Why you should care
Because porn may not be as destructive a pleasure as many consumers fear.
For over a decade, a new type of business has been sprouting across the developing world, bringing low-skill yet (theoretically) highly paid tech jobs into disadvantaged communities. I’m not talking about IT call centers or data services providers; I’m talking about adult webcam modeling studios — offices with workstations made up to look like bedrooms where women and (occasionally) men are paid to live-stream themselves talking dirty, stripping or performing sex acts.
These studios, operators argue, don’t just offer lonely hearts (and other bits) worldwide digital company. They offer individuals in job-poor areas a flexible and potentially substantial income stream. Moreover, they bring digital infrastructure and stability to entire communities. Is it time to take seriously the social benefits these operators are trumpeting?
Since the 1990s, folks have used webcams to put on varying-degrees-of-sexy live shows, monetized through pay-per-minute or tipping-for-acts systems. While performers in the U.S. usually work from home, in less-developed nations like Colombia, the Philippines and Romania, studios developed to offer potential models access to high-speed connections, high-end computers and equipment, and basic logistical support, including registering them with the live-streaming platforms that have become the key distribution tools for modern cammers.
We have to acknowledge that cam studios have the potential to be more than seedy sex-work venues.
Thanks to stories of extortion and exploitation, camming has a less than stellar overall reputation. Studios add a layer between performers and their equipment and income, so, as Sean Dunne, director of Cam Girlz, a documentary that followed independent models in the U.S., tells OZY, such studios “feel fuckin’ ripe for exploitation.”
But years of reporting on the industry suggest that many performers, in or out of studios, not only act of their free will but also make good wages on flexible schedules. In Romania, where monthly wages average less than $1,000, models can gross thousands per month. This work involves less physical risk and more choice than traditional sex work like stripping, porn acting or prostitution. Models can spend entire sessions fully clothed, making money by keeping regulars company.
Studios extend those general benefits to performers who might not be able to access them on their own and communities where safe or reliable work might be scarce. In Romania, the industry has helped develop the nation’s information technology infrastructure, making high-speed internet cheaper and more accessible for low-income communities. Cam studios “give girls more options than marrying at a very young age or risking safety as foreign domestic workers, or even doing real sex work,” said Ross Love, owner of Best Kept Secret, a cam model agency with studios in Eastern Europe and Latin America.
The studio system still comes with many problems. Studios often take big cuts of models’ earnings, meaning they might make, pretaxes, less than 25 percent of what they actually gross — a reality about which studios are not always up front with models. Some studios coerce models into doing things they’re uncomfortable with, and because they often operate in legal gray spaces, studios can also get mixed up in criminal rackets. Threats of blackmail or doxing — publishing someone’s private details online with malicious intent — are always there as well, no matter how much a studio may do to try to protect performers’ identities.
Love insists that well-managed studios cut clear and fair deals with models, avoid coercion and always put models first, “like a prize athlete,” accommodating their needs and training them in the business. If there are bad studios, he says, the models leave them, and the studios fail. If there are regions where most of the studios are dubious, like the Philippines, major streaming platforms won’t work with them.
Even if there are problematic studios, or potential problems in all studios, the potential that Love and other operators point to is real. Properly run, cam studios can bring development to entire communities, while posing models few risks. Remaining risks could be mitigated by governmental monitoring and enforcement. Studios have opened up to such scrutiny in the past in exchange for legitimacy. And normalizing camming as a recognized, regulated profession could reduce the stigmas that give doxing and blackmail power. But to get to that point, we have to acknowledge that cam studios have the potential to be more than seedy sex-work venues. They can be real vehicles for social good.