Photo via Dmitri Ma/Shutterstock (Licensed)

Even thousands of miles and a computer screen can’t protect women from creeps.

Jessica, 25, has been using Chaturbate, one of the world’s leading amateur cam websites, on and off for almost three years. “At first, I used it for fun,” Jessica told the Daily Dot. “But when I saw all these other girls making real money, it developed into a bit more of a business.”

On Chaturbate, performers have a high-level of autonomy. They don’t pay a cent and can broadcast from their bedroom or basement, whenever and wherever they choose. Payment comes in the form of virtual “tokens” viewers use to tip, each worth a nickel. Some models earn thousands of tokens per show, whereas others barely make enough to buy dinner.

Unlike strippers, dominatrixes, and prostitutes, whose physical presence is essential to their work, the only way cam performers have to interact with their viewers is through a chat box next to the video window. Visit any room on the site, and you’ll find the more active chatters are oddly civil. Viewers seem to enjoy politely inquiring about how a cam girl is feeling that day, or if she has seen a particular recent movie.

“They want to act like they care without being creepy,” Jessica explains. “But somehow asking me about the weather while I’m taking my bra off feels creepy in its own way.”

Viewers who make a cam girl uncomfortable with graphic language or provocative questions can easily be removed from the chat. Sometimes, a cam girl will even appoint one of her viewers as a moderator for the chat room, a badge that is worn with puzzling pride and acted out with a disturbing sense of ownership. Moderators may perform the task of removing insolent viewers, but seemingly for the purpose of keeping themselves closer to the performer, rather than protecting her.

cam girls Photo via loginovworkshop/Shutterstock (Licensed)

In general, though, online performers rely on the physical barrier of a computer to be a protective shield. There are no wandering hands, no dark back rooms, and no gatekeepers. Perhaps this is why, on any given day, roughly 20,000 individual models log onto sites like Chaturbate, LiveJasmin, and Cam4 to be watched by millions of viewers.

Yet while camming may be profitable, financially legitimate, and certainly more physically secure than other forms of in-person sex work, it is also a scene rife with complicated privacy concerns that have yet to develop viable solutions.

Cam girls just want to have fun privacy and respect

It’s not difficult to fathom why many cam performers are interested in keeping their professional and personal lives separate. Crossover between the two worlds has potentially detrimental consequences: A cam girl has the right to be free of judgment from her boss or family, just as she has the right to keep her actual identity private from her audience.

“I would freak the fuck out if anyone I knew found my cam,” Jessica says. When I ask her if she thinks she would be fired from her day job at an orthodontist’s office if her cam were to become public, she thinks for a moment. “I hope not,” she says, perhaps wanting to believe the best in her employer. “But I don’t want to find out,” she adds.

Even those who are unconcerned about the “real world” learning about their online adult work are still subject to a unique set of threats. While many cam viewers are polite, or even chivalrous in an obnoxious white-knight sort of way, the very nature of camming itself opens doors for cruel online harassment. Many cam girls report receiving messages that make them uncomfortable, or viewers feeling entitled to use aggressive sexual language simply because of the nature of their work.

AmberCutie, a message board where cam girls congregate to talk shop, is filled with thread after thread of complaints against viewers. In 2012, a performer named Nina famously broke down on camera after being heavily targeted for her weight by a group of trolls based on the website 4Chan. Though her expression of grief was met with support and encouragement elsewhere online, it certainly did little to change the culture at large in the cam world.

4chan cam girl harassment Screengrab via LiveLeak.com

Even what can at first seem like complimentary messages can easily bridge into harassment territory. One thread on AmberCutie asks cam girls for advice on dealing with a viewer who has become “too attached.” Unsurprisingly, many responses detail similar experiences, while others offer advice on dealing with men who become obsessive. Some even describe a reluctance to cut off this type of communication, even if it makes them uncomfortable. “On the one hand, you want to appear open and friendly and genuinely interested in your highest-tipping members,” reads one reply. “On the other hand, you don’t want them to… forget that their interactions with you begin and end in a virtual/fantasy realm.”

For performers who need every last token to pay their bills, it’s not difficult to fathom a cam performer finding herself in an uncomfortable, or even predatory, situation for fear of upsetting a loyal client. This is a boundary many sex workers find themselves at crossroads over without anywhere to turn when things do get out of hand.

