Somewhere on LiveJasmin, My Free Cams or Chaturbate, there is a girl in a bubblegum pink sex harness getting paid £10 to rub a balloon over her foot because some guy with a fetish begged her to. She doesn't have to look at his cum face – wrinkled like a cat's asshole – because he didn't spend the extra money required to turn his webcam on.
Elsewhere on the site, a girl who used to earn minimum wage serving microwaved beef burgers to customers who never said thank you now has an Instagram fan page dedicated to the way she jiggles her ass in cake frosting. Not only does she work from home, but from the comfort of her own bed. Another girl is studying Psychology at university. Prior to camming, she was forced to eat lettuce sandwiches while waiting for the next instalment of her student loan to come through. She just sold a dirty Primark thong for £30. She's basically getting paid to not do her laundry.
All in all, being a cam girl sounds easy, but the hardest part isn't coming to terms with the idea of livestreaming your thigh cellulite – it's the constant physical and emotional demands. To make a living, cam girls work anything from three to 12 hours a day, but success requires consistency.
I spoke to Miss Dammer, a former cam girl now working as an escort, who used to be one of the top ten girls on My Free Cams, where she was making over £20,000 a month. "These guys are always online; if you're not there one day, they could visit another girl's page and you could lose a high paying client," she tells me. Excitement soon gave way to anxiety as Miss Dammer became aware that her success depended on constant releases: "I stayed online for 24 hours once. I managed to go a year-and-a-half without taking a day off."
It's not simply the frequency of content creation that leads to burnout. It's the nature of the work required to keep audiences interested. The more you move, the more likely you are to grab the client's attention as they scroll glassy-eyed through the home page. "I never had a chair in my room; I would put my computer on the end of my bed and keep moving, people could tip me to do a fashion show, or a chicken dance, the Macarena," says Miss Dammer. "I pretended to take shots of vodka but the bottle was actually filled with water. I never had to work out because I burned so many calories. Camming gave me back problems – I had crooked feet from high heels, my eyes would sting because I was under photographic lighting."
Couples who cam together face something uniquely tiring. While solo cammers can fake orgasms, couples are expected to have sex – something you can't really simulate. High school sweethearts Jaxx and Bunny started camming together when they needed money. After leaving a student apartment complex which cost them $1,000 (£759) for a 500 square ft bedroom, they endured a brief stint sleeping in a tent in the woods before eventually turning to camming – a profession that allows them to live in a lovely home and support their nine-month-old baby. "We have sex for around six hours a day," says Bunny. When ask if it ever gets painful, she says: "If I’m getting tired and I need a break, I just give him head. People love watching me do that."
But lockjaw is nothing compared to the emotional labour camming demands. While forming cyber bonds with men is often what makes the job appealing, it can become exhausting and even abusive when those same men begin treating you like a virtual girlfriend who can ensure their happiness in exchange for money.
As with all sex work, camming is part of the service industry. The job is to satisfy customers by putting their needs above your own. It's not much different from the "everything alright for you there, sir?" of waitressing. When you’re behind a bar polishing wine glasses and some guy in a Brora turtleneck keeps asking you about your thoughts on Richard Dawkins and continually using the word "subjective", you can't tell him to fuck off, because you’re at work and he’s buying expensive glasses of Rioja. So you smile sweetly while he explains Cartesian Dualism to you.
"These guys rely on you to make them feel better," explains Kitty, a 21-year-old cam girl living in London. "In January I hosted a regular's birthday party on cam; he was turning 22 and he was feeling depressed and lonely. So I bought balloons, a bottle of vodka, a cake, and then we took shots and played I Have Never over Skype. He said I made his birthday. I was glad I could be there to cheer him up. The party was for free – I don’t do it often. You can’t get too close because, at the end of the day, I need to pay rent."
When she started camming, Miss Dammer was an introverted person who found the real world slightly terrifying. Like Kitty, she felt bolstered by the sense of community that emerged between her and her followers. But as she poured more of herself out onto the screen, these men increasingly began to ask questions like: "If we met in the real world, do you think we’d be together?"
"There's a huge difference between the sort of man that visits a cam site and the sort of man that visits an escort," Miss Dammer explains. "Guys who visit cam sites are socially awkward; they really do live in their parents' basement, and all of them worked from home – one did tech support for Best Buy, another one was his mother's carer. With escorting, you’re dealing with businessmen who make lots of money, they’re married, out of town on a business trip, so after a nice evening with you they go back to their normal lives."
With constant access to her, one of Miss Dammer's regulars became obsessed – locating her address, finding out her real name and threatening to send her parents screen grabs of her shows so they would find out she was a cam girl. When she took a day off to go snowmobiling with a best friend, the situation reached a crisis point. "He sent streams of messages, 'Are you talking to other men? I don't believe you're with your best friend.' He threatened to kill himself, sending photos of a gun and the suicide note he would leave for his parents. I sent back pictures of me and my friend to try make him feel better. I didn’t want him to die."
Terrified he would track her down, Dammer pretended to move to another US state. "I had a downstairs bedroom totally renovated, with different baseboards installed, I planted bushes outside the window which come from the state I supposedly moved to, I had different carpet put in, I painted the walls."
Even if you don’t end up with a stalker, cam girls often spend much of their day messaging clients on social media to maintain their interest. It’s a form of unpaid work, one that makes it harder to switch off after a long day. Kitty’s Twitter is constantly updated in. There are endless pictures of her bent over in a thong, ass rosy red from spanking; or those where she's wearing a party hat and eating chocolate cake because she’s spending her birthday on cam. Elsewhere, she’s placating eager fans: "Just eating dinner! Be back in 15 mins," or making half sarcastic requests for money: "Who would like to pay my rent for the next 6 months? #sugardaddy #whereareyou."
"I talk to a lot of the guys off cam on Snapchat," says Kitty. "Some of them try and initiate dirty talk, which is annoying because they’re trying to get free content, but most of the time it’s innocent. This one guy sends me pictures of every meal he eats. On Monday he had scallops with a garlic crust and prawns in chilli sauce, today he had a burger dripping in cheese with curly fries, then for pudding he had Matcha ice cream."
While, for Kitty, social media is a useful mechanism for growing her business, for Miss Dammer these exchanges became incessant. She started to feel like an erotic control panel not dissimilar from Samantha in the film Her, "If I took longer than an hour to reply I would get a barrage of messages like 'You're only using me for money,' and it's like, yeah, obviously."
Only seeing cam girls on flat screens, men can start to conceptualise them as badly scripted video game characters – a brain dead Lara Croft, or those animations of women with boobs swollen like helium balloons that pop up when you're trying to illegally stream Curb Your Enthusiasm. "The same thing that drew them to me – that I'm this soft bodied girl next door they could bump into at the grocery store – is the thing that they forget," explains Dammer. "They start seeing you as this product they can possess. But they only paid for a moment in time, they didn't pay for me."
Eventually, Miss Dammer dreaded going online so much that she never logged on again. The emotional labour involved in camming is a paradox: it's what makes the job fulfilling – rather than flashing usernames, these men become your actual friends. But it's also what makes the job difficult, having to convince guys that they could have a relationship outside of the virtual world, and then dealing with the fallout.
At the end of our phone call, I ask Miss Dammer if she ever misses being a cam girl: "I do, but by the end I felt like I didn’t have one controlling boyfriend, but 20."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.