Emily Witt
Jan 20, 2015 · 30 min read

Welcome to Chaturbate, where live-cam performers engage in the wild and the weird. But watch it long enough and you realize that social media has created a whole new sexual persuasion. So, how “internet sexual” are you?

By Emily Witt
Photographs by Arko Datto

On the computer a woman in north Florida is talking about the wildlife down where she’s from. “Raccoons, possums, armadillos, moles,” she lists. “Rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins.” She thinks. “Black snakes, but they’re not so bad.” Her profile says she was born in 1959. Her blond-gray hair is long. She’s topless, with ample, sagging breasts and a stomach tattoo of Yosemite Sam drawing his guns. On her lap is a large, two-headed dildo. “They’ve got those big-ass pythons in the Everglades,” she says. “They’re breeding with the water moccasins and they’re creating a super snake, y’all.”

In Virginia, three men drape over one another in a bed, fundraising with an aggressive strategy of languid, bared-torso napping. They have promised a show when they receive 775 tokens from their audience, from which they will receive $38.75 in earnings. Their audience discusses in the chat column on the right whether they will actually perform if they meet their goal. “Nah, they too tired,” someone writes. They look pretty tired.

In Denver, a plump, bespectacled woman apportions cupcake batter into a tin. She says she’s 18 and still a virgin. She’s naked under her apron, and she promises to show her breasts as soon as she gets these cupcakes in the oven. In Austria, a woman with a beehive, blue fingernail polish, and a polka-dotted bra gives her boyfriend the most halfhearted blow job in human history. He is wearing a turtleneck sweater but no pants. In Montreal, a woman with fuchsia hair penetrates herself with a toy lightsaber. A woman with a thin black ribbon tied around her neck in a bow, who gives her location as “Orgrimmar, Azeroth,” a town from World of Warcraft, nibbles a Chipotle Burrito Bowl, slurps from a can of Mountain Dew, and shows off her pierced nipples for an audience of 1,150 people. In another chat room, 3,756 people watch as a stark-naked 21-year-old with no makeup and a body like a juice guru performs a yoga routine in a day-lit room with creamy wall-to-wall carpeting, a Pilates ball in a corner behind her. She eases up into a headstand.

For the first few weeks after I started watching Chaturbate, these were some of the people I watched. Chaturbate is a live webcam site that launched in 2011. It distinguishes itself from the many other live webcam sites by its democratic approach. It is free to watch — really free, as in no logging in or setting up passwords — and open to everyone of legal age. Its tabs offer “Females,” “Males,” “Couples,” “Groups,” and “Transsexuals.” To start broadcasting, a person has only to register a name and beam herself to the world, eating Chipotle. Total sexual anarchy is forestalled by a zealous volunteer police force of users, who operate along the lines of Wikipedia moderators, reporting and shutting down any performers who look suspiciously underage or who break one of Chaturbate’s few rules — the usual bans on violence, animals, and excrement.

I started visiting Chaturbate only because an editor suggested I write an article about it. He suggested it because I am writing a book where the central question is what to do with an abundance of sexual freedom. In my research I had looked at live cam sites before and interviewed performers. I saw the web sites as the technological evolution of peep show booths and phone sex lines , but I did not at first see a new mode of sexual expression. The dynamic of a sexually stimulating performance by one person for another bored me. Seductive recital for money was not free love.

Beyond its lack of restrictions, it took me a while to figure out what made Chaturbate special. At first glance, it was simply a framed box of amateur peep show performers determined to outdo each other in mimicking the costumes and attitudes of mainstream porn. The matrix of webcams that loaded on the homepage looked like most other adult webcam sites, which is to say that it provided an overwhelmingly gynecological perspective of the world. In the sidebars where viewers chatted with each other, it was still mostly men telling women they wanted to ejaculate on various parts of their bodies, or seeking individual attention from them, or telling them to do certain things or hold certain positions, and the women flattering and cooing in return. The porno gifs bounced annoyingly as ever in the margins; and the homepage’s checkerboard of thumbnail images merged into a single disingenuous orgasm. Then I spent some time on the site.

