Before I became a cam girl, everything I knew about sex work I'd learned from movies and magazines. I thought stripping was as simple as taking off your clothes, and being a pornstar was as easy as showing up, having sex, and clocking out. I thought rich clients dropped out of thin air and piles of jewelry showed up in mailboxes “just because.” Movies taught me sex work was easy and glamorous (except for the ones that said it was purely exploitative). Either way, it wasn’t work. Come to think of it, the term “sex work” wasn’t even in my vocabulary.
When I started camming—performing webcam shows that involved everything from singing songs and telling jokes to masturbating—I found out that sex work was indeed work. A lot more went into it the business of intimacy than I had imagined. And as with any business, I needed a business plan.
Step 1: What’s My Brand?
To sell a product you need to have a brand. Every detail of my show was a choice I had to research. What would my username say about me? Should my bedsheets be bold and bright or subdued and soft? Should I wear the strappy lace lingerie of a sex bomb or the cozy cotton briefs of the girl-next-door? (I chose the lace, and lots of it).
I had to choose a fake hometown, a vocal register. Every choice carried implications about who would watch my show, what they would expect from me, and what kind of steps I would take to convert them into high-paying tippers.
Step 2: Set My Prices
The site I worked on was based on tips, and most cam girls had a menu of services with their prices in tokens—the site’s proprietary currency. Serious about being successful, I designed a tip menu based on the menus of the most successful performers on the site.
To kick things off, I set a 3,000 token “countdown” for me to take off my bra (the equivalent of $300 in tips, with $150 going to me, and $150 to the site). Once my bra was off, it was another 3,000 to take off my panties.
Along the way, viewers could tip smaller amounts that all counted toward the larger goal of getting me naked: 25 tokens for three spanks ($1.25 to me), 15 tokens to choose a song ($0.75), 300 tokens for a flash of a covered area ($15), 750 tokens for access to my Snapchat ($37.50). During sex shows where I'd masturbate on live stream, sometimes viewers could start and stop my show for 100 tokens ($5) to prolong the experience.
In addition to my regular menu, I offered specials every show: videos for sale, games to participate in, raffles to enter. All for a price. Viewers had their own ideas too. If someone asked me to suck on my finger, I’d think “less than a flash, more than a spank. 80 tokens.” I became an expert at doing math while performing, calculating value in real time.
Step 3: Sell, Sell, Sell!
Tippers’ habits varied by the day, month, or season, and I quickly realized my tip menu had to be flexible to reflect that. If I set prices too high for the night, I wouldn’t meet my countdowns, my bra would never come off, and the show wouldn’t move forward. If I set them too low, I would hit my goals too fast and run out of show material.
It was a balancing act: What was the room's social dynamic, how much money was there to be made, and how much were other girls charging? Every day brought unique pricing challenges.
Like most cam girls, I invested much of my income back into my business. My overhead was significant: I burned through webcams ($279 each), external mics ($20 each) and lights ($129 each). I hired a lawyer to take down pirated content ($269 monthly), someone to shoot my porn ($850 a video), and I got regularly waxed ($80 an appointment + tip) and manicured ($35 + tip). I always needed new costumes, lingerie, props, art supplies, and games to keep my shows fresh for my viewers. Not to mention the additional rent I paid for camming space ($900 monthly) plus furniture and sound-blocking panels.
If I didn’t work, I didn’t earn—there is no paid time off when you're a sex worker. Sick days meant no money, so I cammed as much as I could, sometimes seven nights a week.
Some nights I made $900, some nights I made $25. Some months I made $6,000, others I made just $1,500. One month I made over $15,000, while a few months I barely made anything. My total income depended directly on how much I worked, how much energy I put into my shows, and—especially—how much time I put into maintaining my relationships outside of business hours.
Over all, in my year and a half as a cam girl, I earned over $100,000.
Step 4: Keep My Clients Happy
Building relationships with all my viewers was critical to maintaining an engaging room, but with some, my relationships were much more complicated. The bulk of my income came from “whales”—regulars with deep pockets and generous spending habits. Whales often tipped large: $125, $200, $300 at a time. Their tips had the potential to grow my income and stature in the industry, but they often tipped unpredictably, sometimes for nothing in particular.
Generally whales wanted more—emotional care-taking, private sessions, access to my personal life. If neglected, they would leave, and the loss of their support could cause my rank on the site to plummet. Whales took up a significant amount of my time, and I couldn’t incorporate them into my standard income calculations. If I didn’t build a relationship with a big tipper, if I neglected them, or if I failed to figure out what they liked fast enough, they’d quickly move onto someone else.
Step 5: Learn My Lesson
Camming taught me how to run a business. I learned to be entrepreneurial, to make a living off my creativity and self-expression. I learned about tax law, self-employment, digital marketing, the importance of a savings account and the difference between gross and net profit. I learned how to take a risk on myself.
More than anything, I learned how much work it takes to make porn and to be a successful sex worker. I learned that everything the movies taught me was fake: no rich clients fell out of the sky, no one mailed me piles of jewelry “just because,” no one gave me a million dollars for a smile.
Being a cam girl was the hardest job I’ve ever had. So, the next time you find yourself enjoying the content that sex workers make, compensate them—pay for your porn and tip your strippers well. Sex work is work. And, as it turns out, hard work at that.
Isa Mazzei is a screenwriter, producer, and the author of Camgirl. Follow her at @isaiswrong.
Originally Appeared on Glamour