Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
In 2009, I did something I thought I'd never do: I entered the sex industry. Specifically, I became a cam-girl.
I lived in Los Angeles and jobs were scarce. A trip to Craigslist advertised a local studio with some video work; "No hands-on," it promised, "and make up to $500 a day."
The Valley was full of unprepossessing condos with sparsely-decorated rooms — webcams and laptops balancing on the ends of every bed. The place where I worked had four rooms upstairs and one downstairs, which looked like my first basement apartment, if the basement had been in a bordello. Most of those rooms were occupied by an assortment of young women, staring into the glow of the laptop as if their clients were actually as riveting as an episode of America's Next Top Model.
My first day on the job, I went through training with a girl who called herself Serena. I watched her giggle and flirt with unseen men, yawning and frowning whenever she turned away from the camera. Eventually she booted me into my own room and left me alone with the laptop.
My first client that night was a guy named John who just wanted to talk. For three hours. When we finished, I was $270 richer, and he felt like he knew me. Those clients seemed like such a cliché: The lonely guys who were looking for a pretend girlfriend for a couple of hours. They asked me about my day, how my schoolwork was going (for the sake of the cams, I was a 22-year-old grad student), and, if they got down to any sexual requests, it was with a hint of apology. "Would it be all right if you took off your shirt?" they'd ask. The cam site was set up so they could see and hear me, but all I saw of them was typed words on a screen; I sometimes imagined their voices as being polite and calm, especially the ones who spelled everything correctly.
Sometimes, a client had a camera and asked if I'd like to see them. In cam-world, I was always very enthusiastic. I just loved taking off my clothes and sucking on my fingers. I loved talking to them about their fantasies, and I loved seeing them masturbate through grainy cameras trained on laps sitting in swivel computer chairs. It was the most customer service-oriented job I'd ever had: I had to be engaged, teasing, and friendly, while still managing to take down the guys who were just there to waste my time or get a freebie. I had to maintain several conversations at once in the public chat area — where the guys all liked to hang out before someone took me "private," where my video went visible to him only and his credit card was getting charged — and act like all of them were equally engaging.
Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
After I started working from home, I was making more money for fewer hours, since I no longer had to give a cut to the agency. It also meant I could change my outfit if someone asked (they occasionally did) and duck out for a snack whenever I felt like it. I was getting more popular on the site, so I was getting a steady stream of guys through my public chat area. "Say something in English," they all implored me, and that's how I found out that probably half of the other models on the site were Russian girls working from cubicle farms in the Ukraine, banging out orgasms for two dollars a minute. They were cheaper, but, the guys told me, "just didn't care" about anything except money.
That made me laugh, because why, exactly, did they think I was on the site if not for the money? It was a complicit fiction that I was there because I just happened to enjoy showing off my body to strangers and the money was an exciting side benefit. With one eye on the timer, I stretched and bent my way through private sessions, trying to prolong everything. I got adept at taking my clothes off very slowly, and letting the camera travel over the planes of my body as if I was simply teasing the client, instead of watching the money rack up. I suggested treats: "Oh, I have another toy you'd love. Let me get it!" If I could get them to pay for staring at an empty screen in anticipation, I would.
The website introduced a tip option, where anyone could just send you cash anytime; I had one regular who tipped me five dollars to call him a princess in the public chat room. Most clients didn't tip, though, and most tried to cram their session into the least amount of time possible.
As the months wore on, I started to get jaded and angry. The manipulations necessary to get guys to pay for a session made me realize why so many girls refused to open a public chat room at all. Even my regulars, the guys who knew fake details about me, were starting to make me angry. The constant flirtation, remembering petty details about people I associated only with screennames of varying degrees of cleverness — it was all starting to wear me out.
Also, as I practiced the things that men found sexy online, I found myself starting to use them in real life. When my boyfriend and I were getting busy, I seductively dropped my pants and slid them down my thighs as he watched me, bewildered. "Is that something you learned at work?" he asked, patting me nervously. "Can't you just take your clothes off and get into bed?"
Eventually, the whole thing got to be too much. One day, I just stopped. I never told my regulars I was leaving; I never closed my account on the website. I got a few confused emails to the account I had set up specifically to give to cam clients, but when I never answered them, they faded away. Today, I barely think about it, except when, occasionally, I find myself accidentally looking back over my shoulder at a current lover as I undress, bending seductively forward — just like I used to.