At first I avoided the most sexually explicit channels. I preferred to watch women, but not usually at their most pornographic. I watched when they were just doing things, chatting or cutting out paper hearts for Valentine’s Day or listening to the songs of Miley Cyrus. I watched the women because they were more interesting than the men, who invariably positioned themselves in a black computer chair at a desk in ghastly desk-lamp illumination, dick in hand, making the usual motions, unless they reclined in bed and did the same, with little in the way of creativity or gimmicks. It was amazing the diversity of what men wanted performed for them and how little they offered to others, except for a few of the gay guys, who seemed to understand that some form of flirtation might exhilarate the spirit and therefore did yoga routines in bike shorts or lip-synched to pop hits. I did not spend a lot of time looking at the “Transsexual” tab, not because I wasn’t curious but because many of the broadcasts came from what looked like a brothel in Barranquilla, Colombia.

A lot of the performers use the site to make money. Viewers can tip their favorite performers with tokens, Chaturbate’s official currency. Chaturbate takes a 50 percent cut, such that each token costs 10 cents for the person who bought it and is worth five cents for the person who earned it. In exchange for some tokens, the performers might fulfill a request, or address the tipper directly. Despite this payment system, Chaturbate’s freedom extends to impecunious viewers, who do not have to limit their participation to voyeurism but can also write jokes in the sidebar that make a performer giggle or, less generously, that insult her.

Chaturbate first revealed its potential to be something I had not seen before the morning I watched a 27-year-old woman named “Elisa Death Naked” broadcast from a house in Iceland with glass bricks, a spiral staircase, warm-looking patterned rugs, and a cozy fire crackling in the fireplace. She did not reveal her face, and instead wore, at the beginning of her striptease, a rubber horse mask with a fedora on top, along with a gray crop top, black sweatpants, and rainbow knee socks. Her primary props were a chair painted with a replica of the Mona Lisa and a strap-on dildo. Maybe it was just the house that she was in or her high-definition camera, but even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita consumption of fish oils is high and citizens benefit from socialized health care. Her sex show, however, was strange.

“I have a pretty weird boner right now,” commented one confused viewer, as Elisa changed into a Halloween mask of a ghost and began fellating her dildo. She did not interact with her audience, instead exhibiting her free-flowing sexual narrative in a kind of manic trance. I watched her highlight reel, which showed clips from even more creative scenarios — her violently ripping apart a stuffed bear, fucking herself with a toy train, and strapping the dildo to a rocking horse and riding it. The show was a sexualized riff on the Island of Misfit Toys, plus industrial metal (the soundtrack was Rammstein). In addition to the usual Amazon Wish List (almost everyone has an Amazon Wish List for their fans to buy them things, or to bypass the site’s 50 percent cut), Elisa had links to clothes she wanted from the British online clothing store ASOS, and I clicked through them, with a vague awareness that I wanted to dress however she dressed.

Edith first appeared in a worrisome context: rolled over naked, face down in bed after a session with her Hitachi vibrator, possibly weeping. Several of her 2,072 viewers exchanged concern: “Do you want to stop Edith?” or “What up? I clicked away and I come back and she’s crying?” or “She’s fucking joking,” and “What happened??? She’s really upset” and “I can’t stand to see her sad.” Then she cut off her video feed.

From watching her Chaturbate show, I learned that Edith was a 19-year-old college student in the Midwest who seduced her audience by dressing like an American Apparel model, revealing the depth of her existential solitude, and compelling every one of her viewers to feel as if he and only he were the person who might understand and rescue her from both her tortured soul and her vow of celibacy. This dreamy formula attracted men by the thousands, men who clamored to suggest that Edith read Infinite Jest, Stranger in a Strange Land, the research of Masters and Johnson, or the poetry of Walt Whitman, to beg her for a personal message, and to tip her when she showed them her milky-white breasts, bruised knees, and untamed bush. (She had been inspired in her celebration of body hair by YouTube videos of Siouxsie & the Banshees.) She would read out loud, everything from R.D. Laing to Sam Pink. She would name-drop Michel Foucault and David Bohm. Her username quoted from a J.D. Salinger story and the first item on her Amazon Wish List was William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. The second item was a long, ornately printed dress and the third item was a nun’s habit. Men would discover and claim her the way that men discover and claim early electronic music from Poland or a difficult-to-reach Goan restaurant in Queens.

