The truth is that when you first log in to MyGirlFund, it looks like you're on a porn site. You're presented with an array of women who are mostly scantily clad, and upon clicking on their profiles most of the descriptions tend to emphasise the various sexual photos and videos you can pay the women in order to see: stripping, using a dildo, performing oral sex on someone. Some of the women offer the option of cam chats, and others give rather more detail regarding their personal lives than you might expect — they mention that they have children, say, or are in education — but on the surface, the difference is subtle to say the least.
Perhaps MyGirlFund wasn't quite supposed to turn out the way things were planned back in 2008. In a company Q&A last year, the site's director of business development, Stefan Patrick, said:
Back in 2006, everyone was becoming aware of the power of web 2.0 advances: the social dimension. With backgrounds in transactional platforms [...] the founders were looking to build an online transactional community/social network. [...]
There are very few markets that attract customers willing to pay simply for socializing and only for digitally deliverable goods. Adult entertainment is one of those markets and it has the virtue of a low barrier of entry. [...] No one was getting the fact that guys wanted real interaction with girls and tools were now available to deliver that experience. Free porn was propagating like crazy and interaction was the one of the few things for which they were willing to pay.
So it sounds like MyGirlFund was designed to be — and rather looks like — a porn site with added interactivity: an online Babestation, if you will. But here's the thing. The more you talk to the women who are using the site, the more you realise something quite different and rather more complex is going on.
"Of course it's not just about sexy things, many guys and girls on the site want a friend. I know many that have recently had a loss in their family or just want to get away from reality of their day-to-day life, stress of their job, boredom, etc., and simply want to enjoy some female interaction, which is completely normal. I don't judge anyone and I'm here for anyone, even the ladies," says EnglishRose23. She's a 25-year-old single mother who enjoys "all the girly things you can think of," like horseback riding, swimming, and spoiling herself clothes shopping.
"Not only do guys join for fun," she says, "there are many reasons why they may choose to join. Some are in need of a confidence boost to meet women in the real world, and, personally, I'd ask who is better to give them advice of what to do or be like towards a woman in person?
"For instance, many guys are happy to have the friendship they have with me on here. They're already happily married, so meeting someone in person could get them into trouble, whereas online, it can't get complicated; they're not meeting anyone and feeling as if they're cheating on their loved one, because they're not."
EnglishRose23 is one of the first women I speak to on the site, and my initial instinct is somewhat sceptical. Perhaps she's been cherry-picked for me by the site's administrators as someone they knew would give positive feedback on her experience. But as I talk to more and more women, a relatively consistent and clear picture emerges of how and why they're using the site.
The next woman I speak to is Lenonie, a 43-year-old "happily divorced" woman from the South East: "Some of the guys just like to express themselves in ways they wouldn't feel comfortable doing in real life," she says. "It's nice to reassure them that it's OK to have fantasies, fetishes, etc. For some of the guys it's all they have. They like a lady to confide in, share things with, and become a friend, so yes, friendships are formed and it's nice to have regulars that I feel I know very well."
The more women I interviewed, the more I realised their responses were sincere. Indeed, some of them were genuinely surprised I was asking if the site was purely about sexual content.
"I've had lengthy conversations with people here that have been completely filth-free," says LondonBunny, a 23-year-old living in London. Her potted bio: "I freelance my way through life, taking on various different jobs, which is the way I like it. I like William Shakespeare and manatees."
"Thats what makes MyGirlFund human," she says. "People don't just want to talk about sex all the time, and if they do, it's nicer to talk about it to someone you feel you connect with, and that's one reason why the social side of MyGirlFund is vital, and a very good idea. Personally, I've never been in a situation where someone's come on too heavy or serious. I get the impression the majority of guys here know what's appropriate."
She tells me she's met someone on the site "who I'm sure will be a friend for what I hope will be a very long time." Likewise, PrincessKiss, who's 23, from the North, and enjoys "What most young women do, spending time with friends and family, shopping, clubbing, reading true crime and watching horror movies," tells me: "I have made a good few friends on here, they can tell me anything and I can tell them anything." She adds that's she is totally herself on the site – in part because she can be more open with her sexuality, which she couldn't be on other sites where her family and friends are watching.
RoseXXX is saving money for her travels. She lives in the North and is currently studying for her bachelor's degree in art history. She has a long-term boyfriend who is "extremely important" to her, and lists her main interests as film and travel.
"I've had guys pay me solely to talk with them before, without asking for videos or photos, etc.," she says. "And when I offer them, they don't want them — just a friend/cyber girlfriend. For example, I've had a guy on MyGirlFund who was openly homosexual, who didn't want a romantic relationship with me, just an online friendship. He was sweet!"
It's not like sex isn't to some extent a gateway: One woman I speak with has the username HollyBigBoobs. She tells me: "I've even found myself talking to my friends on MyGirlFund about stuff I just don't feel like I can talk about to my family or friends outside of this site. It's endearing actually, and I'm sure it works like that for some of the guys on MyGirlFund."
Holly comes across as a lady with a fairly distinctive personality. "I'm actually such a geek — anything sci-fi-related and I'm hooked. I'm such a book fiend — I pick a good read up and never want to put it down," she says. "I also love to party; it's one extreme to another with me." Like pretty much every women I speak with, Holly doesn't particularly alter that personality for her customers: "I'm definitely myself on here: I find that's the best way. Sometimes I do hold back on what I talk about personally though."
LondonBunny says much the same: "I generally dislike social media, but I do have a Tumblr. I have never had different persona for my online life. People can see right through those. I also think there's a real need to appreciate that the online and offline worlds are not entirely two different beasts," she says.
NaughtyJo is a 28-year-old mother of two — "I work a full-time job, so my only other hobby is my kids" — and as she puts it, "I do use other sites and some of the guys on there know me from [MyGirlFund]. I don't treat anyone differently or talk differently. Manners get you a long way. If you can't make a sale, making a friend has always been something I've tried to do."
And that use of the word "sale" is interesting. It's fascinating that some of the women I interviewed said they knew men and women who are using MyGirlFund as their primary social network these days, in spite of its transactional nature. And when I ask them about positive and negative experiences, they sound much like any other social network — most people are pleasant, but some people aren't, so you block them.
But money still matters. Like everyone I speak to, NaughtyJo has things to say on the issue. She talks about the downside earning money in dollars, and the exchange rates: "With it being an American site, I have to stay up late — my son is a go-karter and it's an expensive sport. Through this site I've been able to get him racing and he is doing well. Most of the money that I make on here goes towards that."
SunsetStarLola, also a 28-year-old mother of two, says, "The females here are here as an occupation. We treat this as a business. We make friends but we have offline lives and it's more of a financial gain for us."
If this sounds cynical, she's also absolutely upfront about what she offers: "Videos, photos, and friendship — I am very adamant that I am not a porn robot. Guys can buy real videos of me and my partner. I won't just switch it on for the cash. I would rather know what I am selling is genuine. I don't cam for this reason: I can't just pretend to be horny for the money. I'd rather pass."
CandyHearts is an 18-year-old from the East Midlands. "I'm currently single, studying and waiting to go to university," she says. "I'm interested in sociology, languages, reading, and writing in my free time — when I have any."
Like everyone else, she's upfront about why she's on the site: "I signed up to MyGirlFund out of curiosity and to meet new friends over the internet who are from lots of different places. It's helpful in finding friends and building connections with people who you would never normally get the opportunity to meet otherwise in a safe environment.
"I also use MyGirlFund to help out my financial situation — I know that going to university will be expensive and MyGirlFund is going to enable me to actually go to uni and live a bit more comfortably whilst I'm there. ... I am totally myself on MyGirlFund, although possibly more flirty than I would be in real life, because the site and the compliments enable me to feel more confident about myself."
She's another member who clearly feels my line of questioning suggests I've not really understood what the site's about: "MyGirFund is definitely not just for sexy things. I have made some genuinely great friends on the site, some who have bought my content and some who haven't. Not all of them are even interested in seeing you get your kit off or whatever — I have one guy in particular who I chat to quite frequently, and we can talk about anything. MyGirlFund isn't a porn site; it's a place to meet new people and have a ton of fun whilst you're at it."
So for all these women – whatever their age and life situation, the site's in part a way to make money, but it's simultaneously acting as a kind of social network. "I didn't expect to unearth people so comfortingly similar to me on here, but it happens more often than not," says LondonBunny. "I use MyGirlFund as its a great way to just relax and get to know people, away from the real world so to speak. I can vent, chill and also be there for others who are in need of someone to talk to. Not only that, I feel appreciated," says EnglishRose23.
So we have to ask, why are these women really using the site? The money's important — and they do make quite a bit. It's hard to pin down average figures because people work different hours on the site, but one user has said she made up to $55,000 in a year. NaughtyJo even tells me someone bought her a new phone after she broke her last one. And men are paying these sums for friendship at least as much as they are titillation: perhaps more so.
I ask the women what they offer: would they call it a relationship?
"I don't know if I'd call it a relationship that I offer. I just want people to feel I'm here if they need me," says LondonBunny.
"I do keep a clear line [between online and offline worlds] and if a guy suggests we talk elsewhere I just tell him it's against site rules ... chats are moderated so I'm trying to stop him getting into trouble as well as myself," says NaughtyJo.
"I'd say that's what I provide — virtually of course — but it's all so real for the guys and for some of them its all they have," says Lenonie.
