Every week, cam performer Alana Evans hosts a special livestream for her OnlyFans followers. Like many cammers over the last few years, she’s built a loyal fanbase who tune in not just for her charisma, beauty and body, but also to feel a sense of personal connection. To better boost the latter, she always wears her Lovense Lush, a smart sex toy that can be controlled remotely by customers, who purchase and send “tips” that translate into vibrations — the more you spend, the harder the pulse. Personally, Evans can’t get enough of it. “I live for smart toys!” she exclaims. “The pleasure is far more intense because I’m not the one controlling it. Giving my fans the ability to control my orgasm is the best part of camming.”
These toys have a decades-long history that can be traced back to the mid-1970s, when the term “teledildonics” was first coined. Since then, so-called “smart sex toys” — toys that use tech, apps and other innovations to create uniquely personalized experiences — have become a lucrative and innovative market, aimed initially at long-distance couples and then at cammers.
Lovense co-founders Eddy Olivares and Dan Liu quickly noticed this trend in camming and cornered the market in 2017, securing a patent for tip-controlled sex toys. They aren’t the only company to offer them — Kiiroo offers similar products and there’s been debate as to who got there first — but the patent means they rule the market, making their toys the industry norm.
Oli Lipski, an editorial assistant at Sextech Guide, has been trying out these toys and investigating their impact on the industry for years. “One cam girl said that customers would be shocked if she wasn’t using a Lovense Lush 2,” Lipski says of their rise in popularity. “By not engaging with the ‘physical side’ of webcamming, they can lose a customer’s interest.”
This prioritization of personal interaction mirrors industry trends more generally. OnlyFans has redefined the online sex industry for good, repositioning sex workers as social media stars and embedding fan communication into their job description. Some fans play ball nicely, but others get off on the feeling of control. As a result, seemingly worrisome keywords like “Lovense torture” and “forced orgasm” are cropping up more and more on porn-streaming sites.
It’s easy to read into this, especially considering the most common arguments made by anti-porn activists: that online depictions of sex are almost always violent, and that sex workers of all descriptions are victims without agency. Naturally, these activists all too often speak over actual sex workers who repeatedly tell an extremely different story. In fact, former cam girl Isa Mazzei tackled these ideas of victimhood brilliantly in her 2018 film Cam, speaking candidly in interviews of the way that sex workers have their voices minimized and their experiences erased by anti-sex work activists who project their own fears and misinformed beliefs onto them.
Along those lines, every time I talk to sex workers and cam performers about “smart toy torture,” they echo Mazzei’s sentiment that terms like it are less concerning that we might think. “I do believe that it comes from a sex-positive place,” says Evans, who confirms that while some fans do love the idea of watching a performer being buzzed into sexual oblivion, the control ultimately remains in the hands of the cammer, who can log off or disconnect the toy at any time.
There’s also often a mutually agreed-upon fetish element that both the performer and the fan are aware of. While the act itself is technically called “lovense torture,” both parties are aware that no actual torture is taking place — it’s just a role play. “Nothing surprises me at all in the world of fetishes and kinks,” says Amber Reed, an experienced cammer who makes up one half of the sex-ed duo Come Curious, and co-hosts the podcast F**ks Given. “People get confused with extreme terms like ‘torture,’ and if they’re real or not. It’s like rape role play; a lot of people don’t understand that it’s completely consensual.” In this context, sex toy torture is similar — great as long as it comes with clear communication.
The power dynamic works both ways, too. Red_Delicious, a cammer repped by Off the Record, tells me her experience with smart sex toys comes from the perspective of a domme. She recalls experimenting with a willing client: “He was always keen for me to download the app and control him. Then he would lay back and enjoy it, allowing me to decide. He’d always let me know how it was going — either literally or just with the amount of noise he was making. Dirty talk with derogatory names was part of it too, just to add to the experience.”
He’s not the only one either — there are entire subreddits filled with kinky users who drop their details and let strangers take control.
It would be easy to write a thesis on cammers and control, but everyone I talk to describes positive experiences and outlines a pre-established set of boundaries just in case a client does try to make them uncomfortable or grasp for power. “If there is a conversation, I’m leading it,” Reed explains. That said, her limits were freer at the start of her career when camming was her only source of income. “I had the opinion of ‘let’s try anything once,’” she explains, vaguely recalling requests for kinky, taboo role-play.
Today, she’s a leading face at “babe channel” Studio66, where the clients tend to have less specific requests — they’re usually there to watch, not ask for things. “If they aren’t talkative, then you know not to necessarily talk; instead you move, act, be sexy,” she explains. In other words, her priority is reading the room. “You’re trying to scope out their fantasies and what turns them on, so I’d say I’m always in control, unless they specifically request me not to be.” In these scenarios, codewords come into play, and the “torture” element is nothing more than an imaginary and consensual game.
Evans also says she has no problem asking users to leave her room if they overstep her boundaries, and generally uses her attitude and personality to set the tone. As for requests, she has the option to reject or accept each one. “I’m not going to fake something when it makes me uncomfortable,” she says. “It does a disservice both to me and the customer.”
The bigger issue then might be that because Lovense has a monopoly on the market, there’s a barrier to entry for sex workers who can’t afford the equipment to draw in new clients. “The cost of a Lush is pretty steep compared to other sex toys that, honestly, work better,” says Elise, a sex worker and OnlyFans cam girl who was sent a Lovense toy by a fan. “Cam models are pretty open about how it doesn’t do anything for them, and they definitely wouldn’t get most of us to a full climax. The member asked me what I thought, and I was honest: ‘It’s really not my thing, and I don’t think it’s visually appealing.’”
Reed has personally never used smart sex toys when camming. “In all honesty, it could be a bit of a bore,” she explains. “Camming is work. Sure, some days I really enjoy my work and feel empowered and energized, but other days I don’t want to play ball; I’m not horny, and it’s more of an act. If I gave the controls for a sex toy to someone I’m not necessarily engaged with, it might not be as pleasurable as you’d think.”
From a more practical standpoint, she also highlights that constantly wearing the toys at work could take its toll physically, too. “If you’re masturbating in a scenario when your brain isn’t mentally turned on, it can be irritating to your genitals and cause them to swell, or contribute to thrush. I’m not saying you wouldn’t also get those things from pleasurable sex too, but you wouldn’t necessarily want your work to cause that.”
Of course, this all ties in to tipping patterns, but it’s a known fact that some men prioritize jackhammer-like intensity over all else. So cammers can maintain boundaries, but this is a privilege in and of itself (i.e., those desperate for the cash might not necessarily have the option to disconnect).
Which brings us back to power dynamics — and not just those between cammers and clients. The last few weeks have seen a spike in online sex work driven by coronavirus, as full-service workers are forced by lockdown restrictions to migrate online. Camming is now an increasingly crowded industry being pressured by a demand for interactivity. As Lovense has a monopoly on the market, vulnerable workers risk being either priced out or forced to compromise their boundaries to make any kind of cash at all.
Essentially, power isn’t as straightforward as we like to think: It’s obvious that plenty of cammers absolutely love being buzzed into oblivion by tippers, but it’s more crucial than ever to ensure that online sex workers across the board still have the luxury of logging off.