The second time she showed up while I was online was early one Tuesday morning. She wore a white cable-knit sweater and a 1950s-style skater skirt and stood barelegged in a cold-looking room with white walls and tile floors. Pale winter sun filtered through one window. The room had a coffee maker in one corner, a guitar in another, and a fabric chair of the sort made for tailgating, with built-in beer koozies in the back. Several sneakers and boots lay scattered around. Someone remarked that the scene looked like a flophouse out of Breaking Bad.

A man dressed in a coat and scarf made coffee, ignoring Edith as she stripped down to a pale pink leotard and began fancifully dancing around, occasionally pulling down the leotard’s straps to reveal the rest of her body. In another corner, visible in glimpses when Edith carried her computer around the room, a woman slept under covers on an air mattress. Edith breakfasted on a pint of ice cream, gazing flirtatiously at the camera. She sat down on the edge of the air mattress and lifted her skirt. Behind her, the slumbering form drew the covers in around her, and the man making coffee, or perhaps a different man (people wandered in and out — “there are three other people under the bed,” joked one viewer), had now sat down in the beer koozie chair and was reading a book. Their disinterest was such that it was as if Edith were not in the room at all, as if she were a ghost. This only raised the frenzy of the chatters, who couldn’t fathom how anyone could ignore such an angelic creature in their midst.

The best of Chaturbate’s performers, like Edith, could draw in thousands of viewers by just lying around or chatting, and one felt compelled to linger and watch them the way one might put down a book to watch a housepet wander around the living room. (Often in fact, one was watching someone’s golden retriever or tortoiseshell cat, which was usually grabbed and forced to settle peevishly in a lap.)

One day, Edith did a 24-hour marathon, which is something that people occasionally do. She began in early afternoon, fully dressed in a blue baby-doll dress patterned with roses, smoking cigarettes in her bedroom and holding forth to an audience of more than 2,000 people content just to listen to her talk. “I will be getting naked, absolutely, when the time comes,” she said. “But if you’re trying to bust a nut in 10 minutes you might want to go to another room and come back.” She talked about her early forays into webcamming. She had begun some six months before on the site My Free Cams, under another literary name. She was banned when she mimed hanging herself with a Hitachi Magic Wand one day when the people chatting with her started demanding illegal requests, and she switched to Chaturbate. She talked about her favorite pornos, including a video called “Sasha Grey Takes Many Dicks.” She liked Stoya’s writing but thinks she’s overrated — too “generic porn girl.” Someone asked her if she likes James Deen. “I’m not really into male porn stars,” she said.

Edith was herself contacted by a porn agent once. Initially the idea appealed to her: living in a house with other porn performers, with their own driver, hair stylists, and a swimming pool. She talked to the other girls in the house. “They all had names like Tiffany and Mercedes and they were, like, ‘I get paid to bone.’” Edith mimed shooting herself in the head in exasperation. The porn agent had talked down to her, and after some evasion of the question eventually told her the job would involve boy-girl sex (in porn industry parlance men are boys and women are girls). Edith was a virgin and not interested, so she did not sign up. She said she told the guy he was an “arrogant, condescending asshole” and that she “hoped his dick would fall off.”

The minutes ticked by. Edith’s thousands of viewers settled into their computer desk chairs and she told us more about her life. She talked about how she had graduated a year early from her high school. She took a year off after graduation, with the intention of seeking out “weird adventures.” She “experimented with being homeless,” living in a van for a couple of months with her two cats and integrating herself into the local homeless community. She recounted a near-death experience with elements of psychedelic mysticism. I started to wonder if Edith was some sort of internet prophetess, a real-life Madame Psychosis.

“You know, Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question in life is whether or not to kill yourself,” said Edith with a solemn air of recitation. “Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question in life is whether time has a beginning and an end. Albert Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, and Tom Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm. The real question in life is who knows how to make love stay. Answer me that, and I will tell you not to kill yourself. Answer me that, and I will ease your mind from the beginning to the end of time.”

What the fuck was I watching? I closed my laptop and went out to dinner.

