Camming Together: The Virtues of the Virtual Girlfriend

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Nikki Night shimmies a pair of tattered blue jeans up the leg of a tripod and belts them tight. Once steady, she pushes a honking rubber dildo through the opening until it’s flopping out the zipper. Voila, now her students needn’t a penis on hand to simulate oral sex for their devoted fans. Night, who touts herself as the world’s first and foremost adult webcamming coach, today instructs a private room full of nearly two-dozen aspiring male and female cam performers on the online mega-network Cam4. During the primer—entitled, “New Cam Show Ideas”—she touches on other nuts and bolts of her craft: how to direct the viewers’ eyes to your “tip” button, the sexual power of the color red (“It makes you more desirable to males by tapping their primal instinct,” she suggests) and strategies to foster brand loyalty. However, she repeatedly pounds home one point: Have fun. If you’re not enjoying yourself, nobody’s going to enjoy watching you.

Given that philosophy, Night counsels her charges to set up a comfortable space reflective of their personality; she adorns her bedroom soundstage with pink and white wallpaper, a lava lamp and a hula-hoop. A vintage movie poster for the 1958 film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman hangs on the wall. The poster fits, functioning almost as a commentary on the character Night has created—a buxom sage with long, dark hair slicked up into a pompadour and a commanding yet warm presence. The poster is relevant for another, more distressing reason. Ever since the film’s starlet Yvette Vickers was found dead at age 82 in her Los Angeles apartment in 2011, her body having languished there “in a mummified state,” according to People magazine. Vickers, and the film, have become symbolic of the internet age’s epidemic of loneliness.

At the end, the aging actress had withdrawn from real-world relationships, communicating only with die-hard fans via online forums and message boards. Incidentally, the film is also the inspiration for the go-to fantasy of one of Night’s regulars from her days and nights as an in-demand camgirl (she now only teaches). Her customer would pay a premium to watch Night stomp on a carefully orchestrated miniature city constructed of figurines and tiny machines. “The giantess fetish” is just one of the many fantasies Night regularly encounters that seemingly have little to do with sex. She believes in the medium’s ability to enrich lives and combat isolation. Conventional wisdom argues that each new digital trend intended to better connect us proves to ultimately drive us further apart, but some people are finding a digital salve for their solitude in porn.

Nikki Night holds office hours with a student.

Nikki Night holds office hours with a student. Jaime Hogge for Observer

Watching her teach, it’s almost hard to believe that Night didn’t always project the utter confidence she now conveys. During her class, she’s brassy but not brash, patient but not slow and impossible not to watch. Nikki Night is the old-fashioned pinup tattoo on the arm of every weathered, knowing tough guy come to life, but she wasn’t always.

After spending more than a decade as a professional makeup artist, Night struggled for the money to start a new life after ending her marriage in 2010. “After my divorce I couldn’t tell you what my favorite color was,” she recalls. “Camming absolutely saved my life.”

She previously considered a lot of “dark things” to earn a living, including, in her opinion, bartending and waitressing: “When I have to put up with a guy cupping my ass or having to flirt with some jerk to sell him a beer, that feels more like sex work to me than camming.”

An ad for “internet modeling” led Night into the camming industry, which annually generates an estimated $1 billion. The barriers to entry were low compared to other sex work. There are no applications to fill out, no sleazy smut directors to deal with, no pimps. All it takes is Wi-Fi and a webcam. While Night’s network takes 40 percent of revenues off the top, performers, she says, work as much or as little as they want to and face no pressure to boost their earnings.

Night quickly realized that her new job bolstered her self-esteem. She suddenly felt sexy walking down the supermarket aisle in sweatpants. When she was stuck at home with a kidney infection, clients bought groceries for her. Night became proud of her full arms and broad shoulders, features she’d loathed before her divorce. She made dirtier jokes. Even her sexual fantasies changed. Suddenly, the idea of “being watched” became a tent pole for her naughtiest desires. Night had developed an empowered alter ego—a dominant yet goofy sexpot.

