Colombia’s ‘camgirls’ slowly start to break taboos
A visit to an online erotic performance studio in Bogotá shows how women are making money for their families in a post-pandemic economy
Twenty-year-old Wendy Lozano has painted the walls of her room red and black, which she says represent the colors of sadomasochism.
Lozano dropped her studies in literature to work as a webcammer, hoping to be able to help her family with household expenses.
“The first six months were very hard,” she says, explaining how she told everyone she knew that she was working as a babysitter. The first studio she worked at was illegal, and “they tried to sexually abuse me.”
She moved to Dharma studio, where today EL PAÍS is visiting her. Here, Lozano has been able to create her own character, Black Rose, and she has regular customers.
Lozano transforms into Black Rose every day when the camera goes on. Rose’s specialty is sadomasochism – she loves to play with leather whips, belts, sex toys, and chocolate sauces.
“Rose and I are two different people. I never take her home.”
“Rose is outgoing, crazy and aggressive,” explains Lozano. “I’m the complete opposite.”
There’s five webcam studios on this single street in the center of Bogotá, the buildings camouflaged by student accommodation for the college at the end of the street. At the entrance to Dharma, 20-year-old Cindy finds the doorbell and shyly pokes it. There is no signage – she learned about the studio through social media and was encouraged to do an interview.
During the course of an hour, María López, Dharma’s psychologist, gives Cindy a tour and explains the job description and conditions. The young woman accepts.
After Romania, the second-highest number of webcam models are located in Colombia.
Ernesto López, the studio’s owner and manager, says that webcamming grew exponentially with the acceleration of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Right now there may be more than 5,000 studios in the country,” he says.
López tells EL PAÍS that the studio is dedicated to providing erotic modeling on websites via camera from individual rooms in the studio. The men who watch them request particular actions which they pay for with tokens – virtual currencies backed by blockchain technology. Broadcasts can take place with 20 people or more watching, or as private sessions priced at 12 tokens per minute. Earnings climb for as long as the client is connected to watching the model.
López’s is a family business. After a lifetime working as a tax advisor guiding his clients about the most efficient way to set up companies in the country, López thought of setting up his own company. He hesitated at the thought of setting up a webcam studio, he admits: “There is still a lot of taboo about the subject.”
But, after thinking it over with his wife, they decided to go into business and the couple now runs the studio together with their daughters. With López’s knowledge of taxation and accounting, they wanted to make everything legal, a challenge as the industry was then less regulated. To begin with, “they didn’t even let us open a bank account.”
Unlike the illegal studio that Wendy Lozano worked for when she started out, López’s is registered with the mayor’s office, has its contracts in order, pays the corresponding taxes and, of course, does not accept minors either as clients or as workers.
López says the idea of the company is to establish itself as a safe space where the models can work in peace without being disturbed by anyone, not even by himself – he says he even tries not to run into the workers in the building when they are there, so as not to bother them. Their payments are guaranteed: “Many of the studios that operate in the city do so underground because the conditions they offer their professionals are very bad,” he says.
In an unprecedented ruling in the country, Colombia’s Constitutional Court last year recognized employment rights for webcam models. The Court said that, although the trade is not regulated in Colombia, this does not mean that the companies dedicated to this activity can do what they want with their workers, who have constitutional labor rights.
The ruling also recognized that many women enter the sex industry “in a state of vulnerability,” conditioned by situations of poverty and lack of opportunity.”
The issue remains legally complex in the country, as, at the same time, a contract and terms and conditions cannot be established in something that involves the intimacy and sexuality of a woman. As such, it will be difficult to create further regulations around webcam modeling due to concern that it would open the door to regularizing sex work, a debate which has been deadlocked in Colombia for decades.
Therefore, for their situation to be fully recognized, women like Velandia [pictured] and Lozano who make a living every day with their bodies must still wait for theory and practice, laws and daily reality, to find a way to meet.
Inside a webcammer’s room
Lozano starts her work day with several rituals: “First, I prepare the playlist that I want to use during the broadcast.” The playlist usually consists of blues songs, “because they seem very sensual to me.”
“Then, I put on a specific song that makes me happy, and then I’m ready to hit the button and go on air.”
Lozano considers her job her passion, but had a hard time telling her family. Her mother’s first reaction was to think she was a prostitute; she has now come to understand what the work involves. Today, says Lozano, her mother is even considering taking up webcam modeling, especially as Lozano’s earnings have been of great benefit to the family.
Most of the young woman’s clients are foreign men over 40, and 90% speak English.
“Often,” she notes, the men “are just looking for a conversation and I don’t even have to take off my clothes.”
Lozano says her best hours are from 1pm to 7pm. She has had months where she has earned ten million pesos ($2,500), with her worst months averaging out at around a million pesos ($250). The studio keeps 45% of her earnings.
Laura Velandia, a 24-year-old music student, works in the room next to Lozano’s. She does webcam modeling from 1pm to 5pm, playing a character completely opposite to Rose: a tender and innocent girl. Her room is painted pink and she has personalized it with photos.
“I used to work as a makeup saleswoman,” she tells EL PAÍS, adding that she was not earning enough money in this job. “One day I saw an ad for the [Dharma] studio on Instagram,” she said, “I got excited,” and began working there.
“Over time, my family has accepted it, because they see that I’m fine,” Velandia says as she fixes the lights to start the broadcast.
López sees the business as doing a great community service in a time of economic uncertainty, providing a space for women to work without having to provide physical services in person.
“I am proud to be able to generate employment for women who have many economic difficulties and who can work in a space where in the end they have no contact with anyone.”