Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

If you think cam girls—those flirty naked characters that plague porn site pop-up ads—are raking in easy money, you're right. If you think cam girls are bleakly stripping online out of desperation, you're also right. Peel away the sex and pixels and money and you're left with the cloudy truth about the Internet's relationship status with these on-demand entertainers: it's complicated.

You've looked at porn online, which means you've likely been propositioned by advertisements for cam girl networks. They invade your peripheral vision; they pop up behind your window. The women wait for you to start staring, and, just when you're interested, they hit you up for money. You've seen them sitting at their keyboards, wearing barely anything, winking at you, typing to nobody in particular with thin, lethargic arms: bored and conventionally beautiful. The ads, with flirty video that might be live or recorded years ago, shout at you with promises of "Live Sex Chat" and "Sex Shows," with both amateurs and "pornstars" alike. It's a web red light district, and unlike some gaudy Dutch strip or seedy sidewalk, you're completely anonymous. The sex comes to you.

The basic premise of the cam girl game is a simple one: You pay a girl for her time, and in exchange, she'll take off her clothes, talk to you, play with herself (and others), or any combination thereof. When your money is up, so's your time—the two of you part ways until you've got the cash and willingness to go at it again. And when that time comes, you'll have thousands upon thousands of girls ready to swivel and smile for you in real time. It's a massive catalog of preening women of every variety: fat, skeletal, black, white, Asian, American, Greek, Czech, etc. To find them, look no further than the Big Three of cam girl delight: Streamate, LiveJasmine, and MyFreeCams. These three mega-networks advertise across the mainstream porn tube sites of masturbating ubiquity—PornHub, ClipHunter, etc.—but are shells and shadows themselves. So how do you get in?

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

How to Become a Cam Girl

The requirements are meager: a computer and Internet connection.

Odds are, you're referred by a newspaper or website listing. Maybe a friend suggested you try it out. Maybe you're shifting from traditional strip club work to the online equivalent—a popular trend in wealthier countries. Maybe you're working in a brothel where web camming is just another expectation. Whatever the case, you'll have to stream yourself through a web cam portal, one of the massive sites that catalogs thousands of models and acts as a go-between between customer and model.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

Next, you'll need to decide which cam network to use. They all offer more or less the same "service:" You supply the body, the network supplies the eyeballs—and takes a cut of what your viewers pay.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

Each network will ask you to fill out a brief bit of biographical information—list your interests, and try to sound fun—and then check a box or pull down a menu saying that you're 18 or above. You'll need to submit some sort of identification proving your age, but with standards low, laws international, and documents scanned, forging such a thing is a cinch. In other words, underage isn't a problem.

Streamate sells its models through a variety of repackaged and re-skinned websites, like PornHubLive—using the site's well-known brand as an easy in with porn consumers. In reality, it's the same old site in new clothes. Streamate itself is hard to pin down. Trying to find who actually owns it is dizzying: The domain belongs to Flying Crocodile Incorporated, which has a PO box in Seattle. Job openings point to a nebulous firm called NaiadDev, also based in Seattle (and hosted by FlyingCroc). But the company's custodian of records is one Rena Erotocritou, employed by "Ariel Secretaries Limited," a ghost of a company based out of Cyprus.

The massive LiveJasmin would have you believe it's owned by "Gestao e Investimentos, Lda," a company based in an autonomous region of Portugal—and has a host of fraud complaints lodged against one of its subsidiaries. But a recent tax bust against LiveJasmin's Hungarian CEO Gattyán György—one of the richest men in Hungary—and his corporation, Dolcer Holdings, shows just how muddled the corporate picture is. No doubt deliberately.