I looked in at midnight and the camera was trained on an empty bed. Even empty, her room held the number three spot on the website. Twelve hours later, I looked again. For more than 1,700 viewers she sat on the floor naked next to a pair of ballet slippers with an unlit cigarette in her hand. Some of her chatters wanted more sex. Most of them didn’t care. “She can do whatever she wants,” wrote one. “I’m lucky to be here and having fun with the best lady in the universe.”

During the final minutes of her marathon, some of the chatters indicated they had stayed up all night with her, but she did not end with an extravagant sexual act. Instead she had put on another of her endless collection of cute floral dresses and sat against the wall next to a pile of books. She was pale, with circles under her eyes. In the last five minutes she honored her highest tippers by listing them by name. Who were these men? Earlier, I had clicked over to the webcam of one high tipper, who had also served as her moderator. He had posted his location as Germany and hidden his face. All that was visible, in standard desk-light illumination, was the bottom of an unshaven chin, the ends of his long curly hair, his shirtless torso, and a black denim jacket with “Trans-Siberian Orchestra” embroidered in white over the breast pocket.

When the final seconds of her marathon expired, Edith sat up. “Did I make it?” she asked. “It happened?” A chorus of chatters affirmed she had made it. She threw her hands into the air and shrieked. Then she leaned forward, as if to embrace her laptop, and severed the video feed. The time was 2:30 p.m.

I called Edith, but she didn’t want her parents to find out about her activities. She declined to be interviewed after the first phone call and said she was going to quit Chaturbate. On the phone, she had affirmed that she was not sexually active in real life, that she had never had sex with a man, although she had gone out with boyfriends in the past and had once performed with her female roommate on Chaturbate. She said she was otherwise celibate, and had considered the possibility that she might be “internet sexual.”

Chaturbate was a serendipitous experience — I came across people like Edith and Elisa Death Naked by chance, and sometimes I would never see them again. Some performers would schedule shows—one woman had a cooking show, a sex and cooking show, every Friday—but most didn’t. You weren’t supposed to record anything, although of course people did, and the porn tubes were filled with videos ripped from Chaturbate’s streams. Still, the feeling of clicking through the 18+ disclaimer into the opening matrix was the one of turning on MTV in the mid-1990s, when music videos played most of the day and kept viewers captive in the anticipation of a favorite performer or a new discovery. Or maybe, to reach farther back in time, it recalled the early days of the internet — the internet of strangers rather than “friends.” The earliest chat rooms on CompuServe, back in the early 1980s, had been called “CB,” in honor of the communicative free-for-all of CB radio. Here Chaturbate had revived the form, with the same initials, and the same cacophony of ingenuity and perversion.

Edith said she had made $1,500 during the 24-hour marathon, but that she spent a lot of her earnings tipping other cam girls. One of her favorites, a cammer named Doxie, had bought her the requested copy of William James. I watched Doxie’s webcam once. She had suspended herself by the arms from the ceiling to a hook made of ice, blindfolded herself, and wired up some kind of sex machine that vibrated every time someone tipped her. Until the ice melted, she was trapped at the mercy of the vibrating machine. For so much effort she had only about 300 people watching her. She was 33, on the older side for Chaturbate, where most of the users seem to be in their 20s, and her bio said she was living at home caring for her mother, who had cancer. Caring for an ailing relative was a situation I encountered many times while interviewing people about live webcams. Doxie’s Amazon Wish List consisted largely of blacksmithing supplies.

Was Doxie also “internet sexual?” Was Edith? Were others? One evening, a few days after I watched her spank herself 24 times with a paddle at midnight on her 24th birthday, I Skyped with a woman who performed under the name Käraste (the name, which means “dearest” in Swedish, is pronounced sha-rist-ah.) As she performed, Käraste had gently chastised viewers who tried to tell her what to do. “That’s not how this room works,” she said. “No requests, no coaching, no directing. I move in my own time, right? Because consent is key.” Her fans did not seem to mind. “I have no idea how anybody genetically scored the most outstanding body on earth,” wrote one.

Käraste had long red hair and large breasts and the patient demeanor of a kindergarten teacher. She first went on Chaturbate in December 2013, after hearing about it from a friend. At the time, she said, she was experiencing what she called a “sexual lull,” a description she quickly amended: “That’s not a good word, because it was from the inception of my sexuality — like from the very start to up until the Chaturbate point — that it was in a lull.”

