It is a pleasure to cam

Camgirls often said that pleasure was a primary benefit of their work. The data pointed to two primary forms of pleasure in webcamming: first, sexual pleasure and, second, affectual pleasure derived from “touching encounters” (Walby 2022). First, a major pleasure of adult webcamming is sexual. For models on this forum, the benefits of webcamming cannot be understood in only economic terms. Models can and do derive sexual pleasure from their work. For example, one model, while providing advice to another, discussed her failure to achieve orgasm before camming. The model providing the advice explained that because the work required that she masturbate, she became more comfortable with her body and, as a result, is now able to achieve orgasm with ease: “I wasn’t actually able to orgasm before I started on MFC.6 It was one of the ONLY things I felt trepidation about regarding camming because I wasn’t sure how it would go. … I played with toys and used my fingers and did other sexy things and actually my 2nd Group show ever I had an orgasm with my Hitachi. …You are not the only one and you might even figure out what works for you and get to enjoy some orgasms!”

Many models highlighted orgasms as a benefit of their work. In fact, another reoccurring comment was that many models will not fake orgasms. The literature has highlighted sex work as emotional labor that is highly performative (e.g., Chapkis 1997). In Arlie Hochschild’s (1983) original work on emotional labor, she drew from dramaturgical theory and emphasized that in many service industries workers must engage in different levels of acting; this included surface acting or regulating emotional displays (e.g., smiling, faking orgasm) and deep acting where workers must regulate internal emotions (e.g., feeling disgust, pleasure, enjoyment). However, despite the idea that women must engage in surface and deep acting by feigning interest, masking disgust, or faking orgasm to please their clients, many of the women here claim sexual agency and reject emotional labor by emphasizing that their orgasms are authentic.

Importantly, there may be greater potential for mutual sexual pleasure in adult webcamming than there is in other segments of the erotic labor market. About the prostitutes in her interview sample, Sanders (2005a) notes that “although there were some exceptions, most women did not receive sexual pleasure from their clients, but instead faked their arousal and physical stimulation” (328). Instead, camming may open up an opportunity for more mutual pleasure between client and worker. One model said, “Honestly sometimes when I’m on cam I need to literally just focus on myself to allow myself to cum. I don’t fake it, ever.” She suggested that she is not just performing for her clients but that she focuses on her needs, takes her time, and achieves orgasm in her own time. Another said, “I never fake an orgasm, and I always keep going until I have one.” Crucially, in this line of service work, the services performed are not just focused on the needs and desires of the clients. As another model said, “I would never do a show that I would not enjoy.”

Webcam performances, particularly in private shows, are unlike other forms of service work in that they are not just ordered by the customer and served by the worker. These shows are often highly pleasurable for workers because the model, not the customer, often dictates the show’s content and pace. One model noted: “On my own personal note, I’m hard to take private because I’m choosy about who I’ll go with. I like to enjoy my time and feel comfortable with the person I’m with. It doesn’t matter how many tokens a member has, if I don’t enjoy my time with them I’m not going private with them. As much as MFC is my place of business, I still reserve the ‘no shoes, no shirt, no service’ type policy. ‘No orgasms, no manners, no private.’” However, the enactment of sexualized services in webcamming is not just a binary bottom-up service. Services performed are shaped by the interactions and desires of the performer and the customer in the situational and changing context of the private show.

Again, the literature on sex work as service work often overemphasizes the degree to which service work is predicated on emotional labor (e.g., Chapkis 1997). As evidenced in the quotation above, in many cases, there is a direct refusal to engage in emotional labor. The model indicates that she will not engage in surface acting or deep acting; instead, she services only clients who provide her with pleasure and reserves the right to deny services to anyone.

Additionally, models on the forum highlighted the point that the erotic pleasures and benefits of camming extend beyond their workplace. Models underscored this point by emphasizing that their work affected their sex lives outside of camming: “One thing I love about camming is though I masturbate less alone, I find it much easier to cum during sex/foreplay with a partner. When I started camming I had trouble having an orgasm anywhere near another person though had no trouble alone, and though I could cum on cam I felt uncomfortable doing so, after camming for a while I started getting much more into my shows and eventually totally stopped doing them when I wasn’t in the mood for performing.” The erotic performances on cam may help women to become more comfortable with their bodies, and this in turn helps their business. However, I do not want to overemphasize orgasms and sexual satisfaction as a sole measure of models’ pleasure in cam work. Many models pointed to a second major pleasurable experience in their work that emphasized an affectual dimension of social interaction.

For many, sex work is not merely a matter of sexual commerce or a calculated economic exchange of services. Instead, the encounters between clients and workers are both physical and affectual (see, e.g., Bernstein 2007; Walby 2012). Kevin Walby (2012) astutely notes that “the labor process of male-for-male Internet escorting differs greatly from the ill-treatment common among on-street sex trade and even bar hustling: Internet escorts deal with a clientele that more or less represents the transnational capitalist class, a clientele that often seeks camaraderie and temporary companionship” (169). Thus, Internet-mediated exchanges provide better conditions of labor for escorts who can help foster intimacy between sex workers and their clients. Walby calls these affectual exchanges “touching encounters.” While his work focuses on the male-for-male escort market, the data here suggest that these affectual exchanges and pleasures exist for some female webcam models as well.