When situations turn downright scary

In extreme—but not unheard of—cases, cam girls have become victims of stalking and doxxing. Sites like Reddit and AmberCutie are populated with horror stories and warnings about the more serious consequences of camming, particularly in the case of professional cam girls who also use platforms like Twitter and SnapChat to promote their work.

Sebastian, 22 and who uses the pronouns they/them, regularly uses sites like Chaturbate and Streamates. They told the Daily Dot a nightmarish story in which a viewer managed to find their private Facebook profile and sent messages threatening to reveal their cam work to their listed family members. Fortunately, Sebastian blocked the predator and “nothing came of [the situation].” Still, this type of harassment is not at all uncommon in the cam world.

Then there is the issue of stolen property. One of the most common complaints of any cam girl is that, regardless of one’s notoriety in the cam world, videos and images of cam shows are regularly recorded and redistributed on other pornography websites without the cam girl’s knowledge—much less her consent. This inherently violates the idea that a cam girl is in control of what she broadcasts and who views her performance.

These videos can be difficult to find and remove once spread. It’s such an issue within the cam world that most long-term performers have come to accept it as a consequence. An impassioned thread on AmberCutie titled “Reality Check” encourages cam girls to accept the fact that “any time you put something on the internet,” it’s “there forever.” Even if a particular video is difficult to find in the endless stream of internet porn, the thought that one is incapable of having autonomy over their camming is enough to turn some away from the industry for good. What’s more, video theft also robs cam girls of money earned—when someone pirates a cam stream and uploads it to a site like PornHub, the site rakes in the ad revenue, not the cam worker.

“I try not to think about that,” Jessica says. “Or at least tell myself that there’s no way someone could ever find me with how many other videos there are out there. Sad, but true.”

The lack of legal protections for cam performers

With so much uniquely at stake, it begs the question: What are these companies doing to protect the women who are (quite literally) making them billions of dollars?

It varies. The Chaturbate Terms of Service, for example, prohibits the transmission of Chaturbate broadcasts onto other sites—thus allowing those whose images or videos have been taken without their permission to have a quick legal claim to their removal. At the same time, the company liberates itself of any responsibility for messages sent or received on the site, and prohibits users from suing them for damages. This is, by all means, a standard code of conduct for any website, but worth further scrutiny when sexual safety is at stake, as opposed to one’s Instagram profile.

Another site, MyFreeCams, was exposed in 2015 for their lackadaisical security practices. Several cam girls reported to Motherboard that any capitalization and special characters in a password was bypassed completely—i.e., if someone registered with a password of “Password123!,” it would be as easy as typing in “password” to gain access to that account.

Again, a frightening loophole on any system, but one made all the more glaring and critical by the fact that these sites are dealing with highly sensitive information—information that could potentially put tens of thousands of vulnerable individuals across the world at great risk, physically, financially, and emotionally.

Many of these aforementioned issues are easily resolvable—a more extensive verification process and more extensive encryption practices would serve sites and their clients well. In the legal realm, setting precedents for pornography as intellectual property and criminalizing its theft would aid those already fighting for their work. What prevents such fixes from being implemented by online porn companies, and their no doubt robust legal teams, are the taboos and controversies surrounding an industry that makes $97 billion a year globally but people like to publicly pretend doesn’t exist.

As a result, hardly any major legislation, or even legal precedent, exists in the adult entertainment industry, let alone in the vulnerable area of internet-only work—particularly when it comes to protecting performers themselves. Much of the current court rulings deal with obscenity, zoning (for strip clubs and sex shops), or distribution.

In 2016, California voted not to pass controversial “condom law” Prop 60. Many sex workers saw this as a victory: The law would’ve left them vulnerable to “whistleblowers” filing police reports or lawsuits over scenes where it seemed the performers weren’t wearing condoms—which would have not only caused them financial harm, but also possibly exposed their identities. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is legislation actively in place to protect sex workers from having their private information leaked.

Among online sex workers themselves, there seems to be little hope of a cultural shift in attitude toward their profession anytime soon. Until there is, these individuals will uphold a vigilante mentality: protecting each other and sharing resources about those who might do them harm and sites that neglect their protection.

Sebastian wishes sites like Chaturbate would develop new technologies that would allow performers to track whether viewers are recording shows and taking screenshots. “When I did feel unsafe, I didn’t really feel like I could go to the streaming service,” they explain. “It felt like I needed to just figure it out myself.”

“I’ve learned a lot about computers as a result,” Jessica laughs. “But yeah,” she sighs, “it’s scary.”

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