Intimacy on the Web, With a Crowd

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A 25-YEAR-OLD woman whose fans know her as Lacey or Miss Lollipop, neither her real name, dipped an index finger into a small glass jar. She scooped up a dollop of foundation makeup and spread it on her forehead and cheeks.

"One of the other models showed me this," she said, examining herself in the mirror. "It's for high-def cameras. You don't get that cake look." She wore a low-cut purple cocktail dress and her hair was pulled into a loose bun.

"I'm late. I still have to set up the lights."

She hustled to the corner of the small room to retrieve two inexpensive light stands. On the wall next to the lights hung some of Lacey's props, including two wooden paddles she uses to spank herself. Most of her other sex toys and accessories were out of sight in a bureau and organized in bins.

It was 10 a.m. at Lacey's home office, a three-bedroom rental in New Mexico. She was about to start work.

Lacey is a cam model. She performs one-woman sex shows, often from her house, though she has performed in a car, on a hiking trail, and once at an airport. The action is captured by a small, inexpensive camera clipped to the top of her laptop, and made available to anyone who visits a Web site called MyFreeCams.

The cam business, a kind of digital-era peep show, has been around for a few years, but as the technology has become better and cheaper, the concept of camming is proving well more than passing: it has created a money-making opportunity in a pornography business eroded by the distribution of free sexual content on the Internet.

Unlike prerecorded pornography, cam shows, which happen in real time, are hard to pirate. The traffic to the most popular camming Internet sites is substantial, with a handful of the top sites getting 30 million visitors a month, according to  Compete.com, which measures Internet traffic.

At any given time, hundreds of models are online, some being watched by 1,000 or more people, others giving private shows. The money generated by cam sites is hundreds of millions of dollars at least, and very likely a billion or more, according to industry analysts and executives.

The money generally comes not from subscriptions or pay-per-view, but rather from credits or "tips," electronic tokens viewers give that allow them to interact with the models -- instructing them through typed messages to use a certain sex toy or use it in a specific way. The Web sites provide the platform and then collect and distribute the tips to the models.

This payment structure, and the fact that the models can work in a safe place, slyly inverts the traditional power dynamic in the sex trade. A cam model does not need a pimp or protector. But as a decentralized business model in a traditionally sketchy industry, camming has its abuses, with some models driven by economic desperation or even enslavement. And some cam models discover that despite the sense of security the virtual platform provides, they still can be blackmailed, threatened with disclosure to friends and family, and pressured to do acts they didn't bargain for. Using the Internet to find a mass audience exposes cam models to anonymous, unseen enemies, something Lacey learned the hard way when one customer apparently revealed her real name online.

There came a knock on the door of Lacey's office. It was Jim Lewis, a retired Navy officer with unkempt gray hair and a goatee who worked as Lacey's assistant.

"You're late, Lolli. You want me to send a note?" he asked, meaning an e-mail to waiting viewers.

"I'm ready."

Lacey's regulars know many intimate details about her. But they may not realize that she runs a serious business. When she's not on camera, she tracks metrics and promotes herself on social media, checks in with clients. She can't see the men she performs for, but she watches their habits closely.

After Mr. Lewis returned to his station in the next room, Lacey picked up the laptop and placed it on a glass table beneath the lights. She let down her hair. It was the last day of the month and she wanted to end strong. In a good month, she says she makes $8,000, nearly six figures a year.

She clicked the laptop to start the camera.

"Hey guys!"

She started her work, a combination of old school titillation with a new economic model and serious new risks, too.

Business Driven by Tips

The erosion of the pornographic movie business has been well chronicled, and predates camming. The culprit was the Internet, which while it made pornographic content more accessible, also led to widespread piracy.

Camming is the next disruptive influence. Some content can be free to users but, in fact, tips and other fees produce substantial revenues. Exactly how much is a tough number to come by given that there are hundreds of sites, most privately held. Douglas Richter, an executive-level consultant with LiveJasmin, one of the most visited cam sites -- and a competitor to MyFreeCams -- estimates industrywide annual revenue from camming at more than $1 billion. The pornography business as a whole is estimated to be about $5 billion, a sharp drop from a decade ago. Steven Hirsch, the co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment, a prominent pornographic movie studio, said that while there remained a market for prerecorded movies and clips -- available for download and through cable subscription -- interactive entertainment, including camming, accounted for half of the sales in the industry.

