How Cam Models Changed the Porn World Forever

Camming and customized content has turned our experiences with porn into uniquely personal moments.

by Samantha Cole; illustrated by Zoe Ligon
Aug 27 2019, 1:43pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

Ela Darling’s bedroom isn’t particularly sensuous, or darkly lit, or even what most would call “sexy.” The walls are white and turquoise, and, at the moment, she’s kneeling on a white and gold comforter, showing you—the viewer, your head strapped into a virtual reality headset—a view of her real room at home. If you turn your head to the left, there’s her dresser adorned with stickers and tchotchkes. To the right, you see her bedroom door and various nerdy posters on the walls.

“This is all part of my actual bedroom, where I eat, sleep, and fuck,” she says in the video. It looks like a room you’d come back to after any date, not the filming studio of an industry-pioneering cam model and chief marketing officer of PVR, a virtual reality porn technology company. But the casualness of the setting doesn’t make it accidental. Darling is catering to a market that seeks the fantasy of the real: messy, silly, mundane life.

“When people want content directly from a performer, they want something that’s authentic,” Darling said over the phone. “They don’t want some big staged scene, they want something that feels like getting a glimpse into your life, into your sex life.”

When she did more adult-focused cam work, regular fans would visit her show to talk about their jobs, their dating lives, and to check in on how she was doing. One of those clients had been coming to her for eight years. “There’s this longevity in place—I know his concerns, I know the things he’s embarrassed about, and I don’t make him feel bad about it, because he shouldn’t feel bad about it,” Darling said. “It’s stuff that, if he were talking to a girl in person, the chance of rejection would be very high. There’s a comfort in knowing that I am very open and not going to shame him, and this is a safe place where we can just talk about stuff that makes it feel safe to him.”

What Darling is doing is a huge step away from how modern porn has operated for years. In the last decade, virtual sex—whether it be in a VR headset, a live cam chat room, or a cellphone selfie—has accelerated at breakneck speed away from DVD sales and video downloads, and toward an experience unique to one moment in time.

Looking at the homepage of any camming website today feels very much like gazing into a pornographic, multidimensional void of those moments. Hundreds of little windows into bedrooms and studios are just waiting for you to open them—nothing but thumbnails of anonymous bare butts and bras and screen names. But in one click, your view is reduced to the smallest slice of a life possible: the attention of one person, their bedroom, and you.

That’s the fantasy, anyway. In reality, it’s you, them, and between a hundred and more than 10,000 other people in a chat room—watching, commenting, and interacting with one another while the performer writhes in real time.

For most of its prehistoric existence, porn was a one-way mirror: You could gaze at the people painted on your urns or projected on televisions, but they couldn’t respond or react. Until the last few years, with the invention of the internet, webcams, and social media networks, the void never stared back.

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THE AUTHENTICITY MACHINE

Sometimes a lubed-up toy slips out of Ryan James’ boyfriend’s ass. When he tries to catch it with his also-lubed hands, the slippery dildo inevitably evades his grasp and goes flying across the room. James, whose performing name is HungerFF, told me that this is the kind of unscripted moment his fans have come to expect and appreciate about his work.

“Those types of funny (and common) moments never make the final cut of a professional porn movie, and I think that’s what makes my videos so relatable to the fans, and it’s what they want to see,” he said. “They’re getting an actual, authentic look into what my sex life is like, and also validation that their sex life doesn’t always have to live up to standards set by studio porn.”

James’ first foray into the industry came a little over a decade ago, when he was just out of high school. He quickly made it onto a porn production set as acting talent, and then landed an exclusive deal with a studio. But in just 10 years, that order of operations has changed for many adult actors looking to break into the scene—to walk onto a set, and into a contract, with little experience, is a lot less common now. Most start with content they produce and own themselves, and post it to direct-to-consumer platforms like ManyVids, MyFreeCams, OnlyFans, and JustForFans, which take a percentage of their earnings in exchange for the outlet, exposure, and technical support. James took a break for a few years and came back to porn recently, to JustForFans, when he saw the rise of direct-to-consumer adult content.

