The boys in the webcams

A generation of gay men are creating cyber fantasies for cash. Empowerment or exploitation?

(Research, video and photos are part of an ongoing project by Matt Lambert on youth sexuality and the internet. It will form part of an original video series later in the year. Credits: Music by Perfume Genius)

Taken from May Issue of the Dazed & Confused:

Kevin’s Skype screen remains locked on an out-of-focus profile photo for the duration of the call. It’s an odd detail that makes the whole conversation seem strangely anonymous, even more so given the topic under discussion. Kevin’s not his real name either. He doesn’t want “the cyber fantasy to cross over into my personal life too much.” 

Kevin is 22 and lives in Ventura, California. He is a cam boy. Or rather, was a cam boy. For seven months from February last year, Kevin lived in a shared house in North Carolina, jerking off on a webcam in his bedroom-turned-studio for upwards of 1000 paying viewers at a time. Within a month of entering the house, he had, for the first time, had sex on cam with a fellow performer. “To be honest I didn’t want to be with him at first. I kind of thought it was just going to be business, because that’s what my boss was saying. But obviously that didn’t work. We ended up as boyfriends for a while.”

It’s hard to tell without seeing his face whether the lengthy pauses after each question are down to shyness or because he’s trying to crystallise how he feels about the various aspects 

of his sexual journey. One thing’s certain – Kevin isn’t a Bret Easton Ellis LA sex-industry tragedy. There’s a consideration to his responses that belies a deep sense of self-awareness. He’s not dumb, he’s not shallow. He’s just part of something new that hasn’t found its expression yet. And he’s also not alone.

Alongside the thousands of teenagers jostling for viewers’ virtual currencies over their webcams are the kids who’ve taken the oldest profession in the world to the newest digital frontiers. Gone are the days of cards in phone booths and hustling on street corners. Numerous sites now allow gay escorts to post detailed listings of their physical attributes and the services they’re prepared to render in return for hot hard cash. L, U/C, Vers, Shaved. Ronny is 19 and lives in Berlin. Not that it necessarily matters, but he was in a foster home, joined the circus, plays drums in a metalcore band and charges €120 per hour for incalls he books via an escorting site on his iPad. “I had an account with the biggest international gay community online and through that I would talk a lot with other users,” he says. “From time to time older guys would approach me to offer money in exchange for sex. At first I just ignored those messages, but then I hit a period when I didn‘t feel so good and needed something to distract myself. The next offer that came in I took, and escorted for the first time. I found it really interesting and the money was good, so I created an escorting profile and took it from there.” 

As distant as it may seem to generations who’ve never known a time before the internet, it used to be the case that early homosexual awakenings involved long periods of time hanging out in public toilets or book stores, or waiting for that “straight” mate to get drunk enough for the boundaries to blur beyond relevance. Being gay was an incredibly isolating experience whether you grew up in a city or miles from the nearest phone box. These days, it’s practically impossible to escape the virtual world. Wireless internet, mobile phones, pads and pods have stitched together an invisible network of instant, easy access to sex, chat and dates. Pandora’s box now has a touchscreen and runs GPS-enabled apps that can locate sexually available guys within metres. But has it created a community of real value or merely amplified a latent demand by simplifying the ease of access? Has it helped or hindered the gay tribe? 

“If I’d never had access to the internet, I don’t think I could be working as I do now,” says Ronny. “Without the internet I doubt I’d have developed as far sexually, in comparison to if I’d just been left on my own in private to figure things out. Overall I think it’s had a positive impact. I found out what I want and what I don‘t want through the internet. But everybody needs to figure that out by themselves.” 

Kevin’s early sexual explorations coincided with the explosion of chatrooms. As a curious 14-year-old, he’d venture into the then unmoderated world of AOL Instant Messenger and connect with guys hundreds of miles away, building his own network of buddies. “Not feeling like I knew that many gay people, I guess I thought I was strange because apparently sexuality was a big deal to some people,” he recalls. “I just wanted to find people I could talk to normally, and not have to censor my words or feel like I was being judged or whatever.”

Kevin came out when he was 15, and lived in Portland for two years between the ages of 18 and 20. When he moved back to LA to go to school, he and his then boyfriend kept things going over webcam. “Webcamming became our relationship. 

