CARTAGENA, Colombia—A year ago, Gus was recently retired, collecting a comfortable government pension, and bored out of his wits. He missed work and travel, but didn't know what type of second career opportunities were available for a guy in his sixties.
Then his daughter, a college sophomore in Florida, gave him an idea.
"She said, why don't you get into the porn industry, dad? Everyone is doing it, and there will always be demand."
Gus said he was shocked, but intrigued. So after doing a little research, he bought a website and launched an adult webcam platform that hosts live naked models from the U.S., Colombia and Romania. And he did it with his teenage daughter's blessing.
"That's how mainstream this has become," Gus told me at this week's Latin American Adult Business Expo in Colombia. But the occupation is not mainstream enough for "Gus" to allow me to use his real name in this article.
Such is the dichotomy of an adult entertainment industry that's hugely popular while still thought of as naughty and forbidden. On one hand, camming is growing so fast and generating such massive web traffic and revenue flows that it's already mainstream by definition—even if mainstream doesn't want to admit it.
On the other hand, adult camming—the younger cousin of hardcore porn — is still considered too risqué for mainstream acceptability in societies that treat stripping for money and sex acts on camera as taboo (at least in mixed company).
But some of that is starting to change. As dozens of new camming sites pop up across the internet, hosting tens of thousands of amateur models stripping on bedroom cameras 24 hours a day, adult livecam is exploding.
The traffic alone is staggering. LiveJasmine, the biggest camming site on the web, now boasts 35 million viewers PER DAY. And there are dozens of similar sites that also pull traffic by the millions. Mainstream media sites would kill for those viewership numbers.
"Camming is legitimate, the numbers don't lie," says Shirley Lara, the COO of Chaturbate, a site that constantly livestreams 3,000 to 8,000 models at a time. "And it's continuing to grow, every single day camming becomes more mainstream."
The growing popularity—even if driven by mostly furtive stares—is creating a new generation of cyber-celebrities who turn their own branding into massive online followings, the currency of digital natives. The phenomenon is giving birth to an edgy "bad girl" culture among certain cam models who are pushing back against a buttoned-up mainstream.
"Camming is becoming cool," Chaturbate's Lara tells me.
The 32-year-old cam industry executive says the weakening of old taboos is being driven by young people who are used to immersive gaming and sharing their lives with strangers online. Camming sites like Chaturbate, which are based on playing interactive games with models, are just an extension of behavior that's already normal to young people, Lara says.
It's not only millennials who are stripping on camera, they're also the ones who are consuming the content and innovating the industry with new technology, she says.
The camming industry is pushing the boundaries of technology in ways that make mainstream media look like dinosaurs in a dust cloud. For example, the camming industry is now exploring 3-D volumetric capture VR porn with teledildonic ring-activated interactivity, whereas traditional media is still figuring out how to use Facebook Live, and even sucking at that.
Most models, however, turn to camming because they need the money, not because it's cool or because they're nerdy tech futurists. Many models I talked to this week in Colombia had similar stories—they left lower-paying jobs in banks, mainstream media, call centers, and even business administration to work in camming and earn three-to-five times more money. Many others use camming to raise money to pay for school, buy a home, or to launch their own businesses.
And while a model's success is based primarily on his or her ability to create a loyal online fanbase, there is still a level of anonymity to their fame. Camming models use aliases and geoblock viewers in their own cities or countries to avoid the gaze of people who might recognize them from real life. Others wear wigs, or even masks to avoid facial recognition technology.
But when it comes down to it, many think the money makes it worth the risk of getting outed.
"I do this because it's lucrative," says 22-year-old Colombian camgirl Emily_Grey, who says she makes almost three times more in adult camming than she did in her old job working for a call center. "In Colombia most people still view us as prostitutes, but we're not. I explain it to my friends and tell them that this is not bad. Some think it's really cool, but others say no way. I've convinced three of my friends to join me camming."
But anyone considering camming needs to think long and hard about their future before stripping naked or having sex online, warns veteran porn star Esperanza Gomez.
No matter how popular the adult entertainment industry gets, or how close it seems to be to breaking through to mainstream acceptability, it will always be confused as prostitution by some people, Gomez says.
"I know a lot of friends who made the decision to be porn actresses without really being aware of what they were getting themselves into, and now they regret it because they want to have a husband, home and family and they can't do so easily," Gomez told a room full of cam models during the convention in Colombia. "So if that's your goal, to have a big family and be accepted in society, porno is not for you. You have to be clear that you will carry the mark of porn star on your forehead for the rest of your life, and you won't be able to get rid of it even if you change your name and change your hair color. You'll still be a porn actress for the rest of your life. So really think about what it is you want before you make the decision of your life."
But Gus, his daughter, and many camgirls have made a choice, and feel good about it. "The term that my Chaturbate girls call it is 'bad bitch cool,'’ says Lara. “They're completely cool with it among their friends."