¨She was raised in the South as a Southern Baptist. During two long-term relationships that had been her introduction to sex, she had felt deeply insecure about her body. “I hated sex and I was also really blurry on the rules of consent, because that was not taught to me either,” she said. “In retrospect there were a lot of things that happened that should have never happened, because of that lack of education.” Without the internet, she said, “I would have been reading Good Housekeeping and working out how to fake an orgasm better.”

When she saw Chaturbate, she thought she might use it as a tool to overcome the psychological barriers she had around sex. She also thought she could perform on it and remain secret, but a former high school classmate saw her and told all their friends. “He’s a bit of a men’s rights activist,” she explained. (Käraste’s shows often become discussions about feminism, or sometimes just about why an unsolicited dick pic might make a woman unhappy. They reveal that another positive aspect of Chaturbate might be as a safe space for men and women to have frank discussions about sexuality, and one with a better gender balance than the population on, say, a pick-up artist subreddit.)

She called Chaturbate an “introvert’s paradise.” I asked her how it was that broadcasting her image to thousands of people over the internet could appeal to an introvert.

“I have complete control over the situation,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about it escalating physically. I can turn it off whenever I want. I can turn these words on the screen off whenever I want. I can kick people out. I make my own rules, nobody’s telling me what to do. Not that I’m necessarily a control freak but I’d never had that sexually. I’d never been in control of a sexual encounter until this, and I think it was something that I definitely needed.”

I met Wendy Bird through Stoner Boner, and it was through Wendy that I came to understand a whole side of Chaturbate that I had not previously contemplated, that there were women — and of course there were — who actually get on the site not to receive a flood of compliments from perverts but to perv themselves, to objectify and commune with the legion of young men who sat in the glow of a thousand desk lamps in search of a woman, any woman, who might miraculously grace them with some individual sexual attention. This, once I thought about it, seemed to represent one of the most important parts of Chaturbate, and the side of the site that was most hidden when one glanced at the porno circus on the front page.

Stoner Boner is a 21-year-old gay man in Alabama, who joined the site in 2013 as a joke; now he has over 25,000 followers. Stoner felt that broadcasting sex on a live webcam would become like go-go dancing was in the 1960s, a youthful embarrassment for future offspring to make fun of. “This is going to be the thing with our generation,” he said. “I think cam modeling, or having a porn blog, that’s going to be the thing we did.”

Chaturbate’s performers might be a young sexual vanguard, but its viewers are frequently of a different generation. Wendy Bird, who serves as a moderator for him, is a 44-year-old woman in Iowa. She is single, an artist. She recently left the liberal college town where she had been living and returned home to the small town she grew up in to care for her ailing father. One day she turned on her camera, trained it on a bookshelf, and began speaking over it. Now, after entering what she calls a “hermit phase” of her life, she discovered “mass intimacy.” Eventually she put her face on camera and began performing under the name Khaleesi_Heart_. She made friends, “lifelong close friendships,” through Chaturbate, some of whom she has met in person, though not for sex. One helped her move; another came and visited when he was having some trouble at home.

One night, Wendy Bird, Stoner Boner, and I engaged with what Wendy calls “multiperving.” We audio-Skyped with each other while sifting through videos online. Wendy showed me how to set my profile up to broadcast, and then turn it password-only so I wouldn’t show up on the main site. Then she asked me what I liked. What I liked? We scrolled through the matrix of men. They seemed so young. “Objectify them,” Wendy encouraged.

From the beginning of her experience, Wendy had bypassed what she called the “zombie hot girls” that populated the site’s main page. She would go for the men, but not even the most popular men, instead clicking through to the second or third pages for the real amateurs, the forest of men in desk chairs that I had studiously avoided. It turned out they waited there for a reason. “A lot of the hetero guys are doing it so that they will find someone who will cam-to-cam with them,” she explained, adding that here, where hopes resided in the possibility of an electronic encounter between two people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its landing page, Chaturbate was thousands of men watching a few women, a couple of pages in the ratio changed to one or two people using Chaturbate to interact privately with another person. Wendy used Chaturbate not merely for voyeurism, but to arrange virtual casual encounters. She had her pick of possibilities, finding enough willing men to have electronic intimacy at any hour of the day. “Once they know you’re game, they’re like, ‘Please,’” she explained, adding that her first experience of the breadth of such desire, the number of men lusting for interaction, had felt intoxicating. She encouraged me to find a guy I thought looked nice and she would show me how it worked.

