Just a couple of weeks after British YouTube personality Calum McSwiggan decided to go public with the news that he engaged in live webcam sex shows as a teenager, a new BBC Three documentary airing tonight explores the explosion in British men engaging in webcam pornography to make money.
With a recent study showing that 5% of male students had worked in some capacity in the sex industry, and the country’s premier X-rated sites reporting that more men are now camming than women, Webcam Boys explores what’s driving men to strip and perform sex acts online, and how their explicit virtual world affects their real one.
With the subjects of the documentary including a straight young father supporting his family, a gay guy from Wales and two straight guys who get intimate for the gratification of their huge gay following, we caught up with director Mobeen Azhar to discover exactly what makes these guys tick, and how sex is changing in a world where when anyone can click ‘record’ and become their own personal porn empire…
So what was it that made you want to explore the world of webcam sex for Webcam Boys, and particularly among men?
A couple of years ago there was a documentary about women who webcam. There are now actually more men camming than women, but this part of the sex industry is rarely reported on and we wanted to explore that. I was interested in what many people would call the entrepreneurial nature of webcamming; the idea that anyone can effectively sell themselves online. All you need to start camming is a webcam and a wifi connection, which I was fascinated by. The programme is part of BBC Three’s One Click Away season, a series of brand new documentaries which explores life online.
Were the webcammers you spoke to quite keen to appear on the show, who was it hard to find people who were willing to talk about it so publicly?
Well as you can imagine, if you make your money from exposing your body online, there’s going to be an element of you that’s quite exhibitionist! But having said that, a lot of the guys who are camming won’t even show their faces, you’ll only see a torso. What I was more interested in were the people who see this as a career and a business opportunity. We messaged thousands of cammers across the UK, and I was actually quite surprised by how many people responded. It would have been easier if we’d just made a film about gay men who cam for other gay men, but that wouldn’t have been representative. Only one of the guys in the film is actually gay – everyone else identifies as straight.
Is there a common theme that unites these guys when it comes to why they decided to start camming?
All the contributors say it’s about money. There’s a 22-year-old straight guy called Pete, who’s got a partner and baby and who’s been bodybuilding since he was 14. He got laid off from work last year, so he’s gone from being a builder and part-time doorman to exploring the muscle-worship scene. So for him it was about supporting his family. For someone like Joseph, who’s a gay man from the Welsh valleys, he would say it’s about money but he’s also very honest about the fact that he likes the attention, and for him it was also a social thing. And then you’ve got Martyn from Dorset – he’s 22 and cams with his best friend. They cam in the same room together and both identify as straight, and for them it’s a business. He even said, ‘I want to be the next Richard Branson’, they say they want good customer service. But the aim of the programme is to really distill what’s really going on with these guys.
How much money can you make from camming? Is it only a few that can really make big bucks?
I think a lot of guys were keen to say ‘I can earn 50 quid for ten minutes work’, but as you see in programme there’s only a few people who make big money. Someone like Joseph, you could see he had great interpersonal skills and could draw people in. He had very inventive ways of camming, and you see in the film he creates a ‘sex casino’, where he sets a pay target and he’ll roll a dice, and the number corresponds to a sex act. I would say he was the most skilled out of the ones we met; he could have it as a career. In the space of two hours he made 150 quid, then had a break and did it again. He treated it like a full-time job and did it five nights a week. For others, web camming isn’t profitable and has wider impact on their lives.
Are the guys keen to get involved in film industry porn, or are they quite happy being their own little business?
Well this is the interesting thing, because they’ve completely developed their own niche. They’re all on Instagram and Twitter, and they’re all trying to develop an individual following. The whole reason they can make so much money is because it’s bespoke, and because there’s interaction. The whole nature of the porn industry is changing. You could ask why would anyone go online and pay for porn when you can find a webcam model who meets your exact specs, and then you can get them to do exactly what you want? Martyn, for example, who presents as quite laddy, makes bespoke videos for one client where he’ll just drink beer and burp over and over again for 10 minutes. The client will pay 150 quid and he doesn’t even have to take his clothes off. So when they can make this kind of money working for themselves, why would they be interested in the traditional porn studios?