It was all digital – we didn’t visit for super-long periods of time. All our contact was online, which I didn’t really like. It didn’t change what I thought or how I felt about him. But it was really difficult for me to see someone that I couldn’t physically be with.”

Through that boyfriend Kevin was introduced to the world of cam websites – chat communities where users can directly interact to offer private shows in return for virtual currency. “I thought it was cool that you could turn your cam on and see other people and meet them in this space. I didn’t have to worry about being in a relationship or anything. I just wanted to meet random people who were also gay. I really liked being... exposed. I don’t know. Just kind of having that exhibitionist thing where I wanted everybody to watch because it was fun.”

The usual story that follows from here is the porn-industry staple of exploitation and moral erosion by degrees. But if there’s one thing that’s clear from speaking to Kevin and Ronny it’s that they’ve both been in charge of their decisions. “I don‘t like idea of giving away a cut of the money I’ve earned myself to a pimp. That‘s why I‘m working independently,” Ronny explains. “In the beginning it was a solitary job, but over time I got to know other escorts. I work and travel with some of them, so by doing that friendships develop. You cheer each other up if one of you doesn‘t feel too good. We talk about our experiences with customers. It helps.”

Kevin’s first solo show, born out of curiosity, attracted over 1000 viewers. The move to putting on a full-sex show with a fellow performer came about when he was approached by an online agent to recruit other boys to cam on one of the sites. “I saw all these people I’d hired doing shows and I figured I knew how to do a better job. I know how to do lighting, I know good positioning and stuff, I have a good personality for this kind of thing, so I decided to just do it myself. And I made pretty decent money and I was able to move out of my parents’.”

Within a month of that first solo show he had moved to that house in North Carolina with other cam boys. There he was introduced to the fellow performer with whom he would have sex on cam for the first time, in a week-long special event in which the pair put on shows every day for a paying online audience. “We went on to do a lot of shows because we liked working together and we had a connection. I wanted to deny it at first because I didn’t want it to be more than a business thing. We were told not to sleep in the same bed because it would cause emotional complications. I didn’t want to mix my business and personal lives. But of course it ended up happening anyway. You can’t help that kind of thing.”

“It’s a completely different world performing online, a cyber fantasy separate from real life. I’m not looking for love”

It’s there that the crux of the conversation lies – the idea of separating the personal from the professional, the romantic from the sexual. Digital schizophrenia. “It’s a completely different world performing online,” Kevin says, “a cyber fantasy world that’s separate from my real life.” Although he’s given up being a cam boy for a living, he still does it occasionally when he needs the cash. Would he surrender camming if he found someone he cared about who had an issue with it? “I don’t think I could be with someone who had a problem with it. For me I’m not going online to find romance. If I was in a relationship I’d need the other person to understand that. It’s a job. I’m not looking for love when I perform on a cam site.”

In a way Kevin and Ronny’s attitudes go some way to explaining the mentality behind the idea of being in an open relationship – an increasingly common lifestyle choice for gay couples in our digital age. It seems the impact of the internet on gay sexuality hasn’t just been an acceleration of sexual development or a blurring of moral boundaries. More fundamentally, there’s been an elimination of the idea that trust requires monogamy, a redefinition brought about by a distinction between the lives a person leads online versus in the real world. 

“I don’t think I see trust in a relationship the same way a lot of straight people might do,” Kevin says. “I don’t make the assumption that being monogamous is the foundation for trust. In a way it’s asking more of a boyfriend or partner to have them accept that your virtual life, your online job, is not the same thing as your feelings towards them. It’s about defining trust in a completely different way.”

But is it a coping mechanism to overcome a moral and emotional paradox or is it the beginnings of a new kind of gay sexuality built around partitioning the virtual from the real? “For me there’s a very real dimension to what I do,” Ronny says, pulling the rug out from under any attempt to create a clear definition. “I work in a club, I dance there, I escort, even if that’s something I manage online. My work isn’t online because I meet clients in person. It’s not something that happens from behind a screen so I don’t separate it out that way.”

Listening to Kevin and Ronny, it’s clear that both boys are defining their gay identities first and foremost according to sex. It’s there that the heart of the tribe resides, until the next piece of technology comes along that makes the conversation infinitely more complex than it already is.