I wrote a message to a guy lying in bed wearing nothing but a pair of Ray-Bans. From her computer, Wendy clicked on his page and wrote, “Emily is new, we are chatting off CB and I’m teaching her the ropes right now.” Wendy predicted that the minute “Mark Smith” knew we were women, he would want us to broadcast to him. She was right: He wasted no time. “One of you should go online,” he typed in reply. So I turned on my camera, made it password-accessible, and gave him the password. I sat there in my bedroom, fully clothed, waving like I was on the deck of a departing cruise, insisting nervously that I was just testing things out. He kept encouraging me to join him in nudity. I refused and apologized. Wendy encouraged me not to apologize — I could remain fully clothed if I wanted to. I was embarrassed to have Wendy and Stoner Boner on the line, but they knew they had taught me to crack some kind of code; they had taught me how to engineer a private and anonymous online sexual encounter, and they giggled wickedly at my embarrassment.

“There’s this freedom, in that you don’t actually have to meet any of these people and they don’t actually know you,” Wendy explained. “You can be whoever you want to be. You can show them any part of yourself that you want. You can be totally open and bare and share everything without having to worry about people rejecting you or you can totally make up a new self and be someone different.”

I’d recently read an essay called “Times Square Red” by the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. Delany, a gay African-American man, had in the 1970s and 1980s frequented the porno movie theaters in Times Square, where he had hundreds of casual and anonymous sexual encounters with other men. He wrote that it was a shame that women suffered risks in the pursuit of similar experiences, but that also “What waits is for enough women to consider such venues as a locus of possible pleasure.”

He went on to describe the benefits of his vast experience in casual sex. The movie theaters had served as laboratories in which he had learned to discern the nuances and spectrums of his sexual desire, where sexual experimentation happened entirely outside of narratives of love or emotional entanglement. His observations about sexual attraction consistently disproved conventional notions of beauty and ugliness. (He discovered, among other proclivities, that he had a thing for burly Irish-American men, including two who had harelips.) Describing the importance of the anonymous sexual encounter, he wrote:

We do a little better when we sexualize our own manner of having sex — learn to find our own way of having sex sexy. Call it a healthy narcissism, if you like. This alone allows us to relax with our own sexuality. Paradoxically, this also allows us to vary it and accommodate it, as far as we wish, to other people. I don’t see how this can be accomplished without a statistically significant variety of partners and a fair amount of communication with them, at that, about what their sexual reactions to us are. (However supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do that. This is a quintessentially social process, involving a social response.)

For women, the pursuit of wide-ranging sexual experience has always come with disproportionate risks and stigma. But online, in the context of what Wendy called “mass intimacy,” some of the women I spoke with were undertaking Delany’s endeavor with the risk of pregnancy, violence, and sexually transmitted infection minimized through the medium of encounter. Chaturbate and its ilk — everything from My Free Cams to the “Gone Wild” amateur porn thread on Reddit — could be the equivalent of the darkened porno theater of the 21st century, but places more welcoming to women, where women could go to consider their desires, where they could learn what attracted others to them and to discern and name what they found attractive.

My interest in Chaturbate was more anthropological than sexual, but maybe this was disingenuous. It occurred to me that a single experiment of performing on Chaturbate would not result in scandal, but instead I made excuses, like I could hear my roommates drinking and talking in the next room, or that I was too busy and anyway I was dating someone. I worried that if I performed and then wrote about the experience of sex camming, none of the married, middle-aged male editors who are in charge at most of the magazines I want to write for would take me seriously anymore, if they ever had. All the reasons a woman might have to feel frightened about the possible consequences of overt sexual expression passed through my mind. I felt unsure whether the consequences were real or simply the catalogue of my own fears and evidence of my own conservatism. Joan Didion would never have sex cammed; she went to San Francisco in 1968 and didn’t even do acid.

