For some, involvement in online sex work begins as something akin to an accident. Janey discovered this type of work when, one night, she got a message on Snapchat from a man she knew who wanted her to send nudes. She jokingly told him he’d have to pay, but his message back took her by surprise: “Okay. No problem. How much money do you want? What are your bank details?”. After sending two pictures for €40, she realised she might have found a viable source of income. Starting off with a Snapchat Premium account, she soon moved on to camming. Others, like Miss Máire Rua, enter into the field with more intention. “I’m not gonna sugar coat it,” she says. “It came out of a desire to make money fast.”
For Janey, breaking into sex work wasn’t the intimidating experience it might be for some. “I guess like anything, you’ve got to put a certain amount of time into it before you see results,” she says. “But I don’t know, I felt like it was quite natural to begin with, for me anyway. I’ve always been quite a sexual person, always quite open with my sexuality.”
The work available is more varied than those who have never encountered it might imagine: Miss Máire Rua points out that live camming, often the one image associated with online sex work by the uninitiated, in fact makes up a small portion of what’s on offer. Sex workers engage in everything from porn videos through phone sex to Kik sessions – a mixture of texting and video clips. Most people work across platforms, piecing together an income from a variety of sources. Miss Máire Rua herself makes her money as a dominatrix, focusing exclusively on fetish and domination work.
All of these options mean that online sex work offers flexibility and Miss Máire Rua experiences this flexibility as “very, very freeing,” though it brings with it a deal of responsibility. Miss Máire Rua did plenty of research before starting to work, and recommends that anyone entering the field do the same. The discipline it takes to market yourself and gain a following is, in itself, something that has to be learned.
Customers need to know who is available for live services, and a sex worker who doesn’t take the trouble to put up ads and work predictable hours can expect to have trouble making money.
Speaking of money, the amount to be made from sex work is something in particular need of demystification. Janey finds that the income she makes is comparable to what other young women make from part-time work – the difference is in the independence she has as her own employer. People tend to wildly over or under-estimate the money made by online sex workers, Miss Máire Rua remarks: “People assume you’re making a lot more than you are, or people are shocked that you make money for what you do.” In reality, she made about a thousand euro for her first month’s work.
The stereotypical image of a sex worker’s typical customer as an older, married man has become inaccurate in today’s digital environments. The majority of customers for live services such as camming are, according to Janey, young men in their twenties. It’s also not unknown for an online sex worker to be approached by a female customer.
Sex work is often cast in the public imagination as a uniquely dangerous field, and many of the questions asked of online sex workers centre on safety. “When you’re a sex worker, certain things can happen to you that are very traumatising, and tied up with a lot of extremely triggering topics,” Miss Máire Rua remarks.
Janey chooses to share her worst experiences. In around two years as an online sex worker, she’s faced two situations that made her uncomfortable. One of these centred on a privacy concern – a man who happened to have seen her in the area where she lived pressured her to meet in person. More recently, she had to contend with aggression: “I had a customer tell me they were going to rape me,” she says. Fortunately, she was working through a site run by an understanding former cam worker who was able to suspend the offender’s account and investigate the situation immediately.
What to tell friends and acquaintances is a personal decision that, for a woman new to online sex work, can be difficult to make. Janey has experienced little stigma in her social circles, and feels lucky that she is able to be open with those close to her, but she found out recently that a private Facebook group had been set up to mock her work as a cam girl.
Miss Máire Rua was quite open about her work when she first started, she says, but has become more private over time. “Even if you love doing sex work and you really enjoy it, I would still advise being pretty private about it for a while,” she says. “It is very stigmatised, and it is something that can affect you in the future.” A young woman whose life plans are still developing, she says, can find her prospects hurt by a background as a sex worker. The decision to be discreet about work isn’t always a matter of shame, but can be a practical choice.
Miss Máire Rua has lived in Ireland and the Netherlands, but only started to engage in sex work when she moved to London. There, she has found a supportive community of sex workers. “There’s a lot of community activism and groups you can go to,” she says. “There’s a lot more you can get involved in, even club nights that are very explicitly sex worker friendly.” These supports are crucial, she says, because “It can become quite isolating, and it can become a bit hard with friends not really getting what your work is.”
In the Netherlands, with strip clubs, sex clubs and a red light district in every city, the political conversation surrounding sex work is well underway. At the moment, Miss Máire Rua explains, much of the debate focuses on the Nordic Model approach to sex work. The central feature of this approach, favoured by academics but not by sex workers, is the introduction of bans on the purchase of sex. Although intended as a more compassionate alternative to the criminalisation of women involved in the sex industry, these laws discount the capacity of sex workers to consent to and even enjoy their jobs – framing all sex work as violence against women, they ultimately aim to abolish an industry that major advocacy organisations argue there is no need to abolish.
The online sex work industry, both Janey and Miss Máire Rua point out, is dominated by queer women. To become involved in sex work at all takes an open mind, and the open-minded mentality shared by much of the LGBT+ community means that more queer people consider getting involved. Nonetheless, Miss Máire Rua points out, a career in sex work can present particular challenges for a queer woman. “You feel you suffer a level of erasure of your own sexuality,” she says, “because the fact of the matter is other queer people are not a big market for sex work. It’s very unlikely that you would ever make your living off of only marketing to other queer people.” The experience of performing for a straight male gaze can, especially for a woman whose femme identity is easily mistaken for that of a straight woman, be draining. When a bisexual woman becomes involved in a long-term relationship with a man, people already often assume she’s straight – and that effect can be multiplied when she spends her time performing for straight men. Queer sex workers in these positions can find themselves short of spaces in which their queer identity is recognised.
Despite these challenges, neither woman feels that the impact of her work on her personal life has been entirely negative. “My work has made me a lot more open-minded,” Janey says. Men have talked to her about their lives, their fetishes and their reasons for approaching her as customers, and listening to them has made her more understanding. “I’m much more independent; much more self-driven,” Miss Máire Rua says. “It’s completely changed me.”
The conversation around sex work and how it can affect a person, for better and for worse, is only starting to open up in this country. The experiences of those working in the field are not always what we expect – and as we drop our inhibitions to talk freely about this work, it’s essential that the voices of those directly involved take centre stage.
This story was originally published in GCN’s Sex Issue 354.
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