Did you discover much about the people who watch these shows, and become regulars?
Generally, where cammers were successful they’d have regulars, who’d buy them stuff or book in weekly sessions. Martyn and his friend have a regular client, and you’ll see in the film they’re talking about his day at work before he starts the session, and for the client, that’s his downtime. He was very open about the fact he saw it as a treat for himself. But there is a weird kind of relationship there.
It’s interesting, because it’s not just putting a film out there for people to watch, it seems to cross over into the world of escorting and even prostitution, in the sense that money’s being exchanged for them to be told what sex act to do there and then. There is a personal element.
Absolutely, and that’s something we really explore in the doc. Without giving too much away, you’ll see that for some of the guys, there’s a line that’s crossed, in the sense that they start meeting people and having physical interactions with them. And all the guys were very open about that fact that webcamming has changed how they have sex in the real world. When we met Pete he’d only just started out, and we saw firsthand what it did to him over the course of just a few days. Martyn and his friend had been doing it their entire adult lives, and they said camming had really redefined how they viewed sex, themselves, and their bodies.
Are the guys open about that they do with their families? And do they have any worries about how it might affect their futures?
Well this is another one of the big questions. It’s easy to be judgemental and doing these things is bad for everyone, but you’ll see that for someone like Joseph, it’s been great for his self-esteem. The adoration of cam fans makes him more confident. He cams from a shed at his parents’ house that they refurbished especially for his camming. I spoke to his mum while I was there – and she’s a pretty you typical middle-aged mum – but she thought camming had been really good for Joseph because of those reasons. Having said that, it can be destructive, and it is hugely problematic in terms of how it affects their interactions in the real world. One guy even told me ‘I can’t have a free wank anymore.’
And what about the fact so many of these guys are straight? How did they feel about being watched by gay men? Is it emblematic of a generation of guys that just aren’t phased by that?
I think there’s been a shift. I’m 36, so I’ve only been using the internet since I was about 18. But for some of these young guys, they’ve only ever grown up in an online world, and that changes boundaries. Martyn told me that his clients get off on the fact he’s straight, and his act is very much a ‘lad-about-town’ boy. One of the things he does with his friend is a football vs rugby sho, where they both dress up in football and rugby it and masturbate online. It is one of their most successful shows, and it’s very much along the lines of ‘straight guys in a changing room’. They exploit that and they like the fact that gay men go for it. In the weeks I spent with the guys, they went from saying ‘oh it’s just a job’ to saying that their online life defined their real life too. One thing I think the film really shows is that it’s not possible to keep them separate. If you wake up in the morning and you think ‘I need to make some money today, and I’m going to do that by enticing people online and sharing myself sexually’, that’s going to affect you – and you see it in the doc.
Do you think the ease with which anyone can expose themselves is empowering or demeaning?
I don’t think it’s ever as easy as saying ‘this is a good or a bad thing’. But having said that, there were some universal themes. A lot of the guys really craved the attention they got online, of people saying ‘you look really hot’, and I think that’s someone everyone can relate to, whether it’s getting Facebook likes or Twitter followers, every time you post a selfie… I think what’s different with these guys is that they’re not only sharing so much of themselves, they’re carrying out someone’s fantasy. When I first met Martyn, he said ‘oh I can make money just from taking my socks off’, because so many men have a foot fetish – that’s not true. The clients didn’t ever stop at just getting him to take his socks off. Your boundaries are constantly being eroded, and I saw it when I was in the room with them: they’d feel uncomfortable about something they’d been asked to do, then ten minutes later they’d just go for it.
I do think it’s worrying, because these guys could end up somewhere where that defines their outside life. The guys we followed all wanted it in place of a conventional career. I asked Martyn what he’ll be doing this time next year, and he said ‘hopefully I’ll be living on a yacht’. These guys struggled getting or holding down conventional jobs, so there is something in there about entrepreneurship online. Whether it actually works or not, you’ll have to watch the doc!
‘Webcam Boys’ airs tonight at 10pm on BBC Three. You can follow Mobeen on Twitter @Mobeen_Azhar