When Max and Harper get frustrated with their off-the-grid life, they usually evoke the specter of OfficeMax. Or sometimes, after a particularly enthusiastic session of sex on camera, they might high-five, and one will ask the other, “Want to quit and go work at OfficeMax?” The joke is about all that’s wrong in the world, to Harper and Max: big-box stores in concrete lots, the drudgery of the dead-end hourly wage, beige filing cabinets, obedience, the myth that hard work for a multinational corporation will be rewarded in any significant way.

Chaturbate was a sexual story, but it was also an economic one. The site offers a very clear picture of a society where wages are so low that they are no longer worth striving for, where ambitious young people cannot advance their educations without going into debt, and where the misfortune of illness results in financial catastrophe. For the people in phases of their lives where they had to serve as a caretaker to an ill partner or relative, the sex work offered flexibility, even if their earnings were often unpredictable or paltry. Other people I interviewed, like a woman from upstate New York who went by the username of JingleTits, were in their early 20s and saw themselves in an intermediary phase between high school and a hoped-for future in college. It was frustrating to be told of their concrete career ambitions and the extreme financial challenges they faced in achieving them simply because their families were unable to assist them with the exorbitant cost of higher education. Those young people who had gotten college educations found themselves questioning the worth of their degrees, and their attitude toward sex camming seemed to come from a kind of nihilism: Masturbating on camera for money was less humiliating and offered more opportunities for meaningful and creative endeavor than the jobs they saw as available to them.

Max and Harper met on OkCupid in spring of 2011. Harper was 20 years old and a student of English literature at a college in Washington State, out East for the summer to work as a nanny in New Jersey. Max was 26, moonlighted as an improv comic, worked at a restaurant in Tribeca, and slept on a loveseat in a shared apartment in Harlem. Their first date began in Times Square and ended the next morning at Port Authority, where Harper caught the bus back to Jersey. Six months later Max moved to Washington to be with her.

Out West, Max had trouble finding a job he liked. He was hired at Starbucks but quit when he felt infantilized during latte training. In November 2012, to pick up some cash, the young couple began sex camming on the website Live Jasmin. It was fun, but Live Jasmin had a lot of rules. A cammer could not eat, drink, or wear logos while the camera recorded. Until someone paid to enter into a private chat, the models just sat on their beds fully clothed, hustling like prostitutes in the windows of Amsterdam’s red-light district. “It was a lot of waiting around, trying to trick people into doing a show with you, just selling it hard,” said Harper. It still felt like a job, in other words, but a job that Harper still liked more than her actual job, which consisted of “hanging pants on hangers and making small talk with people I don’t like.”

Live Jasmin also had rules to make its performers act like “cam models,” with the obsequious pliancy and sweet demeanor that characterize the collective adulation of the male ego on most sex sites. For Max and Harper, the whole point of sex camming was to avoid customer service. What they envisioned making together instead would be the sort of low-budget amateur variety show that used to be found on the old cable-access channels: “Wayne’s World with tits,” as Max described it. At other times they referred to it as “digital street performance.” In the summer of 2013, Max found Chaturbate.

“It was like the Wild West,” said Harper.

On Chaturbate, they could make Max conduct an endurance test where Harper dipped his penis in ice water and counted to 30. She could sit in a Starbucks and silently reveal her breasts to the camera. They could have puppet shows, and threesomes, and a food fight. Harper could give Max a henna tattoo of a rooster with a giant erection. They could hang their Christmas lights on the wall behind them to spell out the word “FUCK.” They could reward high tippers by recording video of themselves stripped naked and running down the street yelling “I AM THE KING/QUEEN OF SCOTLAND.” Within two months of joining they amassed more than 20,000 followers (they currently have nearly 37,000 followers). Some days were slow, but on others their audiences were huge, twice reaching more than 7,000 people.

Through the money they started earning, they also began to envision another kind of freedom. The idea to buy a van came to Max on a mushroom trip, one summer in 2013 as the sun set over a field in Washington. He hallucinated a conversation with an entity that Max, an atheist, can only call God.

A few weeks later, Harper and Max used their collected $1,000 in savings to purchase a 1994 Ford Aerostar for $900. They decided to shed their material belongings and Chaturbate their way across the country. They called their show “Fucking in Fifty,” and they even recorded a peppy theme song (“We’re gonna hit the road / we’re gonna help you cum…”).