MyFreeCams, one of the most popular of the cam portals, has a domain registered to a Leo Radvinsky, and a legal contact in the Netherlands.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

If you've got your own hardware, and connection, you can essentially be self-employed, putting aside the big chunk each site will take out of your earnings. It really doesn't require much. Here's the cam setup from one Romanian model I spoke with at length.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

On her end, the website looks like this. This is where she sits and waits. (Click to expand)

But if you don't have this luxury—like a lot of girls across the world—you'll likely work for a "studio." That's basically a euphemism for another person's computer (probably a man), in front of which you'll perform on a tight schedule. You're still working through, say, MyFreeCams, but instead of only giving MFC a cut of your take, the studio owner takes a piece as well. Often a large one. If you don't stick to your mandatory hours, you'll be fired. You'll also be potentially living with strangers in conditions beneath the grimiest motel.

It's easy enough to read up on pointers from veterans.

A little research at mega-message boards like Stripper Web is fruitful—you'll pick up "Best Way to Recieve Money from Guys" muse in "Are you always beautious on cam?" And, of course, share war stories. One user started a thread spilling the most obnoxious, bigoted lines she'd recently been fed by "customers":

"Are you clean?" (As in STDs)

"You'd make more money if you can fist."

"You'd make more money if you can masturbate with a beer bottle."

"Are you mix with white? You're music is different."

"I hope you end up with a white man because there's only 2% hot black chicks like you and we don't need anymore nigger babies."

Sites do virtually nothing to curb or discourage this kind of treatment.

Entirely unsurprisingly, it's impossible to get in touch with any of the people who actually run these networks. None of the above entities from LiveJasmin, Streamate, or MyFreeCams responded to efforts to confirm that they do indeed exist and have some affiliation with the websites in question. All that's available is a semi-robotic technical support chat, which fields basic questions about how to use the site and credit card processing. These Web cam kingpins might as well not exist. We don't know where the money goes.

And as a cam girl, you won't know where it's coming from. You'll get your split—typically around 35-percent, but sometimes upwards of 70—siphoned to you via an innocuous credit card processing site like CCBill, while the site takes the rest of the cut. However you earn that cut is up to you. Some sites, like Streamate, allow actual sex to the point of orgy, while others limit your act to a solo show. You can flash, finger, vibrate—whatever you think will earn cash in the form of dollars-per-minute private shows or instant "tips." That's the formula. You're up against tens of thousands of women (and men, to a lesser degree) offering the same product in varying versions. That's a tough stab at making a living, even with your clothes on.

So who are these tireless women (or girls), these Internet sex pioneers? Where do they live? Where did they come from? How did they wind up these poorly furnished, fluorescent-lit rooms in this oversaturated, low-res corner of the web? We wondered the same thing. So I talked to them.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

Domino: Living the American Dream

"There's a lot of burnout in this industry," Domino tells me over the phone from one of the three houses she owns in Wisconsin—one of them a lakefront property outside of Madison. She says it with a serious voice that sounds a little tired. I don't know her real name, and I don't get the feeling she's willing to tell. We just talk about stripping and streaming sex, her chosen field for the past couple years. There's not much point in digging, anyway—Domino is, for my purposes, more a brand and personality than a fragile and finite person like you or me. But a thriving one. She describes herself as:

"Not your average female. I'm the fabled nerdy, intelligent woman who plays video games, loves all types of movies and music, books, and other women. I'm hyper, I have a dry, dark, sarcastic sense of humor, and I quote movies. A lot. Imagine Wednesday Addams, Daria, Liz Lemon, and Darlene Connor having an orgy. I'm the result."

Domino might not be something so dramatic as that, but she's certainly smart, replies to my questions without the slightest hesitation, and oozes the confidence of a professional from any field. She just pays her bills with a dildo now.

That wasn't always the case. Before she started stripping—both online and off—Domino was a suit: working at a Fortune 500 company as a graphic designer. She quit the firm out of boredom in 2010, and now mainly flexes her aesthetic skills to push her online sex shows. Unlike most cam girls, Domino isn't affiliated with a network like LiveJasmin. She's completely independent, streaming strip and fetish sex shows from her home studio, straight from a website she built herself. Stripping at a local joint came first, but after breaking her wrist, Domino segued away from brick and mortar clubs. She'd heard there was good money to be made doing pretty much the same stuff online—and she could be her own boss.