Dominic Ford, founder of the site, has been working in the industry even longer. He’s seen trends come and go, especially the rise and fall of the slickly produced films that were popular when he started, in the early 2000s. His independent film studio, launched just over a decade ago, offered high-definition, high-production gay male porn. But in more recent years, unpolished, personalized content shared directly to social media started gaining wild popularity. Anyone could post low-production videos to Snapchat or Twitter or a number of tube sites from their phone and have them get noticed.

When amateur actors gained the ability to post their own content on fan platforms, it got harder for studios to keep audiences’ interest in perfection. As of last year, Ford has put the studio on hiatus to focus on JustForFans. “For the last 10 or 11 years, the idea of watching something that’s authentic has been an important issue,” he said.

There’s a genuineness to haphazard, imperfect production, Ford explained, and maybe even a taboo—perhaps the sense that the person you’re watching isn’t a professional, but doing this for the love of the act, just for you. “Even between my own friends, I’d be proud of something I did, and they’d say, ‘That’s great, but I like this guy who’s in a college dorm with bad lighting.’”

The attainability, and relatability, of people having unscripted sex is key, said Jay Donahue, a model on JustForFans. “It’s kind of an aspirational thing—they want something almost believable, that they can imagine happening to them.”

“I think my fans like to see more ‘regular’ sex, just guys getting together and having a good time fucking,” Donahue said. “The internet can tell when something is fake, and when the chemistry is real. That’s ultimately what they want to see, whether it is in studio porn, homemade porn, or anywhere in between. Hot people having hot sex.”

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A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF CAMMING

The first webcam model’s show was the epitome of bad lighting and amateur production. In 1996, then 19-year-old Jennifer Ringley connected a camera to her personal computer. It snapped a photo every 15 to 30 seconds, beaming the mundanity of her daily life to the watching internet-connected world—as small as it was then—for 24 hours a day, every day. JenniCam viewers could watch her browse the internet, study, eat, masturbate—do whatever she was doing in those snapshot moments. It was salacious and, for a time before true livestreaming, endlessly mesmerizing.

Ringley cammed for seven years, then quit abruptly. But what she started would eventually grow to become the approximately billion-dollar cam model industry.

JenniCam was ahead of its time. It wasn’t until 2001 that LiveJasmin, one of the earliest cam-devoted platforms, launched. Eighteen years later, we’re in the middle of an adult platform boom; there are now at least a dozen mainstream camming platforms to choose from.

There’s a genuineness to haphazard, imperfect production, Ford explained, and maybe even a taboo—perhaps the sense that the person you’re watching isn’t a professional, but doing this for the love of the act, just for you.

Each site caters to a slightly different audience—JustForFans is primarily gay male modeling, ManyVids recently adopted a new queer-inclusive logo and a trans content portal called MVTrans, and so on—and every platform has a different set of users who tend to be brand loyal. Many of these sites run on subscription models, with fans signing up to consume their favorite models’ content. Everything about these subscriptions leans toward personalization and platinum-status accessibility: “premium” Snapchats, “exclusive” content, “private” shows.

There are dozens of ways to find a cam model who’s to your personal taste. How you go about connecting with them depends on you—and what the models are willing to reveal about themselves.

WHEN THE CONNECTION CROSSES INTO IRL

Depending on his schedule, Phattony1587 tries to log on to his favorite cam models’ rooms at least once or twice a week. He knows when the other regulars are also logging on, usually on the live cam sites Chaturbate or CamSoda. These sites have chat rooms alongside the streaming video, where those watching can type messages to the model and each other.

“We always make sure to say hi to everyone, and then we just talk about whatever is on our mind,” Phattony1587—who requested VICE use his screen name to protect his privacy—wrote in a Twitter direct message. “We feel that it’s important to chat, because we like to have fun and talk to each other while also supporting the cam model.”