The extent to which sex played a small role in cammers’ interactions would shock the uninitiated.

She particularly enjoyed the bond with clients. It is said that escorts are part sex object, part therapist. The extent to which sex played a small role in cammers’ interactions would shock the uninitiated.

For many clients, it’s simply an opportunity to relinquish control, suggests Night and some of her colleagues. One former customer of Night’s requested she role-play his secretary. On cam, Night would pretend to take appointments and order office supplies. When he gave her the cue that he’d “left the office,” Night would start making personal calls and bragging to friends about how much she was stealing from her boss. She had another customer who asked her to watch him exercise.

For many men the appeal of cam sites lies in the opportunity to form a new type of relationship. MyGirlFund specializes in a service called “the digital girlfriend experience.” Co-founder Brian Cooper launched the company to converge the popularity of social networking with the allure of adult entertainment. Right around that time a major shift was occurring in the world of sex work—the old cliché of the co-ed stripping to pay her way through college had turned into the cam girl, and MGF served this titty bar exodus. In a recent survey of camgirls (who are independent contractors), MGF found nearly 40 percent of the girls working on the site were doing so, at least in part, to pay for college.

MGF functions like a social network—only users pay $1 per message to contact the talent, and after that, the options are varied. Most cammers offer some kind of adult content that can be purchased with in-site currency. Resourceful entrepreneurs function as their own directors, producers, marketers and retail stores (for products like premade adult videos).

MGF camgirl Alex Bishop built a following camming on MGF and other sites, but she’s gotten to the point where she no longer has the time to cam. “I went from struggling in poverty to making six-figures,” says Bishop, the beaming green-eyed brunette with mysterious sharp features that reminds one of a young Angelina Jolie. “I’ve erased my debt, gotten health insurance, a new car…a nanny for my kids while I’m at work. We get to travel and eat organic. We have the things we want.”

MGF business director Stefan Patrick acknowledges that the name of his site deliberately sounds like “my girlfriend.” Patrick said, “We’re really an online girlfriend site. The relationships formed on the site are deep and abiding. Of course,” he allows, “the girls are on the site to further their financial goals”

Harriet Sugarcookie.

Harriet Sugarcookie. Courtesy of Harriet Sugarcookie.

Camgirl star Harriet Sugarcookie sports a posh British accent. She describes herself pre-Sugarcookie as having been a geeky video gamer who would regularly go as long as six days without leaving her house. When a friend posted a picture of her on an image subreddit called “Next Door Asians,” whatever anger she might have felt toward him for posting the photo without permission was countered by what she describes as her “first time receiving male attention or being called hot.” She quickly began posting her own pictures and interacting with Redditors about them. It wasn’t long before one of them suggested she cam. A few years later Sugarcookie boasts a strong cult following. Her website features dating advice (such as “What to Do When Video Games Are Ruining Your Relationship”), camgirl reviews and her own homemade adult content. Sugarcookie believes that if she hadn’t started her business, her life would have been no different than droves of socially anxious digital native gamers who make up her fan base.

“Before I started camming, I was very lonely,” says Sugarcookie. “I think it’s hard for most of us to admit that.“ Once she established a presence online, she found herself with a network of people she regularly talked to about her day, her health, her school for a dollar a minute. “That helped with the social anxiety and the loneliness.” But if what men really need is somebody to talk to, why sex workers? “It’s easy to just say, ‘I was just horny’ rather than admitting to being lonely, but eventually you wind up with someone who actually cares how your surgery went or how you did on your exam.” When it comes to Sugarcookie’s client/fans, she contends she cares about their wellbeing.

When asked what type of guys make up their target market, the 15 camgirls (and one boy) interviewed by the Observer all named two key groups: military personnel and gamers. The first time Night opened her cam to see a man drinking his coffee in a tent in the Middle East with a M16 inches away, she was surprised. Now she’s used to it.

