Anna is a 31-year-old dental assistant who is without a job during quarantine. Her unemployment claim is still pending, so less than a week ago, she became a webcam model. “I’m trying to make money with the resources I have at home. I’m a single parent and live paycheck to paycheck,” she says.
Camming is a legal form of sex work that is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, offering the flexible hours and independence that many parents need. There’s no application or interview process, creating fewer barriers for those who are interested. Models sign up to host chat rooms for website members and guests. Some don’t view their work as sexual because they showcase art, dancing, or other skills and interests–but most connect with members who hope to flirt and watch models strip, masturbate, or perform sex acts with partners. These sex workers are people in many life stages–and many of them are moms.
A former sex worker myself, I understand the feelings of invisibility and stigma associated with working in that industry. After reading about restrictions placed on who could obtain financial relief during COVID-19, I was saddened to realize that sex workers wouldn’t be helped. I reached out through virtual platforms and support networks to talk to those who have been impacted. I spoke with them via phone, email, and private messaging apps to discuss their experiences.
Anna helps her six-year-old attend online classes and complete schoolwork throughout the day while entertaining a toddler. At night, she logs into a virtual platform that is popular among models for its ease of use, loyal members, and higher payouts. She likes the idea of camming because she can work from home while her children sleep–but it’s hard to stay up all night. Her young children aren’t adjusting well to quarantine. She explains, “Addressing their emotional needs throughout the day is demanding, then I have to be cheerful all night. It’s phony, and it’s tiring to pretend I want to be there.”
Her public chat room has few viewers, and most are non-paying. She doesn’t undress unless she’s taken to a private room where she earns money by the minute, and she fears that her modest approach could mean that fewer people will interact with her. She’s earned less than $30 so far but wants to keep trying, adding that she intends to maintain her personal boundaries. Although she’s relying on community groups for food and other assistance, she hopes that camming will help her pay rent and other bills until unemployment benefits pay out.
Maria is a programmer who works remotely, and Rose was a nursing home aide until a few colleagues and residents tested positive for COVID-19. She developed paralyzing anxiety and quit to avoid bringing the illness home to her son and Maria, who both have asthma. They’ve been putting on shows together while their ten-year-old sleeps upstairs, gaining enough popularity to earn an estimated $10/hour before taxes–$6 less than Rose earned as an aide.
Maria is thankful that this opportunity is safer and less stressful for Rose, and they believe they’ll earn more money over time. They both enjoy the time they spend together on camera, but they seek privacy to avoid stigmatization. “We have conservative families and we’re Christians. No one we know would be okay with this.” For now, they’re protecting their identities by using a feature that blocks users from selected states.
Sam, a go-go dancer who typically works in clubs as a party host and stripper, also creates custom videos and picture sets for fans online. One of the websites she uses has approximately 300 more models per night than it did a month ago. She explains, “This is hurting business. There’s less of a chance that someone’s profile will get noticed by potential fans. I have to rely on the connections I already have–but many are out of work or have less income now. Some also have less time to do private things.”
Moms are also coping with less alone time. Sam, who normally drives business with nude shows during the day, can’t do this while her kids–ages 7, 14, and 15–are home during quarantine. Instead, she’s using apps and social media to connect with potential clients. “I use my phone while they use our computers for school. It’s harder to keep track of clients and takes longer to reply and post ads this way.”
Sex workers don’t have the same safeguards and benefits as those in traditional jobs. Her children are covered by their father’s health insurance, but he lives in another state. She says that they can care for each other if she needs to quarantine within the home–but she doesn’t know what she’d do if she had to be hospitalized. As a sex worker, she lacks access to health insurance.
She tried to apply for COVID-19 relief funds. Unfortunately, as someone whose primary source of income has always been sexual in nature, she doesn’t qualify. As an independent contractor, she can’t file for unemployment either. She says, “I’m lucky to already have fans. Camming is most successful when you can build relationships.”
She continues, “But that’s also draining.” She’s looking forward to dancing and hosting when quarantine ends, noting that it feels less taxing. “I have been working around the clock, and I’m exhausted–physically and emotionally. In clubs, there’s a community supporting each other.” This is lacking in online spaces. “Working online requires longer hours for less money and a lot of sorting through trolls and hate mail. It’s a lot of people hoping to exploit you.”
Sam says she isn’t afraid of the stigma and enjoys this work–but her kids and family members believe she earns most of her money as a musician. “I’ve tried to get full-time positions as a teacher, but budget cuts make those jobs hard to find. I see a few students privately and sing at restaurants and weddings, but it’s not enough.” She’s 35 and first started stripping to pay for college and earn money in between gigs. She’s thankful for the opportunities it’s provided–including the ability to pay for preschool and to save to buy a home.
With climbing unemployment rates and many stuck at home during quarantine, this industry offers hope and stability to those who need to earn income creatively–but as new performers join these platforms and viewers have less money to spend, veterans of the industry experience slowing business. The anonymity and stigma associated with the work creates a barrier to sharing struggles about the loss of income or emotional distress with friends and family members.
Because sex workers lack access to the relief programs others have during COVID-19, it’s important to ensure they aren’t discriminated against when seeking help in other places. Sex workers are moms–but those who aren’t caring for families deserve respect and dignity too.
No matter how you feel about this industry, it’s crucial to put aside biases throughout this pandemic and support all members of our communities.