Scarlett Moon, who does live cam shows and posts custom videos on ManyVids, said that conversations in her show’s chat rooms can range from the weather, to the news, to sports, and of course, to what she’s doing on-screen.

“Once a conversation is sparked, they can talk for hours,” she said. “It is highly influenced by my show, but some chatters really make friends with each other, and this brings a lot of attention to the chat, bringing in more viewers because there’s interaction.”

In cam rooms, people send money to performers using a tipping system that typically involves a currency similar to what’s used in video games: Users buy tokens or coins with real money, and use them to show appreciation for the models on-screen. The more people in a room tipping, the more others watching feel compelled to tip, and as more tips come in the show rises higher on the platform’s homepage or popularity lists, in a cycle that feeds itself.

For some fans, cam chat rooms can also become a social network of sorts. It’s a way to connect with people online who happen to be into the same stuff you are, in a welcoming environment.

“I feel like I’ve gained some great friends that I wouldn’t have ever met because I don’t live near them,” Phattony1587 said. He and the people he’s met in cam rooms connect on Twitter, too—carrying those friendships into other spheres, and strengthening them.

Something Darling has observed about her own work, which frequently focuses on an approachable girlfriend or girl-next-door experience, is how reticent many men are to connect with people in real life or go to therapy and divulge their sexual insecurities to a mental health professional. So they turn to different, more masculinely socially acceptable alternatives: strippers, cam models, phone sex operators. They seek acceptance from sex workers, through paid interactions, when they can’t find it elsewhere.

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Some of her clients ask her for validation in the form of fetish. “What they’re asking isn’t, ‘Hey, will you show me your feet,’” Darling said. “What they’re asking is, ‘Hey, am I still valid and worthy of affection if this is the thing I’m into?’”

“For some people, it can be about loneliness,” said Cyndi Darnell, a New York–based sex and relationship therapist, when asked what she thinks drives people to seek validation from those they’ve never met, on financial terms. “But for many others it’s about the adventure—this fantasyland that’s far more interesting and exciting than the human flesh world... There are a lot of lonely folks where the paid connection is the most valuable connection we have.”

Coming back every week and continuing the thread of a relationship, and a personal narrative, is the most important aspect of camming for some fans.

“They want to feel like they can come back to me and I'll remember that shitty thing their boss did last week. ‘So how did that turn out? How's your dog doing?’ I know their dog's name, and they know my dog's name,” Darling said. “They want that sense of connection.”

BOUNDARIES, AND WHEN THEY’RE CROSSED

As integral as performers and models are to some fans’ lives, some people attempt to take things from sex workers for free. When that negotiation is done in bad faith, things can go sideways.

A ManyVids cam model who goes by Little Puck told me that random men “will consistently ask to meet up and fuck,” though she said that also happens to many women even outside of sex work. Her “real” fans, she said, are much more respectful of her privacy.

“I’ve met a few at conventions when I’m specifically there to meet them, but I’ve only had one interaction [with fans] outside of that,” she said. “I met up with a longtime supporter at a bar and we just shot the shit and had a few drinks. It was cute! We hugged! I found out much later that him and his girlfriend had just recently split and he was having a really tough go of it. I thought it was nice we got to brighten each other’s day a bit in the offline world.” But this is an extreme exception, she said, and one she would entertain only with longtime fans she trusts.

Something Darling has observed about her own work, which frequently focuses on an approachable girlfriend or girl-next-door experience, is how reticent many men are to connect with people in real life or go to therapy and divulge their sexual insecurities to a mental health professional.

Another ManyVids model, Destiny Diaz, told me that her fans are usually very respectful, and that it’s extremely important to her to establish those boundaries, even from behind a webcam. “Some privacy is necessary, and we as adult entertainers are already offering a very intimate part of ourselves, so to have our personal privacy respected is important to us,” she said.

Donahue said that fans will message him on Twitter for free exclusive pictures, or on Instagram, where he directs them back to Twitter, his preferred medium of choice for posting the content he wants to offer for free. “They’re like, ‘I don’t have Twitter, send them to me here…’ and I’m just like...Twitter is free. Sign the fuck up and jerk off to your heart’s content!”

