but with the rise of the amateur porn star. Streaming sites such as MyFreeCams, Camsoda and Chaturbate allow models to stream live sex shows from their own bedrooms and interact with their viewers in chatroom communities, offering fans an intimate connection with performers playing the role of both porn star and virtual girlfriend.

Webcam studios and streaming sites are capitalizing on the trend. But the payout for the cam girl isn’t always as lucrative. Since major credit card companies don’t process payments from adult entertainment sites, cam sites rely on third-party platforms that often charge 5-10% of the model’s revenue. Also, cam sites that allow viewers to tip performers typically require a 65-75% cut of the model’s earnings, sometimes on top of other processing fees.

Strains on the performers’ end doesn’t seem to impact viewers – they’re still getting exactly what they want. “Camming is growing because it’s live,” says Rickey Ray, assistant manager of Studio 20, a 24/7 webcam studio franchise with 20 locations worldwide including Los Angeles. “You’re typing and she’s responding to you directly. There’s a real-life relationship with that person that you’re not going to get from someone watching a video.”

Studio 20 cam girls are contracted to work eight hours a day, five days a week. In exchange, they can use high-end streaming equipment, get tips from professionals on hair and makeup styling, and specialized courses to help models “evolve personally and professionally”, according to Ray. While smaller webcam studios like the one Carter left can be found across southern California – often hidden inside nondescript office buildings and advertised discreetly on Craigslist – Studio 20’s high-end appeal makes it unique in Los Angeles.

“A lot of these other agencies are not so much focused on the branding of the models that we have here,” Ray says. “I think we’re the only glamour studio. There may be other cam studios in the area, but they’re not at the level of allowing a full 360 package that we have.” Ray declined to share exact figures, but the Studio 20 website states their models can earn between $1,000 and $10,000 a month, depending on their “effort and involvement” in the job.

The website also states that “becoming a cam girl can make all your dreams come true” and “you’ll be able to buy anything you want, you’ll gain confidence in yourself, you will feel sexy and you can seduce any man you desire”. According to Ray, this isn’t entirely untrue. For models working at Studio 20 locations in Romania and Columbia, Ray says, webcam modeling can offer a path toward financial independence. “That happens for quite a bit of models that work here, and a lot more so internationally.”

Even with the “full 360 package”, however, the job itself can be far from glamorous, and the emotional demands of working as a cam model are much broader than sex.

Webcam performers have to establish connections with clients and grow a fanbase, and tap into clients’ fantasies all while protecting their own boundaries

Heather Berg

“Webcam performers have to establish connections with clients and grow a fanbase, and tap into clients’ fantasies all while protecting their own boundaries,” says Heather Berg, professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University in St Louis. “Many clients want an interaction that feels authentic to them and seek out performers who seem not to be obviously money-motivated, so performers do a lot of work to make sure they’re getting paid without disrupting the illusion of an unmediated connection. In addition, clients are often quite lonely.”

Isa Mazzei, who writes about her experience as a cam model in her 2019 memoir Camgirl, developed one-on-one relationships with many of the fans she entertained from her home nightly on MyFreeCams. “It becomes kind of this communal thing where you’re just very regularly involved in someone’s life, and they’re really regularly involved in yours. Often I would work the whole night, so that’s like five, six days a week that I’m spending with a lot of the same people,” Mazzei, 28, tells me over coffee in Los Angeles.

For Mazzei, the close relationships she built with her fans were one of the more rewarding aspects of the job, and she often embraced her role as a virtual confidant. “I think a lot of of my viewers really needed an outlet where they can be emotionally vulnerable. A lot of them had partners that they weren’t comfortable being vulnerable to, a lot of them had kinks, or fetishes, or insecurities about their bodies that they felt like they couldn’t share with their partners. I was a safe person to share that with,” she tells me.

However, Mazzei also recalls the hours she spent playing referee during spats between fans, soothing jealous admirers and struggling to maintain professional boundaries with viewers who demanded access to her personal information. “I had viewers who would say, ‘I need to know your real name, I need to know real facts about your life. I want to feel like I’m getting more access to your life than everyone else,’” she says. She stopped camming in 2016 after a year and a half, and went on to write the screenplay for the 2018 Netflix horror movie Cam. She now works as a writer for TV.

Carter says similar demands from her viewers started negatively affecting her mental and emotional health. “Camming was taking all of my emotional and physical energy, and eventually put a strain on all of my relationships,” Carter says. She felt isolated, and struggled to cope with the exhausting emotional work and harassment that came with the job, as well as the constant body shaming that often bordered on abuse.

Camming was taking all of my emotional and physical energy, and eventually put a strain on all of my relationships

Katlyn Carter

“A lot of viewers do not grasp that at any given time there are hundreds to thousands of other viewers,” Carter says. “Sure, most of them are saying crap like ‘show bobs bb’, but they still require emotional energy.” Carter developed an eating disorder, and without outside support, her alcohol dependency relapsed.

For two years after she left the studio, Carter worked for a website that took a 70% cut of her pay, and when constant glitches and bugs on the site started affecting her income, she left it for good. Carter is now in recovery and no longer camming. She believes that recent conversations about mental health in the adult industry do make a positive difference for performers struggling with stress on the job.

However, as Berg explains, the way many cam streaming sites set up payment structures can intensify the emotional demands of the job, leaving cam performers particularly vulnerable. “Companies typically treat performers as independent contractors, so there are no guarantees, and one could work for hours and make very little,” Berg says. “Like customers in non-sex industries, clients come with ideas about how much a given worker’s labor is worth, and cam performers of color, who are gender queer, fat or disabled have to navigate some clients’ perceptions that their labor is worth less.”

While corporate cam studios like Studio 20 and big-name streaming sites are creating space in porn to recognize cam performers’ work, such as new categories for cam performers at the biggest awards ceremonies in the industry including the PornHub awards, Carter believes there’s much more that can be done. For Carter, that means less involvement and interference from studios and legislation looking to regulate or co-opt sex workers’ labor and agency. “There is not a superior form of sex work, and I feel like that’s important to note,” Carter says, “but for me, the best option is the one without corporations telling me what I can and cannot do.”