Internet traffic numbers bear out the popularity of camming. According to Alexa, a site owned by Amazon that measures Internet traffic, LiveJasmin, which is based in Luxembourg, ranks as the 80th most popular site in the United States and 103rd globally. Compete.com, a unit of Kantar Media, reports LiveJasmin has around 25 million unique visitors from the United States per month. Compete.Com puts MyFreeCams at four million unique visitors per month, while Alexa ranks MyFreeCams as the 341st most popular site in the United States.

That traffic still pales by comparison to the draw of pornographic sites that offer free prerecorded content. Pornhub ranks 56th in the United States, but its prerecorded clips are free. Among the ways it makes money is by converting visitors to customers of cam rooms.

"Live cam has become the most prominent part of the industry," said Alec Helmy, the publisher of Xbiz, a sex-trade industry journal, eclipsing previous forms of pornography in popularity if not yet in total revenue. "Camming is driving the adult industry."

The sites make money through sales of tips. The users of the site (most, but not all, are men) buy the tips in bunches; on MyFreeCams, the cost is $19.99 for 200 tokens. The men "tip" the models by giving them tokens during a show. (They can also buy "private shows" for much higher rates.) According to Mr. Richter, from LiveJasmin, credits for tips are purchased by about one in 300 men who visit the sites with female models. He said the gay-male audience tends to buy more. (There are cam models and sites catering to different audiences.)

The cam model sites are talent aggregators, middlemen, but only in the sense that Apple is the middleman for bands selling music on iTunes. (MyFreeCams is registered to a man named Leo Radvinsky, based in Glenview, Ill. He did not respond to requests for an interview.) The cam models work for themselves, listing thumbnail pictures and descriptions on the sites. The sites keep a percentage of the tips, but the amount varies. Big earners can get a bigger chunk of their tips. Lacey tends to get 50 to 60 percent.

The business model has become so popular that competitors are racing to catch up. Witness the efforts of Kink, a pornography company based in an old military armory in San Francisco. A few years ago, Kink was seen as ushering in the new age of pornography; it catered to various fetishes by filming and streaming content ideal for Internet consumption. These days, Kink is turning rooms at the armory into cam studios that independent cam models can, effectively, rent. "Strategically, this is the future," says John Sander, vice president for marketing at Kink. "The value of prerecorded content has eroded across the industry."

Todd Blatt once produced pornographic movies in Southern California and had several Ferraris to show for it. Last year, he sold 72,500 pornographic DVDs he had collected over the years, getting $30,000 for all of them, compared with $700,000 he once thought the collection would bring.

"If you're the middle guy who has been eating off this industry for 20 years, it's a big change," said Mr. Blatt, 45, who recently sold the last of his Ferraris. "The girls don't need anybody."

Incredibly Isolating Job

"Hello Dugging!"

Lacey, sitting on the floor, sipping coffee, greeted guests as their screen names popped onto her laptop.

The lighting was bad "because Archie chewed through the cord," she explained to about 150 far-flung people she couldn't see, who were watching from unknown locations. Archie, she told them, is one of two dogs she's fostering.

For Lacey, this sort of virtual relationship is nothing new. Her first intimate relationship began online when she was 14 years old, back in New Zealand. As the middle of nine children, she found connection in a chat room on Napster, the online music service.

There, she met a 17-year-old from Arkansas named Dawson. That was his handle, not his name, which she declines to give. (Lacey asked not to use her real name because her parents do not know she is a cam model. She told them that she does marketing for pornography companies.)

Dawson visited Lacey in New Zealand when she was 18. They married, and she moved with him to Arkansas. There, she discovered that having a relationship could be tougher in person than online. "When we had a fight, honestly, if I needed to talk about something," she said, "I would e-mail him, even though we lived together."

She worked in an animal shelter, making $65 a day. With her marriage faltering, she started engaging in intimate relationships online. She read about camming on an erotic story site. When Dawson went to a trade school in another state, she decided to try camming. "I needed to make good money -- immediately."

Her first show was Oct. 1, 2010. She earned $50. The next day, she earned twice that. One night that December, $400. Then, the woman who owned the animal shelter found out and fired her on the spot, telling her only a woman desperate to feed her children should do something like this.