Some girls have men who want to act out banal relationship scenarios: fights about leaving the seat up, paying the bills or virtual spooning in post coital appreciation

Among the gamers exist customers who suffer from some form of social anxiety and other disabilities. “People with developmental disabilities that don’t really click with the opposite sex will initially start talking to me because they think I’m hot, but in the end I’ll end up coaching them in how to talk to that girl they have a crush on,” explains one of Night’s student’s, Ela Darling. The way Darling sees it, men should use webcamming as a kind of proving ground to develop the social skills they can eventually apply in the real world. She admits that if a man went up to her in public and started “trying out his moves,” she wouldn’t be so thrilled, but “on Cam I set the value of my time.”

Rocky regularly patronizes cam sites. Having suffered a brain injury at 25 that made it difficult for him to interact in the real world, Rocky acknowledges that his time on Cam4 is entirely motivated by companionship rather than sex. This was a common claim made by both cam users and performers. In fact, when asked about common requests for cam shows, many of the more popular scenarios aren’t traditionally sexual. Some girls have men who want to act out banal relationship scenarios: fights about leaving the seat up, paying the bills or virtual spooning in post coital appreciation (girls can lie down, cam to cam, bed to bed gazing at their viewer). “Men want a connection…that shows the imperfections of real relationships,” posits Sugarcookie.

Other requests are far more involved. Night reminisces about a customer in the medical profession who had her procure a stethoscope so she could attach the headset to her computer’s microphone and the chest piece to her heart, allowing him to listen to Night’s heart race as she reached orgasm. Harriet Sugarcookie has been asked to rub her thighs for hours on end, fully clothed, and Ela Darling has a customer who sends her expensive watches, and cherishes the hours he spends watching her try them on. While these fetishes may sound strange, there’s value to a service that gives customers the opportunity to explore them without being shamed. “We’re all born with the same pleasure buttons,” Night says. “Then we spend our lives building a maze of walls around those pleasure buttons. Being good at camming is just finding a way through those walls.” The low-stakes nature of cam interactions give people the opportunity to express their desires without the fear of shame.

Sexologist Emily Morse, author of the book Hot Sex: Over 200 Things You Can Try Tonight, maintains that camming has the potential to help men grow when it comes to relationships and sex. “Shame prevents so many people from being satisfied in bed and in their relationships. Communication is lubrication. Here they may be paying for it but they get real-life practice and satisfaction, and fulfillment from somebody who’s not going to reject them.” Morse regularly comes across men still holding onto the shame from a single rejection early in life. “Now they’re 35 years old and still can’t ask a woman out. It plagues people. So if they can break through in this way, I think it can be really transformational.”

Some cammers now experiment with virtual reality. Darling believes that the intense personal connections she and some of her customers develop are ramped up in VR, where the performer has not just a backdrop but also a habitat. “You are essentially stepping into my bedroom. You look behind you and you see my closet, you see a shelf with weird skulls on it, you see a gas mask. My actual room is all around you in 3D, 360 with me in front of you.” What’s more is viewers are forced to give the performance their undivided attention. Darling quickly found viewers’ behavior changed in VR. The trolls one finds in public cam rooms were fewer and further between. The biggest difference is how quickly bonds are formed between performer and viewer in VR. “The milestones that you reach in terms of mutual vulnerability and self disclosure happen at a much accelerated rate.” Darling recalls a regular of hers who stopped visiting her for a few weeks. When he returned, she found out he’d gone through a difficult personal loss, and he told her that the only place he wanted to be was inside her “bedroom.” For him, the virtual space turned into a safe space.

Neurological studies have found that the brain processes VR experiences much like real ones with some distinct differences. For young brains, however, the line is more blurred. A 2009 Stanford University study found that out a control group of 55 preschool and elementary school students in the study who underwent virtual simulations would later remember them as real experiences.