"I definitely offer a type of relationship and friendship — in exchange for keeping me happy, I will keep my customers happy," says RoseXXX. "I wouldn't go as far as to say i offer a relationship. Friendship yes, virtual intimacy yes," says HollyBigBoobs.
"Virtual intimacy" is an interesting phrase. Quite apart from the money, there's a clear disconnect here. Here's some criticism on the site from an anonymous Tumblr:
I think what annoys me the most about MyGirlFund.com as opposed to similar sites is the simple (yet fairly evil) premise upon which it's built: to milk men and women of their money by fostering online relationships while at the same time keeping client and "product" absolutely partitioned from each other in every other way. The premise is fine if you're just going for personal porn images for an exchange of money, but the intent of the site goes much deeper than that. It plays with human emotional attachments and encourages pretty women to prey upon these attachments by being good liars — all to make a dime.
It seems a valid criticism, but on the other hand, many of the women feel safe precisely because of the site's strict rules. And MyGirlFund is upfront about what's on offer. As Stefan Patrick tells me: "The vast majority of girls appreciate how we guard their privacy and likely wouldn't feel comfortable developing deep online relationships without it. Part of the magic of the site is the girls' ability to hold in abeyance the guys' anticipation that he can seduce the girl into meeting with him (and falling in love with him) in real life.
"It's that strip club dynamic. Not all guys have this motivation, but it's common and the girls who are successful play along with the fantasy but firmly hold the line," he says. "This doesn't mean the relationships girls and guys form on the site are inauthentic. Online relationships can be just as deep and fulfilling as real world ones: 57% of our members said that they are more open and honest in online relationships."
What he says is echoed by the women with whom I speak: "[The strict rules] are in place to protect us and our identities and they are strict in making sure these rules are followed so I have never felt unsafe," SunsetStarLola says. "I think sites like this stop a lot of men actually going out and cheating, and I've met some men who are disabled and unable to have a sexual relationship — and I've met men whose wives are sick or whatever and they can't have a sexual relationship either, so this is their outlet. There is no harm in it if the guys remember to not let cyberspace take over reality too much."
And this is the rub: Does the success of MyGirlFund tell us something rather profound about how society's changed? Stefan Patrick says yes: "You've hit on a very interesting point that I think deserves more discussion. One trend we've noticed is that young women who grew up on the internet are comfortable carrying on virtual relationships with strangers. They're pros at sexting and don't mind sharing racy photos of themselves, but they have never worked — and will never work — at a strip club, a webcam site, or in the adult film industry.
"They're forging a new paradigm of sexuality, one marked by an openness to casual but safe experimentation and intimate sharing online. Their identities are fluid," Patrick says. "Belle Knox represents the idea that a young woman can be a porn star and a student at a top university and a future lawyer. We have thousands of girls who are living proof that you can be an online model/cam girl and still be that girl next door, that caring mother, that university student, that present or future successful professional. I believe MyGirlFund is uniquely representative of this new generation of girls."
Which is kind of fascinating. Is it concerning too? It's interesting to hear what the women think about this point of view. "Culture and technology are no longer disparate entities," says RoseXXX. "In western culture, technology is our culture, it has thoroughly penetrated our daily lives, so it certainly doesn't surprise me how many people are using MyGirlFund, not only to get off, but to interact with other people and form some connection. Certain guys say they live such busy lives — businessmen and the like — that they don't have time to pull or have a relationship, which is why they use MyGirlFund, almost as a utility to simply fulfill their needs.
"Some people certainly use MyGirlFund as their primary platform for social interaction, although I don't think this is entirely common, but definitely on the rise," she adds. "I don't have an opinion as to whether of not it's dangerous, as that's not for me to say; it may work for some people and not for others. The only danger I've noticed is when girls do things such as GFE [girlfriend experience] when the buyer tends to forget or lose sight of the fact that this is a job for the seller, and not genuine feelings in most cases."
This does sound kind of dangerous, though. "Dangerous isn't a word I've considered," says Londonbunny. "But I understand where you're coming from. Judging people for doing what makes them happy makes my stomach churn, and this is so harmless."
"I have found a lot of guys who maybe aren't as confident in the real world actually gained confidence from the girls on this site, which helped them in the real world, which is nice," HollyBigBoobs adds. She's one of several women who make this point.
It's impossible to say whether the women's customers maintain the same healthy disconnect between online and offline life I saw time and again in the interviews. There are over 15,000 male members served by over 9,000 women, so the "truth" is liable to be a somewhat nebulous concept.
The overwhelming impression that comes across is that the success of this site is just a sign of the times. As SunsetStarLola puts it, "Personally I think the stigma attached to speaking to strangers on the internet has come a long way. Initially it was deemed as totally unsafe and all 'weirdos' but that's totally turned around. I believe people feel more at ease exploring their sexual fantasies with strangers, especially if it's one they don't necessarily deem the norm."