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, said Kathryn Griffin, a former prostitute turned sex-industry recovery coach who works for the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston.

Even those women who become cam models of their own free will take on serious risks associated with sex work, Ms. Griffin said. Those risks, she said, run from the low self-esteem that comes from working on the margins of society, to using drugs to cope with a job that can feel shameful, to getting into other activities, whether stripping in a club or prostitution. The still-unsolved murders on Long Island of women who advertised as prostitutes on Craigslist also speak to the risks of going it alone in the sex industry.

"The longer they do it, the more vulnerable they become to going to the next stage and the next stage," Ms. Griffin said of camming.

That said, Sienna Baskin, a co-director of the Urban Justice Center's Sex Workers Project, said she was not aware of a widespread problem of domestic cam workers' being coerced into the activity. "To my knowledge, it is not a very common form of human trafficking," she said.

Kari Lerum, a sociologist at the University of Washington, Bothell, where she studies the sex industries, said camming could provide more comfort and autonomy than other sex work. "The women work out of their homes, it's safe, they have more control over working conditions," she said.

Lawrence Walters, a Florida lawyer who is an expert in obscenity law, said that there was nothing inherently illegal about cam shows, as long as the models were over 18.

There is another risk. "There's a perception that you can be a stealth webcam model," he says. "That's not always the case."

Serena Blair, the stage name of another cam model, studied biology at a major university, but came to camming in 2011, frustrated that she couldn't find a research position that paid more than minimum wage. Now, in a good month, she said, she makes $8,000 in tips. But the choice to become a cam model carries a burden: she fears her parents would shun her if they discovered how she earns money. She can't put camming on her legitimate résumé, and not long ago she worked a night at a strip club, something she thought she would never do (and vows she won't do again).

Lacey has faced more immediate problems. Two years ago, a particularly heavy tipper started making demands about what outfits she should wear. He became threatening. Afraid of losing his tips, she initially acceded to his demands, but then stopped. Soon after, her real identity started showing up around the Internet, tied to her cam name and her real address.

She went to the police, but was told there was nothing that could be done; putting real information on the Internet is not illegal. (She did get the sites where her information appeared to take it down.) Then, she found out that the same man had outed several other models, or threatened to. "My big fear is he would call my parents and tell them. If that happens, I will deal with it, but it won't be pretty if it does," Lacey said, adding: "Camming is like doing small-scale porn. Your image is out there forever. You have to be O.K. with that before you get into it."

Some cam models said they weren't prepared. "Camming is an incredibly isolating job," wrote one woman, echoing the sentiments of others reached on an Internet forum for cam models, noting she was confident and happy on camera and increasingly withdrawn in the real world. "I spent so many hours a day" being the person she was on the webcam, she wrote, "that I have days where I no longer feel like my real self."

Lacey seems more comfortable than some with those trade-offs. She said camming was "the best option but not the only option" for making money. She attended one year of college in New Zealand, and could have returned to go back to school or work in her parents' hotel. "I never felt trapped."

But she also said that camming was "potentially very dangerous."

Back in her chat room, the tips were flowing. When they arrive, there's a pinging noise -- like a slot machine -- that all participants online can hear. The tips also show up as lines of text highlighted in yellow on Lacey's screen, typed by the viewers. Their responses can be seen by others watching, creating a strip-club dynamic, with the guys cajoling each other to tip, egging each other on.

Someone with the screen name BBB0223 tipped 24 tokens. That is $2.40, of which Lacey gets roughly half.

"Thank you BBB!" Lacey exclaimed.

The tip amount is not random. It pertains to the day's theme, which Lacey calls the whiteboard game. It's one of many games she has devised to draw tips from her viewers. Behind Lacey, a whiteboard is covered with 50 numbers from 20 to 70. When someone tips an amount on the board, Lacey erases the number. When all the numbers are off the board, she promises, she'll start the racier part of her show. But behind the scenes, the hard-core business already is under way.

A New Kind of Intimacy

Outside Lacey's office, at a desk beside the brown couches in her living room, Mr. Lewis was tracking the users in Lacey's chat room, sending Lacey notes through a private channel when big tippers arrived.