Domino wakes up at 8 am every morning and performs booked shows for clients paying between $90 and $120 an hour. That's about sixteen times her state minimum wage, and she doesn't have to leave her bedroom. If a client wants to book through MyFreeCams rather than sending money directly, Domino charges double. There's not a cent lost to a middle man. It seems like a pretty swell setup: "I love my job," Domino gushes. "I can work when I want to, as much as I want to, [and] nobody can tell me how to do my job." She's right. At her strip club, she was required to come in four to five days a week, spinning on a pole. Now, she can work all day. Or not at all. The last time we spoke, she was working on an ebook project, spending her time as she pleased.

When the clothes do come off, it can be damn lucrative: Domino estimates she hauls in around $300 on a good day—although a bad day is zero dollars, and hours wasted. But it's enough for her to be completely self-sufficient, albeit weary of the whole thing sometimes: "Ramming your vagina with a dildo is tiring," Domino explains. It probably is, as are the handful of "true creeps" she runs into—the gents who aren't just pervs, but sexual threats. That's never okay—like one guy who mentioned his proclivity for child molestation in passing during a cam session. The rest of the time, occasional criminals aside, the job sounds downright leisurely. It also gives Domino a chance to indulge in her geeky professionalism: "I like being able to network with people who aren't my strip club customers, [and] it's a way for me to see how good I am at SEO and social media." This is fun for her. Domino says she's "always been a very sexual person," so while vaginal ramming is tiring, of course, on-camera kink isn't onerous, if you can put the monotony aside. And she does, though you'd never guess it: "If I'm facing away from [the camera] and my ass is in the air in the doggystyle position, I can check my email [on my phone]. I've done that."

Domino has it pretty good—an American with ample property and a cushy career based on sex she enjoys. Not everyone is Domino.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

Anna: Former Indentured Stripper

I met Anna because she flatly offered to talk to me—clothed or unclothed—in exchange for money. She's Romanian, a model from a region with a reputation for sordid conditions and rapacious studio owners. If there were a dark side to the industry, she'd at least be nestled closet to it. But when her camera first flipped on for me, I didn't see the stained walls of a prostitute's den. Instead: a bright, modern apartment inhabited by a bright, modern girl. In her pink underwear. Anna embodies almost every delightful stereotype an American brain can hold over a young girl from Romania. At 24, she's clever—even cunning—sarcastically flirtatious in a way that makes you want to check your back pocket, and possesses stunning slavic beauty.

But despite fulfilling all my Internet male expectations, Anna's impossible to really pin down. On both IM and video chat, she's prone to mannerisms and quips that make you want to pay for her time. A lot of it. She's beautiful without surfeit, an honest form that's pleasing even over a low-resolution video stream. Her English is fantastic, her personality disarming. She'll sit casually, like a girl the morning after a sleepover, musing about her cats and future. When she first "performed" for me on camera, discarding her herd of cats and cigarette for a bottle of baby oil, a few alarmed neurons felt like I should rush to Bucharest and wrap a blanket around her. Her innocence is a cool switch. The tokens evaporated.

But there's really nothing exotic about Anna. She's occasionally lazy and often messy, spending most of her days, as far as I can tell, puttering around her Bucharest apartment in pajamas, playing with her cats, drinking enormous plastic bottles of soda, working on coding an iOS game, and taking occasional trips out to pick up fried chicken and buy new underwear. She claims to have almost no "real" friends off of the Internet, but is consistently cheery, and enormously talkative. While video chatting, she always asks if I mind before she smokes. Anna complains about having to take time away from Diablo 3 for her cam sessions, where she chats with regulars, masturbates, mouths along to pop songs, and waits, waits, waits for someone to send her money. And when it comes, it comes. Anna's a MyFreeCam loyalist, earning $6 a minute via "tokens"—a clever way to obscure how much her customers actually spend. It's a lot easier to fork over 900 tokens than thinking about the $75 you just spent in minutes. This is Anna's sole income, and what took her out of rural Romanian poverty and the whims of other men.