The boundaries set in sex work should be no different from any other financial service, Darling said. “You wouldn’t hire your lawyer and start jerking off in front of them. You wouldn’t go to your accountant and start asking them if it’s OK to want to jerk off to feet. Those are just not the services they offer.”

Whether it’s tube sites hosting their paid video clips on free platforms without their consent, or a conversation that goes too long in the DMs, some so-called fans are forever seeking new ways to get the same content for less money. This is not only exhausting for performers, but drives down the value of their work—and in a market saturated with hundreds of up-and-comers with a webcam and a cash app, there are endless ways to exploit the worker and their time.

In the instances where a chat over Twitter goes a little too long, knowing when to cut that short becomes a tenuous problem for the sex worker. Do they reject a potential buying customer, or continue to let them waste their time?

“It’s sort of muddy water,” Darling said. “When they’re paying for my time that’s awesome, but you also get people who feel a sense of entitlement because they think because they aren’t ‘like those other guys,’ and they want to know you, they want to be your friend... like man, I have friends. I don’t need some random stranger on the internet, some dude, coming in and making me feel like the fact that he’s not immediately trying to jerk off to me means he gets a fucking gold star for it.”

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When she rejects a time-waster’s advances, that fan sometimes doesn’t take it well. “People react to rejection in negative and sometimes aggressive ways,” she said. “People get very… sometimes patronizing, sometimes flat-out insulting. They’ll insult me and call me a whore—like, ‘Yeah, I have sex on camera for money, oh no, oh no!’—but I think one of the more annoying things is when they just get sad and do a sad face; it feels manipulative. Like, I’m sooo sorry I’m breaking your heart by not giving you my fucking time.”

Most of them, she said, get it. This is a job, and her time is money.

FEELING LESS ALONE

Before telling me why he thinks some people seek out “authentic,” unpolished content from porn performers today, Ford, the JustForFans founder, made sure to qualify his response: It’s his experience, and he can’t speak universally. But he just really likes cuddling.

“I know that personally, I crave intimacy over sex because sex is easy,” he said. “That might be a gay thing, I don’t know—because sex is usually easier in the gay world than it is in the straight world, or at least I’ve been told—but what’s important to me are kissing, cuddling, things that can’t be faked. Perhaps because I’ve lived in a world of fake porn for 10 years, where every groan and grunt was asked for by a director, so somebody aggressively loud in bed automatically makes me think it’s not real.”

Others come to online sex work because they get a connection in return—whether to other performers, their fans, or with their own sexual power. Thomas Marks, a model whose main platform of choice is JustForFans, said he came to the game recently, but at a mature age. “I found it fascinating, mainly because older guys were being paid a lot in tokens to show off,” he said. “Definitely not the idealized men I associated with porn.”

Marks lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, when many of his friends died. He was sexually open before then, but after, he stopped looking for sex.

"You wouldn’t go to your accountant and start asking them if it’s OK to want to jerk off to feet. Those are just not the services they offer.”

“These sites have given me a sense of liberation and helped to lift my damaged, subtle fear of sex,” he said.

Platforms that show something different and real—something that centers bodies and experiences outside the model pool of youth, thinness, and heterosexuality, ideals that production studios and porn monoliths have coveted for so long—will only increase in demand. That’s part of why cam shows where models just talk about their lives, or older gay men have intimate, loving sex, are so popular right now.

It’s “sort of a basic human thing,” said the adult industry publicist Brian Scott Gross of the desire to have a true closeness to the people and things we’re interested in. “So if we have more and more of those experiences we’re gonna want more and more... We constantly want to be entertained, and we want it to be personal, we want to have a connection.”

And that connection is, as Ford points out, rarely just about sex. “So the answer has to be on some level... What else is there? It’s the intimate connection with a person—which is not necessarily sexual, but it’s authentic. So much of sex work is not about sex, it’s just about making you feel like you’re not alone.”

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If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.

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The Borders Issue 2019