Mr. Lewis is known to the regulars as Lolli's Helper, his screen name. Lacey hired him last October. She was working five or six days a week on camera, often more than one session. She was also writing for her two blogs, running a membership site and posting to Twitter. She met Mr. Lewis at a local association of people involved with bondage and sadomasochism.

Lacey offered him 5 percent of her revenue to help her expand the business. He built a database of the screen name of every one of the 1,594 people who tipped Lacey since October and how much they tipped. Another database logs Lacey's shows, the theme and how much money each generated.

This gave Lacey metrics. One of her best shows, in which she applied oil while in her backyard, brought in 48,795 tokens (about $2,439 to Lacey); the "maids and room service," a more typical show, brought $534.85. She has Mr. Lewis look at what other models are doing, explore new trends, try to measure what works and doesn't. She goes to pornography industry conventions. She offers promotions and prizes on Twitter and offers business counsel to other models in cam forums.

Lacey has a boyfriend who does not much mind that she spends time naked in front of other men, but he does say he wishes that she would sometimes stop with the round-the-clock entrepreneurship and "turn off the brand."

That morning Mr. Lewis was monitoring the number of guests in the cam rooms. "She's the eighth most popular room," he muttered. Impressive, considering there are nearly 1,400 models online. A guest named "Whodeybuckeye" had tossed in nearly 10 tips. "Interesting," Mr. Lewis says. "I've never seen him before."

There were a few regulars hanging out, but not a lot of her big tippers. Among the missing was Alex K.

Alex is 53, a warehouse manager in western Massachusetts. His last serious girlfriend was just after high school. He describes himself as a loner, but less of one since he found Lacey. He has spent nearly all of a lottery pot of something less than $20,000 on Lacey. "She's a very open person," he said. "There are no lies. No big walls."

Dr. Lerum, from the University of Washington, says men are more open, vulnerable and emotional in cam rooms than in, say, strip clubs. They can also become invested in a relationship that exists only on the screen. "This is mutual objectification," she said of camming.

Alex spends hundreds to thousands each month on Lacey. He bought her things -- a scarf, hat, coat, sex toys -- and cleared out her Amazon wish list. He sent her a computer. They communicated daily by phone, usually by text. Finally, last year, he met her in person over breakfast at a pornography conference in New Jersey. Alex, who was interviewed by phone, said, "It was like meeting someone I've known for a long time."

Lacey describes their relationship somewhat differently. It's business, but also, she said, it's "complicated, a friendship."

Models like Lacey think of themselves as digital geishas, therapists, consorts, virtual performance artists. Unlike traditional pornography, or even old-school peep shows, the cam medium titillates with the promise of virtual friendship.

"They're defining a new kind of intimacy," said Viviana Zelizer, a Princeton sociologist and author of "The Purchase of Intimacy," about the interplay between economics and relationships. It's not traditional sex work, not a relationship, but "something in between."

Blurred Lines

About 90 minutes after the show started there were about 1,150 guests in the room.

Then it was over.

Flushed, Lacey started chatting with the group, and the watchers responded to her with text questions and commentary. They talked about New Zealand and her dogs. "If you like me and miss me," she said in a final plug, "check out my forum."

After signing off, she appeared in the living room in her robe. Lacey and Mr. Lewis looked at the stats: It had been an O.K. morning, bringing in around $350.

A chunk came from the new guy, Whodeybuckeye, who seemed to have made the leap from lingerer to tipper. Two weeks later, when Lacey got the flu, she did a show from her kitchen, fully dressed, sniffling. Whodeybuckeye was there, part of the loyal gang tipping her to hang out and just chat.

With the business going well, Lacey and her boyfriend decided in June to move to New Orleans. There were several reasons: his family was nearby; Lacey didn't like New Mexico's dry air; New Orleans is "a destination city," which other cam models might visit to do shows with her; and she might make some extra money persuading customers to visit and pay to have dinner with her. "No sexual contact," she said, adding that her boyfriend would go along on these outings.

As she pursues the edges of this new business and the decision to move, she sounds like any young person describing the chance of a lifetime. "I didn't want to wake up 10 years from now and say, damn, I had all that opportunity, and I didn't take it."

In this case, though, the opportunities show how this business can escalate, inviting potential hazard by further blurring the lines between the virtual and the real.

interact

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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