After I graduated from law school, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew I was on all fours on my living room floor, shoving a purple dildo up my ass for the enjoyment of strange men online. “Not bad,” I told myself, craning my neck to glance at the camera behind me. “Not a bad way to make money.”
I was 29, and I didn’t need to strip for money. I had a job clerking at a large government agency in DC. There’s that saying: “good enough for government work.” Normally a dig at the industriousness of government employees, to me, it was an indictment of the work itself. Good enough. But I was deeply in debt, and burnt out after less than a year of legal practice. I wasn’t lazy: I was tired. Tired of making less money than promised, tired of my monthly student loan payments being eclipsed by the accumulating interest. I was tired of the work itself. The thankless drafting of unread briefs, sending memos into the void, for no one’s eyes in particular. I wanted to take control of my life.
Essentially, becoming a webcam model felt more authentic than the alternative. I could own my body, make more money, and do something exciting. Something beyond the humid Metro commute, the soulless cubicles of the law clerks, the revolving door of Mondays and deadlines. Much like law school, I considered it a personal test. Could I do it? Was I fun enough, brave enough, to strip on camera? I had come of age in the era of sex positivity and had internalized those messages as if my life depended on it: Sex is fun! Pornography is even better! What an empowering way to make money! Aren’t you enjoying this?
Seeking that dangerous intersection where entertainment meets empowerment, I moved all my lamps into the living room like a TV studio, chose a suggestively innocent screen name, and logged on. I would strip for tips, blowing kisses to the camera and making small talk. Sometimes, users would pay for a private room so they could tell me what to do with my body. It was easy, exhausting money. It didn’t take long to see that the test was more a matter of what can I endure? That owning your body, in the pornographic sense, also involves a contradictory relinquishment of control. Once on display, your body becomes part of the public domain. Every inch of you can—and will—be commented on, picked apart, dissected like a pig in formaldehyde. My pubic hair (I did not shave, did not even think to do so before going on camera, which I suppose exposes my naivety) was at once “classy” and “unhygienic,” “nasty” and “old school.” Often it was my age—as in, damn, you look good for 29! Or a user would tell me I should wear my hair up or down, pose this way or that. I didn’t look good in white lingerie, maybe try red? To be on camera is a magnification of what it means to be a woman in the world. People comment on how you look. Incessantly. Shamelessly. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and you must learn to let the insults roll off your naked body. Then there was that one guy who inevitably surfaced in the chat, apologizing for the other guys’ bad behavior. Sorry, we aren’t all like that. Watch out though. Some of the guys here are real creeps.
The first night, my room was flooded with viewers. Being new on the site earns you a front-page feature as “amateur” talent, so you get more customers into your chatroom during those first two make-or-break weeks. Viewers love fresh meat. But it also flags you as inexperienced, and your room becomes a beacon for scammers. Some users would rig the chat so it looked like they had tipped you, to get you to flash them, when they hadn’t actually given you any money. This happened within the first five minutes of my first night. Luckily, a good Samaritan chimed in, “Don’t do it!!! Wait for the screen to flicker—that’s how you know it’s legit.”
Guys would send you private messages to see if you were up for the illegal stuff. One guy sent me a GIF of a woman giving a golden retriever a blowjob, asking if I had a pet I’d be willing to perform with. He offered an unspecified “lot of money.” The kicker was you never knew if the guy was serious, or if he was trying to trick you into agreeing to bestiality so he could report you for violating the site’s code of conduct, getting you banned. The code was fairly simple. You had to be over 18 (verified by your driver’s license), no illegal activity (rape, necrophilia, etc.), and while you could drink on camera (provided you were over 21), you could not appear completely intoxicated.
I never discovered the threshold for completely intoxicated. I would drink a bottle of prosecco on camera nightly to loosen my nerves. To keep things fun. I drank so much that by the second night, I was on all fours on my living room rug. This was during a private session with a user who told me to call him Henry. Henry asked me to face my ass to the camera and fuck myself with a purple dildo while saying his name on repeat. The logistics proved tricky, because I had to awkwardly contort my neck to see the chat box and receive whatever demands or requests he was typing, or check if he was even still in the room. Users pay by the second for private rooms, and they can exit whenever they feel like it. I wasn’t drunk enough to perform for an empty room. So, I was ramming the dildo up my ass and calling out Henry, oh Henry, yes god Henry, while periodically pausing my rapture to verify his continued presence. After a few minutes, I looked back and read, “Oops, you’re bleeding.” I looked at my hand: it was slick with red. Blood ran down my thighs, pooled on the rug underneath me. I hadn’t noticed, hadn’t felt any particular pain besides the usual discomfort that for me has always come with sticking things up my ass. It was a blood bath, and it was all on camera. “Sorry,” he typed, before signing off. The whole thing must have lasted under 5 minutes. I think I made about 15 bucks.
After that, I insisted on “no ass play” to anyone who asked. I felt proud for asserting my boundaries, even though it lost me a fair amount of traffic, and even though I felt a little less fun and a little more like a failure. By the end of the night, I would drunkenly wonder if this was all worth it. Sure, it was exciting, to be noticed and complimented, to be the object of desire—even if that also meant you were the butt of the joke. All the while knowing full well you were one of hundreds of girls in their own rooms, performing their own concessions. But the money wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t great, but hour for hour, it was better than clerking. And I knew I had it easy: I could always stop whenever it became too much, whenever it stopped being fun or lucrative enough. From what I observed, some of the other girls—those sitting on neatly made sheets in sterile, pseudo-hotel rooms, dim-eyed and smiling absently—did not necessarily have the same freedom.
I also felt lucky that I had the support of my fiancé. He was not the jealous or possessive type. He respected my right to do whatever I wanted with my body. He respected it so much, he would sometimes work the chatroom of the site’s main lobby, posing as another user, inconspicuously drumming up interest. “Come see so-and-so! You won’t believe what she’s doing!” In other words, a pimp. A supportive, well-meaning pimp.
One night—which was, as it turned out, my last night camming—I signed off around 2 am and went into our bedroom. I found my fiancé sitting in the dark, cross-legged on the bed, face illuminated by the blue light of the laptop screen. He had been on the site all night, surveying the lay of the land. You know, for research. He angled his screen so I could see what he was seeing: a woman in her fifties, or maybe older, riding a rickety old roller coaster at some kind of carnival. Her face was shadowy and greenish in the darkness, distorted by the garish neon lights behind her. Her gray hair hung in limp, lopsided pigtails. Every time someone tipped, she would lift up her pleated school-girl skirt. Though the video feed was grainy, I could see she wasn’t wearing underwear. She was shaven. Viewers would taunt her in the chat, “Ugly cunt. Old whore. Show us your sagging boobs.” Typing and tipping. I watched her tip jar fill up with each insult, a frenzy, thousands of dollars, the screen a constant flash of light. She was smiling and laughing, a broken cackle. My fiancé looked at me glassy eyed and said, “Are you seeing this? She’s making a killing.” We both kept our eyes fixed on the screen: the woman kept going like that, around and around in the dark, laughing wildly.