Somewhere on the internet, a philosophy student is being paid 15 quid to sit naked and blow smoke into a webcam.
You can tell he’s living in halls because of the crusted yellow sink in the corner and the grey plastic chair he’s sitting on. He used to struggle to live on the minimum wage he made serving defrosted chicken burgers, but now he’s saved enough to support himself through an upcoming unpaid internship at a music label. Elsewhere, a wedge blond is doing tricep curls. He looks like he breaks girls’ hearts for a living and was born to be emblazoned on an Abercrombie & Fitch poster campaign. Fans of his livestream pay thousands to watch him do what he loves: work out and wank. Another guy used to spend his days apologising down a headset to customers whose pizzas arrived with the wrong toppings. Now he makes a living telling infatuated investment bankers they’re worthless.
These are the cam boys. Chances are, you’ve been aware of the existence of cam girls for a while, but there is now a rapidly growing group of men choosing to sell themselves over a webcam. Paid to provide live sex shows on websites called Chaturbate, Cam4 and MyFreeCams, they earn tips from viewers in the form of tokens (each worth roughly 50p) to perform a wide range of activities: “15 tokens and I’ll get naked”, “20 tokens and I’ll use a toy”, “30 tokens and you can watch me rub myself in cake icing”. An average cam boy might earn £100-£200 a day, but some of the best get 300,000 tokens per week: that’s £1,500 for under 10 hours of work. This is nothing compared to female cammers, of course – big names such as LittleRedBunny have been known to earn nearly £1m a year, charging men £4.99 for a minute of their time – but the cam boys are beginning to catch up.
Camming sounds easy.
You don’t just work from home, you work from your bed. However, as with most revelations about the sex industry, the life of a cam boy isn’t as glamorous as it initially seems. It is both physically and mentally exhausting. They’re making ends meet, but at what personal cost?
For Chrissy, who started camming from his parents’ house in Oxford after struggling to find work with a degree in computer games design, the most difficult thing is staying hard while acting out scenarios he doesn’t find sexy.
“I’m straight, but many cam boys are working for the ‘pink pound’ – gay men who are willing to spend big money. Female users are rare.” Cam boys might call other men ‘daddy’ and wear red leather Speedos, but many of them are watching hetero porn on a hidden iPhone under the screen in order to maintain an erection. “To me the person I’m talking to is a username – nothing but a grouping of pixels. That’s how I’ve managed to be comfortable doing this.”
Steve Hattrickz, real name Brett, is a jock living in New Jersey who often performs cam shows wearing nothing but hockey gear. He quit his job at TGI Fridays when he realised he could pay his rent with just a couple of hours of camming. The most he’s ever earned was 180,000 tokens ($900) in an hour and a half. He describes himself as ‘heteroflexible’ due to his interest in both sexes, yet he still acts out scenarios he’s not aroused by: “I filmed a custom vlog of a male pregnancy for $75. This guy wrote me a script. Initially I was complaining about morning sickness and cramps, then sore ankles, getting on public transport. Eventually I was crawling around, stomach distended, writhing in pain. I don’t know where that fetish comes from.”
Steve is open-minded – he’ll flirt with you while pretending to be your brother, he will spank his ass with a paddle until it flushes rose pink – he just isn’t into excessive pain. “Guys want me to watch them sounding themselves – that means sticking lubricated metal rods down their urethra. That’s something I’m uncomfortable with.”
“I became the character I was pretending to be. When I’m Jasper I have no anxieties”
Appearing aroused isn’t a problem for cam girls – they can simulate masturbation, wailing out as though climaxing when in reality the vibrator isn’t even touching their skin. Cam boys can’t get away with those tactics. Even if they act out something they find arousing, they’re online for around four hours. Ever tried to masturbate for that long? (You don’t have to answer that.)
“I don’t get sore, but it means churning through two bottles of lube a month,” explains Jordan, 22, from Manchester, who started camming aged 18 after quitting his job as a pot washer. “I use Viagra because I need to be hard for a long duration of time. I get superpowered ones that last for days. As long as it’s being stimulated, it will be up.”
For Jordan, camming has made long-term romantic relationships difficult. “Sex work has ruined my libido. I’m touching myself all day so if I meet someone I like, I just want to cuddle and play fight.” He might seem promiscuous and detached online, but Jordan craves the familiarity of someone scratching his scalp while he watches To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Steve has managed to bypass the pressure to stay hard by branding himself as a butt rather than a dick model. “I twerk for most of my show,” he explains. Watching Steve on cam, he gives the zebra bikini-clad girls from Tyga music videos a run for their money. It turns out the cheeks are all natural – going to the gym up to six times a week, Steve is the Gareth Bale of sex work, coming home and eating mounds of chicken breasts and broccoli to feed his demanding bootie.
Given that they record themselves masturbating, it’s surprising to hear that most cam boys are introverts. But when you consider that most big tippers are awkward men who use cam sites as their main form of socialisation, it makes sense. Nerdy interests are a huge advantage. Steve might look like the love interest from a Nicholas Sparks novel, his thick arms built to carry you out of a burning building, but when he’s not on cam he watches anime, obsesses over Game Of Thrones fan theory forums and loves playing Fortnite. When asked about other forms of sex work, he explains he couldn’t be a stripper because he’s too shy to approach people, “I just don’t have that aggressive salesperson mentality.”
Whether or not the cam boys genuinely share common interests with their audience, there remains a performative aspect to camming that can take a massive toll. Many cam boys find a fissure opens up between the vision they curated to fulfil customers’ dreams, and their offline reality. Jordan’s online alter ego, ‘Jasper’, colonised his mind to the point where he lost himself under the artifice. “I became the character I was pretending to be. When I’m Jasper I have no anxieties; as Jordan I’m more vulnerable.” Erecting walls and burying anxieties meant Jordan found it harder to connect with others IRL. “I didn’t even notice people were withdrawing from me. No one was replying to my texts.”
Steve, meanwhile, hasn’t made a local friend since he started camming four years ago. Given that optimum camming hours are after dark – Steve sleeps from 7am to 4pm – he’s not exactly going for after-work beers. “When I’m online, I don’t recognise the loneliness. Offline I do,” he says. “Through the support I get with camming – people literally paying to hang out with me – my insecurities have lessened. The way people were treating me in real life didn’t seem good enough any more. People were using me. This person wanted a drinking buddy, this person needed a lift, this person needed to borrow money… a lot of my old friends were homophobic. Eventually I cut ties.”
“I filmed a custom vlog of a male pregnancy. I was crawling around with my stomach distended”
Unlike many cam boys, Steve’s mum knows about his job. In fact, she was the one who encouraged him to try sex work in the first place, citing his perfect abs. Even so, he went through phases of worrying about his “extremely conservative” Christian father finding out about his work.
Jordan is similarly more open about camming: talking me through cock rings over the phone as he waits in line at the post office.
Chrissy is not quite so lucky. Even though he lives with his parents, they have no idea about what he does at night. This is less because of a stealthy undercover operation on Chrissy’s part and more because of the chasm that exists in the family. “They don’t ask me many questions. They have never taken much interest in me or what I do.”
Chrissy seeks refuge from family issues in his room and in the screens that decorate it. “Most people in the real world are f*cking assholes,” he says, eating spinach and ricotta ravioli on his bed, “and the majority of people I have met online aren’t.” But all that time hidden away, one can feel trapped.
Hung on Chrissy’s bedroom wall is an Iron Maiden poster of a zombie in solitary confinement pulling at its chains. The monster’s decomposing blue skin pushes against the padded cell. “These four walls often feel like a prison,” Chrissy tells me.
Whether or not his parents find out, Chrissy intends on camming until his body sags into old age. For the time being, he’s saving money for a deposit on a flat: “It would be nice to move away from here, maybe to the seaside.” For Steve, this isn’t a forever job, but he dreads returning to the monotony of a 9-5. “I would always think, ‘Why am I making $12 an hour sweating over a spreadsheet when I could be showing my feet to some guy for 100 bucks?’”
For all of the cam boys I spoke to, camming represents a safe space – a digital fortress where they can hide from what they perceive to be an unfair world. The worry is that should they retreat too far behind the frosted-blue light of their screens, they’ll be unable to claw their way back. Be that Jordan morphing into his online self, Steve finding it difficult to have friends unless they’re pixelated, or Chrissy retreating into his bedroom unable to breathe.
It’s not hard to understand why this happens: Why make friends who’ll hurt you when you can have an army of loyal cyberfans dedicating Instagram pages to your pecs? Why log off when online your ass isn’t just that thing you sit on, but instead an object of worship?
Towards the end of our interview, Jordan is casually describing how he washes pink rubber dildos with apple cider in the bathroom sink prior to each show, when a lady interrupts to ask him: “Do you think this is an appropriate conversation for a train?” Jordan moves to hide in the toilet. We carry out the rest of the phone call with fists knocking on plastic as other passengers try to use the loo. He laughs nervously. “This would never happen to me online.”
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(Illustrations: Scott Balmer)