In fact, models emphasized the importance of touching encounters and highlighted these experiences as a benefit of their line of work. The development of intimate relationships with clients was often framed as a pleasurable benefit of adult webcamming. One model said, “My favorite privates are ones where we just talk. I love talking and getting to know people better. These privates have lasted over an hour sometimes.” Human interaction can create touching encounters that are pleasurable not for the sexual climax they produce but for the emotional intimacy they facilitate between two or more people (Bernstein 2007; Walby 2012). For example, another model noted, “My longest privates ever have just been talking and learning about each other. I had a regular show off his gun collection once and it was pretty nifty.” Moreover, in some cases, these interactions may not even be highly sexual. As these models observe, “I also like privates where they want me to try on all my clothes and panties. This is just pure fun. I love posing and being silly, trying to figure out cute outfits for them.” Models often described the potential for fun as a benefit and pleasure associated with their work. Rachela Colosi (2010) posits that “lap-dancing is a form of ‘anti-work’ in which dancers prioritize having fun” (184). This same logic buttresses the motivations of many webcam models, and thus in camgirls’ quest for fun, they too may be engaged in a form of “anti-work.”

Overall, models said they often found pleasure in the relationships they developed with clients who purchase private shows. Another model said:

Honestly my favorites are the ones where I just get to talk to the guy and get to know him better—or even better, when we have a lot in common and get to geek out over it. My favorite was a guy who took me exclusive on SM [streammate]—he bought a block of time. He had me get off for him, but let me choose how to, and wasnt overly crass or anything else, after I came he said he had cum also—but he stuck around for at least half an hour afterwards and we just talked about Doctor Who and World of Warcraft. It was AWESOME.

This model describes her exchange with this client as “awesome” because the show was centered on her pleasure and because part of their time together included conversation about television shows and video games. While both the model and client climaxed, these sex acts were only part of their intimate exchange. In many cases, the encounters between performers and clients are not purely sexual, and given their mutual perception of safety in the digitally mediated space, a friendship can often emerge.

Models often described private shows as a space in which customers pay to watch a woman “pleasure herself.” These become spaces for their sexual enjoyment, but what is significant is that they often also involve long conversations. This contributes to a pleasurable affectual experience that is very similar to noncommercial relationships (Sanders 2008): “Oh and in September, I think, there was a similarly long bath show which pretty much just involved chatting about anything and everything until the water got super cold. … That was nice, too. But I have to say I really like all privates in which the member lets me do things that feel natural to me and that I actually enjoy, rather than shooting directions at me. I’m really thankful that mostly nice, considerate members end up doing privates with me.”

Models often said that it was not pleasurable to feel directed. In private sessions, some customers do in fact bark incessant orders at models; a few models described customers who literally gave them scripts to follow. These models were clear; the scripted show was not pleasurable, and some models refused to perform them because a scripted show would compromise their ability to enjoy their work. For some models, enjoyment was a prerequisite, particularly in private shows. A model highlighted this element by saying, “The shows that stand out as best or most satisfying for me are the ones where I’m not being directed all over the place. The privates where the guy says that he just wants me to take my time, work myself up and enjoy an orgasm. No rush, no pressure, just a girl doing what she does while a guy enjoys it and himself in the process.”

From the perspective of the camgirls, what customers want is an embodied authenticity. They want to see a woman’s body quiver in ecstasy, but they must believe it is real. The format of these online contexts, the live-streaming feature, ostensibly allows clients to verify the authenticity of her bodily pleasure (the orgasm) and, most important, to partake in the entire experience without any physical contact.

To be clear, these models did not love all of their interactions with customers. However, webcamming affords these workers an opportunity for rewards other than a potentially high wage. In fact, as Walby (2012) notes, the quest to have sex work recognized as legitimate work has led to an emphasis on purely monetary exchanges, which misses the importance of other affectual rewards. My hope is that my work will advance Walby’s thesis as well—such that more scholars of sex work will critically examine how touching encounters and desires for intimacy shape client and worker interactions, particularly in a digital context.

Additionally, the data suggest that the erotic and affectual pleasures are what keep models in the business. As one model put it, “If you can’t find some sort of pleasure, other than the money, you will burn out. Fast. You will hate what you do and it will show and your income will likely burn out too.” A model’s ability to effectively convey embodied authenticity is not (as the emotional labor literature has suggested) found in her ability to be a proficient actress. In other words, the successful accomplishment of embodied authenticity, which is what customers are buying, requires that models not act—that they actually be intellectually and physically engaged. Overwhelmingly, according to the women in this virtual community, the most successful models are those who do enjoy their work and those who are open to and desire more from than their clients than their money.