It took six years to reach this life of dilettantism and occasional sex work. Anna wasn't always free. She started camming when she moved from her backwater Romanian hometown to attend college in Bucharest for a degree in psychology. When she relocated, she knew no one and had no money. But, like Domino, heard things about the lucrative streaming flesh trade—a recommendation from a male friend who convinced her to strip from his cramped 2-room apartment as he did the same in the other room.

Her friend, "gave [her] sex toys," and she was on her way, waking at 6 am each morning in order to hit American Internet primetime. She hopped from studio to studio, at times living with her employers (and their unwanted advances), still far enough from self-sufficiency that she had to depend on them for support. One had a wife who insulted her constantly. She had to work, almost every day, on strict, long, tiring shifts, doing the same performances over, and over, and over again. She was an urbanite, but she was still a poor stripper in a small room. When one studio boss lost all of his money and had to move in with a friend, Anna had to go along, having lost her room, board, and virtually all of her possessions.

Her conditions at the next studio were bare at best, and at times the most personal privacy she had, while masturbating for strangers on live camera, were a few hanging sheets separating her from the others walking in and out of some rundown flat. Although she was the frequent victim of what would certainly qualify as flagrant, physical sexual harassment in any other business, Anna stuck through it, priding herself on her ability to talk a path out of a "bad situation" with male employers.

Others aren't so lucky, she says, referring to her peers' dips into coerced sex and assault. "Guys who are in charge of these business, they don't respect the girls, because of this job. A girl who does this doesn't deserve to have respect—that's just the mentality." But at the same time, Anna downplays the prevalence of studio abuse as "exceptions," or even complete fabrications—ploys for sympathy and the money that might trickle with it.
This comes off as somewhere between cynicism and naive denial, but the fact that she knows of any girls at all who've raped and beaten suggests that it is, at the very least, a real occupational hazard.

If abuse were such a big problem, Anna says, then why would any Romanian girls bother with it at all? Why wouldn't they just find some other job? In a country whose GDP only stopped shrinking two years ago, with 20-percent of the population living below the poverty line and personal income levels far below Kazakhstan, Iran, and Gabon, that question answers itself. There's a reason Anna's so happy to be independent from her former employers, a status she equates with nothing less than her "freedom."

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

Today, things are different. After saving money and learning enough savvy to avoid continued exploitation, Anna is done with money-sucking studios, and so she works only about five days a month, from her own home. Five days of camming per month allow her to match the Romanian per capita income of roughly $12,000 per year with a minuscule fraction of the labor. If she wants more money, she works more days.

She's got camming down to a science. "It's all about saying to people they are sweet," she smiles. All a man needs is attention, when he wants it, and he'll be Anna's until the tokens run dry. Regulars will sit in her room for hours, pouring money away—these are the lonely ones, Anna says. "They want to hear that they're loved...that they're sweet...that they're kind...that's how you keep them coming back." It might sound mercenary, but these guys are getting exactly what they're paying for. Only a man in the deepest bog of delusion truly believes the cam love is real—if you're spending hundreds of dollars for a companion on your computer monitor, you have to be willing to suspend disbelief. Plenty are willing—particularly Americans, who for whatever reasons (Anna chalks it up to a sort of cultural shamelessness), are more "generous" than Europeans, and more likely to buy into the act—and pay for the privilege of jerking off to something interactive. We need our egos stoked more fiercely than the rest, it seems.

There are still big ticket European customers these days, men who Anna is reluctant to call "addicted," but "spend more time...you need to entertain those people who are going to stay for hours and hours in your room, even if they finished what they came for—they want to get to know you." Either way, camming keeps Anna in comfy sweatpants and Fanta.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

Mila: The Superstar

Mila Milan is as close as camming gets to producing a celebrity: a renaissance woman boasting ownership of a private resort in Thailand (below), a Porsche, an industrial design firm, nine cats, eight dogs, an impending book deal, a small child, and what she says was "one of the biggest tips ever in cam history—260,000 tokens, which meant $13,000 for me."

