Cam sites are porn's hot new thing, but they're more conservative than you think
Cam sites are porn’s hot new thing, but they’re more conservative than you think

August 8 is International Female Orgasm Day, and we’re celebrating with an entire week dedicated to exploring the business and pleasure of porn.

At its best, porn is a tool for helping people . But, as the sociologist once pointed out to me, traditional porn usually only offers “a rough approximation of what you want,” because producers and performers created it to appeal to a general audience, not your specific desires.

Cam sites, however, can allow viewers to interact with adult performers in real time — and ideally to pay to perform . That, Stuart and others have argued, is a big part of why they have grown so popular . In fact, camming offers such individualized and diverse erotic potential that it’s easy to think of it as a definitively superior product, slowly eclipsing the appeal and profitability of old school porn.

Yet for all their bespoke and responsive potential, cam sites can’t cater to all of the fantasies and desires that platforms that aggregate traditional porn — such as tube sites (like Pornhub), a la carte clip sites (like Clips4Sale), and adult social media subscription sites (like OnlyFans) — serve.

This isn’t just because not every performer wants to act out any fantasy a viewer throws at them, or because some fantasies are too logistically expensive or complex to toss together live on a webcam. (Although fantasies that require elaborate prep work or sets usually are too elaborate to throw together on a live stream. A fetish producer once told me that he had to recreate Edgar Allen Poe’s pendulum to satisfy his clients’ desires.)

Every adult site has its own rules about the sexual acts and terms it will and will not host — and those rules can vary wildly from site to site on topics like sexualized choking or lactation. But, as the porn performer and content creator recently learned (often opaque) rules, cam sites consistently have the strictest content regulations of any open-sourced adult sites.

Case in point, Ladder’s research shows what every porn viewer knows: All tube sites and most clip sites host incest roleplay videos. , given their popularity. Many just require uploaders to preface any family relation with step in their titles, tags, and descriptions. But none of the cam sites Ladder reviewed seem to allow even step family incest roleplay in streams.

This relative conservatism isn’t some massive cam site conspiracy against certain kinks. Instead, it’s a reflection of the infuriatingly murky legal framework under which porn operates in general, and the unique nature and risks of livestreaming as opposed to taping and distributing adult content.

Porn’s legal limits are anything but clear

Regulating porn, and by that token the content on porn sites, is tricky chiefly because there is no firm or universal definition of porn. The American legal system to define the term explicitly. As the sexual psychology researcher puts it, “some people believe images of men and women in underwear or skimpy swimsuits is pornographic, while others don’t.” Even countries that permit the production, distribution, and possession of pornography disagree on what porn specifically is fine and legal and what crosses a line over into harmful and thus illicit territory. Given this confusion, explains Alex Hawkins of xHamster, a major tube site that also operates a cam site on the side, “most platforms [aim] to avoid content that might trigger problems in their biggest markets, which [are] generally [the] US and Europe.”

However, as adult industry lawyer explains, no one can actually tell what types of content are going to trigger legal issues for performers, producers, or platforms in the U.S. The American system , but only defines that as any content that appeals to prurient interests; lacks artistic, political, or scientific value; and can be considered patently offensive by contemporary community standards. Those community standards change by time and place, so you can’t really know if content is obscene until a jury rules on it.

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Obscenity trials are rare today in the U.S., in part because the global digital distribution of porn to pin down community standards. But the George W. Bush administration had a dedicated within the Department of Justice, which took a number of prominent adult industry figures to court. It only sent a few of them to jail, but cost others huge chunks of time and money, and generally scared the shit out of the adult industry before then-Attorney General Eric Holder dissolved it in 2011.

So, when Randazza and other experts helped major porn sites develop their terms of service and user codes of conduct in the aughts, he says that they just tried to evaluate relative levels of risk of certain types of content and production or distribution contexts that might trigger negative consequences based upon recent precedents. Because “a lot of sites rip off their policies from other sites,” Randazza explains, many of those risk-averse restrictions have echoed down into the modern era. (This is likely why almost no sites, tube, clip, cam, or other, allow scat play, a particularly confronting and controversial fetish for many people that got a producer sent to prison after .) Given the recency of the Bush-era obscenity trials, and the continued hunger among some factions of the Republican Party , site owners don’t really have a compelling reason to reevaluate any of the old restrictions they’ve kept in place.

Even content that passes the obscenity trial sniff test can still land adult sites in hot water — with their payment processors, as opposed to the law. Banks, card companies, and digital transaction facilitation firms are all sensitive to how their general customer bases might view their activities, including the risk of courting boycotts if they’re caught working with adult outfits a few key stakeholders might consider too outré (which, in some cases, seemingly means any adult company).

As such, these financial institutions draw up strict ethical and moral codes of conduct regarding who they will do business with, and how, that go beyond pure legal concerns. These financial firm restrictions, explains Dominic Ford, creator of the premium adult social media site JustForFans, play a huge role in deciding the actions and terms sites restrict as well. For some developing new TOS these days, they may be the only factor that matters. No one wants to risk getting unbanked — losing their ability to take payments, to monetize their content, even temporarily.