On the road, they learned how to survive with less than $10 in their bank account. They learned how to work the food banks and tap into Wi-Fi networks and to live on the fringes of a country bloated with caloric and technological excess. Their appearances changed: From a mop-headed, clean shaven young man in cargo shorts and Vibram barefoot running shoes, Max went full-on Allen Ginsberg in appearance. His beard grew black and thick, his hair long; he began wearing his black plastic glasses more often than not. Harper went from being a blue-eyed, strawberry-blond sorority girl with a layered haircut and baggy jeans to having the pierced nipples and long, wavy hair she has today.

They drove around the country. They decided to pass the winter in Mexico. Then all of their equipment and laptops were stolen. A fan of theirs had promised thousands of dollars to help them build a stand-alone website, but they would soon learn their investor had been arrested for trafficking firearms and drugs on Silk Road. A video lingers on PornHub of Max and Harper having sex on a rainy afternoon in Puerto Vallarta. Through the curtained windows of what looks like a cheap hotel room, Mexico is a place of barking dogs and customized car horns. For the first time, Max and Harper showed signs of regret.

“The date is February 18, 2014,” they wrote on their blog. “Harper and Max are stuck in Mexico with $200 remaining.” They renounced Fucking in Fifty. “I sought to build myself a pleasant future and once again I seem to have only succeeded in building myself a cage,” wrote Max.

Their fans bailed them out, and they returned to the United States. They have landed in Idaho, renting a room from a friend they made on FetLife, the social network for people who are into kinky sex. This fall, Max and Harper helped their friend start a custom-made spanking paddle business (see BeatCancersButt.com) to pay off some of the vast medical debts he incurred during the treatment of his 11-year-old daughter’s leukemia.

Chaturbate, meanwhile, changed its rules. Public sex — a mainstay for Harper and Max, who broadcast from hayfields and rest stops, from McDonald’s, Starbucks, Walmart, and even a McDonald’s inside of a Walmart — is no longer allowed. Tired of the hustle of Chaturbate, of the unpredictability of tipping, they have found a new income stream, a website called Clips 4 Sale that caters to obscure sexual fetishes. Harper and Max now spend their days recording clips appealing to people with fetishes about women doing things in aprons or ripping off their clothes. Harper has climbed the charts and for a time became the number one belcher on the site. They make foot-fetish videos with Vibram barefoot running sneakers. They live happily on an income that has ranged from $400 to $2,000 a month. Their plan is to buy a bus and eventually a piece of land. They call it “the quest.”

As Max and Harper have gone deeper into their online sexual exploration, they have learned that sex is no longer a thing either of them could define. “I know intercourse is definable as a thing but I don’t, like, believe in ‘sex’,” said Max. “I don’t think I could point to it, I couldn’t tell you what it is, because for some people, completely-clothed-just-pulling-at-your-nostrils-at-a-camera is sex, it’s a massive turn-on.”

Some people might look at Max and Harper, or anybody on Chaturbate, and disagree. They might think of clean sheets, a well-made bed, a clearly defined “partner,” and a closed door and think that they know exactly what sex is — loving, maybe; monogamous, probably; dignified by its secrecy; more authentic for not being shared; sacred because it’s not mediated through a cell phone. Spend enough time on Chaturbate and such a view starts to feel both rarified and unambitious.

Some people limit their internet sexuality to the private sphere of sexting or video chats with long-distance lovers. Others choose to meet their virtual partners in a semi-anonymous public forum. When mediated bodies can inhabit the same temporal dimension, the distinct purposes of porn, sex work, casual sex, internet dating, and social networking start to blur. Right now I see being sexual on the internet as a bold and risky form of performance. I anticipate that in the future it will just be thought of as sex.

This morning I went on to Chaturbate and watched four Russians messing around with each other in between drags on cigarettes. They were a jolly group, maybe having an impromptu Christmas party, clearly seeing the whole broadcast as a big joke but enthusiastically soliciting tips at the same time. The women danced around in thongs; a man mooned the camera. “They are a scam,” wrote one disappointed viewer who was clearly hoping for an orgy. Nobody else took it very seriously.

This story was written by Emily Witt. It was edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Hilary Elkins, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Photographs by Arko Datto, from his series “Cybersex,” documenting online sexual performers on public view.

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