She started in the German porn game at 17, and moved on to cam modeling years later in Bangkok. Two years ago she was the number one rated model on MyFreeCams—meaning her link was at the very top of the site's barren layout—bringing in around $37,000 per month. These days, girls in those top slots can earn up to an insane $75,000 per month. The competition is cutthroat. The MFC ratings battle is ruthless, as tips beget more tips: if you're being paid well, you move up the totem pole, ensuring a snowball effect of even more attention and money.

At times, it's hard to believe Mila even enjoys the work. I stopped by one of her more recent shows, and she sat, almost motionless, with her top unbuttoned, literally wincing. She seemed to be mumbling to herself, narrowing her eyes and ignoring her customers. Mila told the hundreds of slobbering men in her chatroom that they'd need to deposit thousands of tokens before she'd take her shirt off entirely. Money trickled in. She says the last three weeks have been "the slowest in 3 years...very bad." Still, she's a rich woman in an industry of destitution.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

This kind of money and naked fame is the rarest exception for a camgirl. The rest of the many thousands struggle to make any money at all under what appear to be demeaning, even dangerous conditions. After eight years of observation, Mila says, straight up, that camming is a criminal business on an international scale:

"With the Feds closing down and tightening the control on casino and poker sites, some of those [criminal] elements have found a new way of doing business: the Cam Industry. Let me make clear that this is in no way an MFC problem where I work. This is an Industry-wide problem which will need to be addressed if this industry wants to survive."

The Dark Side

The racket is money laundering:

"Cam sites are ideal for laundering. The studios are being used to have girls online accepting a financed hand that uses 'dirty' money to buy the private time. The studio gets paid for the private session, the girl gets her (very small) part and so the money comes back clean," Mila says. As a result, "most Russian and Romanian studios are Mafia owned," a claim she extends to the wider developing world. The picture becomes clearer when you remember how scattered and obfuscated these networks' financial structures are—it'd be easier to confusingly launder money through a company that's somehow simultaneously based in both Hungary and Portugal.

The Eastern Bloc countries that so many cam girls call home are repeatedly mentioned in sex trafficking reports as both sources and conduits of illicit sex work—MyFreeCams has gone as far as banning all models from the Philippines, where conditions are said to be the most brutal.

The reasoning isn't mentioned, but is easy to surmise. Moving the exploitation online, where girls are under "contract" to stay in a room for half a day at a time with dubious legal recourse, makes criminal sense. Unfortunately, not a single NGO I contacted that deals with issues of sex trafficking, abuse, prostitution, human rights, or anything that might've pertained to these weary faces had data or commentary on the cam industry.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

(NakedSexAssasinDUO1on1, Philippines)

As far as quality of life goes, Domino is the upper top tier—happy, healthy, not without worry but relatively unstrained. A bourgeois sex worker. But stroll through any large network like MyFreeCams or Streamate, and you'll see how the other half lives. Poorly.

Stream after stream reveals someone on the other end of Domino's spectrum, far from the web sex metropole. They almost follow a template: garish makeup, harsh lighting, dingy rooms, generic techno wafting through the air, and almost certainly some piece of cheap fabric serving as a make-do backdrop. Pure Soviet Bloc chintz. They're almost always employed by cam "studios"—operations that vary in legitimacy wildly, from large, on the level companies to some dude's back room. It's a simple business, and a thriving one. Studios are pervasive throughout poorer countries, where a decent computer and broadband connection are harder to come by. The owners provide the facilities, and, in return, receive a hefty cut of a woman's takings—sometimes more.