Beyond these external restrictions, Hawkins points out that many digital platform owners and operators make internal decisions about the content they will and won’t allow on their sites to protect their brands. “Not everyone wants to see extreme content on a site,” he notes. “For some, it is a turn off.” No site operator wants to turn off a key, paying demographic.

Different platforms, different problems

Differing initial TOS templates, contemporary legal risk evaluations, payment processor hang-ups, and brand considerations all come together to yield wildly differing site rules. Rule sets also often conspicuously fail to cover certain types of content, or spell out the specifics on conditional restrictions. For example, limits on age play often just say things like nothing too extreme or nothing that presents a performer’s character as underage, without specifying what might meet those criteria. Site operators don’t want to inadvertently limit themselves or their users by flagging something as problematic, or for scrutiny, that no one else has thus far.

Hawkins says that he prides xHamster on its responsiveness to queries seeking clarifications on seemingly vague or uncertain site rules. However, he does caution that, due to the nuances of individual pieces of content and their wider contexts, it’s not always easy for sites to issue clear or consistent judgements, even across cases that look similar, or may seem simple, from the outside.

Ladder and others acknowledge that these ambiguities are often intentional attempts to give performers and producers more wiggle room on platforms. However, the confusion they breed, combined with the financial repercussions that a temporary or long-term ban for inappropriate content can have on a performer who depends on a given platform for a huge chunk of their visibility or income, runs the risk of turning these ambiguities into self-censorship prompts.

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Ladder and others suggest that tube sites don’t need to put many restrictions on user uploads, beyond vital prohibitions on things like bestiality and child porn, because when they take payments it’s usually for a general subscription to their services as opposed to for specific content featuring specific terms or acts. They also have the power to review every video on a case-by-case basis, Hawkins points out, if an AI-screening program, moderator, or community member flags it as potentially problematic. They can make highly contextualized judgments and reserve the right to remove any and all content at will.

However, not all tube site policies are uniformly permissive. Hawkins notes that Ladder’s review actually paints xHamster as more permissive than it is, and that they have tighter content restrictions than several other tube sites. Ladder acknowledges that her research may not be absolutely accurate, in part thanks to the above mentioned ambiguities in site rules, and welcomes feedback from performers, sites, and other parties to help refine her research and keep it up to date.

Clip sites, which involve direct transactions for named content, may come under greater scrutiny from payment processors and other parties.

Cam site operators, however, have no screening or review process. Everything you see on these platforms is happening in real time. So, operators have to worry that someone might get carried away and do something dangerous or patently illegal on a livestream if they’re not constrained by firm rules from the outset.

Plus, Randazza notes, it’s easier for a viewer to misconstrue and report something live or direct as coercive or dangerous than it is for them to view the same content in a clearly controlled and produced video in the same way. “A video about [financial domination] is just a video, right?” he explains. “ But how are we gonna explain in a civil suit when some guy who may have blown his kids’ inheritance on [live interactions with] a financial dom, and loved every bit of it, passes away… and then you have the transcripts? How do you show that that’s not actually extortion?”

All of this leads cam sites to err on the side of being conservative — to limit performers in a way that goes above and beyond the wider industry restrictions. This is the best way to avoid negative financial, legal, or other consequences in a loosely controlled, unpredictable landscape.

Cam sites aren’t one size fits all

This is not at all a knock at cam sites. These platforms are able to offer services that many others cannot, like a deep sense of immediate, intimate, and regular connection with a performer. , rather than their potential to fulfill highly idiosyncratic fantasies, and has been a huge part of the in this isolating pandemic era.

This is also not to say that you can’t find content on cam sites that ostensibly shouldn’t be there. Some sites are relatively lax about enforcing their restrictions because they just want to do their most basic due diligence to avoid problems, favoring permissibility in practice. Some performers occasionally or regularly flout rules, even on sites with strict enforcement, because they know what their fans want and believe the reward is worth the risk of a temporary or permanent platform ban. Some also use their shows to subtly advertise off-platform services, like one-on-one FaceTime or Skype calls or custom clip creation, through which they feel that they can operate with fewer limits. (A quick PSA: The more direct a performer’s interactions with a consumer, the less support infrastructure, the greater the potential risks.)

Rather, all of this is just to say that, while it may be the hot platform of the moment, camming is not necessarily better at catering to people’s sexual fantasies than other types of pornography — or worse. Each medium has its own unique drawbacks and potential. Each is a vital part of a truly diverse and functional pornographic ecosystem, for both consumers and performer-producers.

The real problem, with all this much variation and ambiguity in the rules from site to site, is that it can be hard to figure out which medium is right for the particular fantasy you’re trying to explore. But poke around, and consult resources like Ladder’s chart, and you’ll surely find the right place for you. After all, there’s always at least one platform for every interest you could possibly think of — on the internet, porn … uh, finds a way.

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