The experiment raises the question: Will a generation that grows up with VR perceive less of a divide between the real world and the virtual world, between a girlfriend and a virtual girlfriend?

What of the socially anxious gamer who hones his social skills on cam enough to land himself a loving partner in real life? Can cam relationships co-exist with real ones?

Harriet Sugarcookie is a digital native who spent much of her early social life immersed in virtual worlds. To her, a camming relationship can be fulfilling whether it leads to real love or not. “If a friend that I really cared about just loved having a poster of a really nice motorcycle on his wall, I wouldn’t say, ‘I think that’s unhealthy. You need to go get a real motorcycle.’ ” Moreover, she says that she’s had many regulars with spouses, some of whom watch her as a couple.

In the social media age of so-called “connectedness,” loneliness might be the only taboo left.

Morse believes younger millennials show less preoccupation with sex than prior generations. “Sex has always been around for them. They saw it on their parents’ phones when they were 8 years old. I think a lot of them don’t have a lot of shame surrounding it, but it’s also not their top priority.” Because of that, Morse suggests the idea of using something like camming to fulfill desires to focus on priorities like school or a career is perfectly comfortable for them. They are ready to allow cybersex to step in for or complement the real thing.

Not every sexologist agrees that camming can pay real-world benefits. Dr. Sari Locker, a sexuality educator at Columbia University’s Teachers College, states, “When it comes to sexual relationships there’s nothing like skin-to-skin contact. Even in virtual reality people are still removed from the most fundamental aspects of sex: truly feeling the touch of a partner.” Dr. Locker warns that this type of “play” should never be a substitute actual sexual contact.

Nikki Night on set.

Nikki Night on set. Jaime Hogge for Observer

It’s unclear how virtual relationships will interact with analog relationships in future. Today, it seems they exist in a separate space. One with lower stakes, and yet, the potential to engender real-life benefits. The younger generation of digital natives seems able to compartmentalize the two. One of Night’s students, a college-age camgirl who goes by MasquedDolly, presents a strong case for the symbiotic nature of real sexual identities and virtual ones.

On Cam4 MasquedDolly is a sexy, punk girl with an elfin face and electric blue hair that swoops down low on one side just below her ear. When she performs, she brims with innocence and sly femininity. Offline, she’s a college-age transgender guy named Nick. “There is something very satisfying about being able to present as a female on cam, be sexualized, make men hard and women wet and even have a sort of fan base, then be able to turn around, be myself outside of it all, and go on about my day.”

For people like MasquedDolly, Night serves as a coach the truest sense of the word. She’s not just showing her students how to achieve optimal webcam angles; she’s the first person they go to with personal issues, sometimes both on and offline. If they’re worried about being found out by loved ones, she shows them how to keep their camming discreet. If they’re in a financial hole, she’ll show them how to add games and incentives to their cam shows to hustle extra cash. Night has strived to create a tight-knit community, and for an already successful performer such as Ela Darling, it’s what keeps them on the network. There is a tendency to presume that all sex workers feel somewhat denigrated or diminished by their job, that they give a piece of themselves to the work. Nikki Night represents the dissolution of that myth. Those that live by the cam argue that the work doesn’t chip away at their humanity; instead it repairs long broken, or missing, pieces of that humanity, be it financial, physical, sexual or even spiritual.

It is said in the digital information age, nothing is taboo, but with social media filling the void of human connection, we’re left with little more than highlight reels of our friends and loved ones’ lives. In the social media age of so-called “connectedness,” loneliness might be the only taboo left, given the prevalence of a public life filled with “friends.” Camming is more than just porn; it’s a technological solution for a technological problem, a workaround for the loneliness virus and a new approach to the relationship paradigm that finally has people coming together.

Jonathan Reiss is the author of the forthcoming novel, Getting Off (Instar/OR Books).

Camming Together: The Virtues of the Virtual Girlfriend