The look is undeniably that of a brothel or a close approximation, and the ambiance is decidedly bleak. And it's decidedly Third World—there's a critical mass of prized white, American models, but the rest of the catalog spans the economic stale crusts of the globe: Russia, Colombia, West Africa, Thailand, Czech Republic, the Ukraine, Romania. For reasons that were never quite clear, Romania was a capital of pay-for-play sex shows across every major cam network.

Regardless of nationality, almost all of these women stare the vacant look, a disquieting blend of boredom and despair. You'll see none of Domino's eager, entrepreneurial zeal in their eyes—sometimes it seems like they forget they're even on camera. Although silent, they sure don't look like they want to be there. But some of them talk, online, anonymously, where it's safe. On one message board, SassyLisa shares her story from Bucharest:

Working in a studio as a webcam model its like keeping a wild beast into a cage...You have to work a number of hours,you don't have legal working papers...sexual harassment(yes...it sucks!when your boss is calling you in the middle of the night asking you to have a quickie,otherwise you'll take the consequences!

While hopping between these obviously studio-owned streams, I tried to get the women who are clearly down and out to talk about their work.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

(Unknown, Eastern Europe)

Most refused to discuss where they were, who they worked for, how they got there, or anything else. Some, with an alarmed expression, said they weren't allowed to discuss their studio. Some just sat looking away blankly, with canned text responses typed by someone else—off camera—popping up intermittently. Take a spin through Cam World, and you'll see women in catatonic states with a male partner—a "boyfriend"—for whom they clearly have no affection, but with whom they're expected to have sex (and everything else) on demand. Their faces are pathetic and worn. They sit online in makeshift chambers for most of the day, in the same complex as who knows how many others just like them, serving as a sort of dragnet for Internet chump change—every once in a while someone will pop into the room.

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

(Lilsonia, Romania)

Half the time they'll pop right back out. Otherwise, they'll go to the usual line of lobotomized demands: "tits," "show me ur pussy," "I wanna fuk u," to which the desperate model has to play along if she hopes to eke out a dollar or so. For them, the prospect of a $13,000 tip is beyond comprehension—it's doubtful they'll make anywhere near that much in an entire year. If they do, it'll likely be by pandering to the sordid whims of bullying customers—those who, as Anna laments, demand a bottle stuck up your ass and then call you a whore. So if you're just a single woman in the sea of Eastern European cam girls, rather than strip, perhaps you'll just stay naked all day as a way of attracting attention—an option that's allowed on MyFreeCams, but not on Streamate, where it'll get you the boot. There, you'll just dwell in a state of near-undress. Or flout the rules.

But then you notice everyone else is naked too. What's left to do besides demean and disrobe?

Indentured Servitude, Money Laundering, and Piles of Money: The Crazy Secrets of Internet Cam Girls (NSFW)

(ForePLAYadik, Philippines)

This is maybe the saddest truth for the struggling cam girl: that rock bottom isn't a destination but an expectation. The majority who struggle will sit, naked and unnoticed, waiting for a chance to degrade themselves, while American women demand top dollar to even speak with you.

"This is the irony," explains Anna. Going out of your way to lure and satisfy customers, the willingness to do any act, no matter how uncomfortable or degrading, gets you nowhere—because all of your Third World competition is doing the same thing. Everyone's price is driven down. Exponentially less permissive American women can earn a living just by stripping down. "Girls who do less, they get paid more. People who are willing to do all sorts of stuff, they barely get paid," Anna says. The desperate bodies of the Third World are locked in a state of mutual ruination, competing with each other to the point of almost entirely diminished returns. Whether by the force of subsistence, an overbearing studio boss—or, if Mila is right, the Russian —, the women that populate our porn pop-up ads aren't there to please us or have fun. They're there because they have to be. And because our money's there too.

And this naked dingy daily grind, occasionally lucrative or otherwise, might simply be the best thing they have going. When last I spoke to Anna, I asked if she saw herself still camming in five years—and if not, what it'd take to make her quit. She refused to answer without more money. For most cam girls, that might be the best answer there is.