MEDELLIN, Colombia— I hate shopping. Especially for clothes. So when the first lady of the adult webcam industry invited me to tag along on a shopping trip to buy clothes with two of her top models, I immediately said yes.
Shirely Lara isn't a typical porn executive. As the 31-year-old chief operating officer of Chaturbate.com, Lara is the only female executive in the $10 billion adult webcam industry. And as a self-proclaimed feminist, she's using her position to push the boundaries of feminist thinking in an industry that's not normally associated with women's rights.
Also, she's fun to shop for blouses with.
While critics excoriate camming as sleazy, an ever-growing number of people are secretly stealing furtive glances in quieter moments. The proof is in the numbers. Adult camming is the fastest-growing element of the online porn industry, which, if you've never been on the internet, is monstrously huge. Industry insiders say internet porn traffic is equivalent to all the traffic on Google and Facebook combined. The world's leading adult cam site, LiveJasmin.com, says it's doing around 60 million clicks a day. That's a lot of T&A.
The rapid growth of the adult webcam industry has also provided hundreds of thousands of good paying jobs in the new internet economy. And many of the people in that emerging workforce are young women and single mothers who are achieving economic independence while working in the safety of their home.
"A lot of college girls cam their way through school, and a lot of single mothers are now able to provide for their families comfortably and spend more time with their children," said Lara, who lives in California. "It's very empowering. They're in control of what they do. And if anything gets too uncomfortable, they can just close the laptop and walk away."
But there are some risks involved in exposing yourself to the public online. Millie Martins, an independent Colombian model who regularly has between 700-2,000 people watching her whenever she's camming, says she's gotten a series of death threats from a lunatic stalker in the U.S. Chaturbate is taking measures to ban the user from the site, and the 21-year-old model says she won't let one nutjob scare her off. "I don't want to stop doing this because of crazy people," she said.
It's a defiance and boldness that's common among webcam models. Women I talked to at this week's Latin America Livecams Expo in Colombia say their work is more than just a job — it's about achieving economic independence, normalizing sexuality, developing a sense of artistic expression, and learning how to successfully negotiate with men.
"In my room, I don't let people tell me what to do; if they start demanding stuff, then bam, they get silenced," says Martins, my new shopping buddy. "People in my room enjoy the way I am. If someone tells you what to do you're just a marionette. That wouldn't be me…I don't like to have a boss or people telling me what to do. I'm a free spirit."
Martins comes from a well-off family and says she cams because she likes to, not because she needs to. And many of her shows aren't even about sex, just her goofing on camera. But she says she likes the sex stuff too because it's part of who she is.
"Chaturbate has let me show my sexuality as something natural and positive…That's the way I see it," she said.
Hopefully she'll still see it that way years from now, considering the internet already has more than a few videos of her masturbating. That taboo might not seem as cool to her in five or ten years, if society's views on the matter haven't evolved as quickly as the industry's and it limits Martins' chances of getting a job in another line of work. But for now, Martins says she's fine with it.
But does she consider herself a feminist?
"I don't know, but I'm always defending the fact that boys and girls have the same rights. So yes, maybe I'm a little feminist," she said with a laugh. "I don't like people who judge other people."
Despite her warning about passing snap judgements, I let her know that the dark blazer she picked off the rack looked rather smart on her.
The secret to camming is to be true to yourself, says fellow independent cam model Molly Brooke. Clients come around looking for sex, but they stay for the woman, she says.
"The people come to the room because they think you are pretty, but your personality is the most important because that's what keeps them in there," she told me, before settling on a white sweater and a lacy blouse.
As the industry continues to growth, camming and the online adult industry is only going to become more mainstream, Lara predicts. And as it does, it's going to continue to change the way society views women's sexuality.
"It's becoming more accepted. There are a lot of camgirls—it's like mainstream now. And it's good to see women's sexuality getting accepted by mainstream."
RELATED: Fusion explores the increasingly diverse ways people are consuming – and producing –porn, from GIFs to live “camming” to teledildonics. Watch our original investigative documentary, Miami Porn: Sex Work in the Sunshine State, a look inside the world of South Florida’s booming adult entertainment industry: