Photo by PJ Sage
Originally published at The Doe.
When I first got into online sex work years ago, I started slowly—the occasional cam show with my boyfriend, a smattering of sexy pics posted to Twitter. We had a few regular customers who made us feel welcome and would hang out with us in our cam room, but we were new and our exposure was still relatively limited. At the time, it was more like an experiment—to find out what sex work was like and if there was a place for me in it—and less like a job. The fact that we made so little money doing it probably contributed to that feeling: Though, of course, we always got on camera hoping to make the cash that we desperately needed.
I remember talking to a friend—a veteran in the field—who argued that the sort of dabbling we were doing was foolish. Unless we were actually going to commit to putting in the time it takes to make a real living, she said, the inevitable exposure and stigma that comes with getting naked on the internet just aren’t worth it.
I’m on the phone on my knees on the side of the bed fucking myself with a dildo, per his request. He is on the phone listening, telling me when to go faster and harder. Then with an anger that I don’t expect he says, “Fuck yourself like the whore that you are.“
During the Coronavirus, Sex Work Is Everyone’s Quick Fix
At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear what my experienced friend had to say, but, now, her voice pops into my head every time I open my DMs. There, I find messages from civilian friends or acquaintances, asking for my advice on how to get into online sex work (amateur porn, phone sex, sexting, camming, selling panties or nudes and so on). Since the beginning of COVID-19, these messages have been flooding in from people who have lost their jobs and are looking for “quick” and “easy” ways to make ends meet while sheltering-in-place.
My knee-jerk response to this question is always to tell them not to do it. But when I step back from my annoyance at the constant requests that I provide free consulting services, I have to admit that the real answer is much more complex. The sex work career that I have built—which has moved far beyond those initial encounters in cam rooms into my main source of income, my community and a significant part of my identity—has been more fraught than I could have imagined when I first started.
He calls me to tell me he has just gotten married; it’s been six months since the last time we spoke. The first time he called me, years ago, he spoke of his wife who died a decade earlier, how he can’t get over her. We would quite often roleplay intimacy, he would tell me he loved me while he was orgasming. I let him say it, I knew it was necessary for him. But this time, I know we won’t talk again. Sometimes I lose them to love.
Sex Work Isn’t Like Other Jobs
When I began, I didn’t know that my work in the adult industry would shape most of my interactions, change people’s perception of me and cause major strife in my relationships with my extended family. I also didn’t know that the work itself would be so intense, creative, raw and emotional, and that I would have a hard time imagining going back to a “normal” job.
I didn’t know, in other words, that it would restructure my entire world.
When we first start talking, he buys all of my content: my solo videos, my girl/girl videos and the ones I make with my partner. He tells me how sexy they are and about how he masturbates to them when he misses me. But now he tells me he won’t buy or watch my videos anymore: Now that we’re close, they make him jealous.
It turns out my friend was right: Sex work isn’t something you just dabble in, it is a job that will change you, one that you can’t just do to make ends meet during a pandemic, and then pack away in a box and forget about when the economy rebounds.
In the sex industry, we often market our success in a way that obscures how much labor we do to create it; and journalists, who have an endless appetite for sex work stories, typically only have access to the most successful models—those who already have large platforms. They continue to report on the realities of online sex work through the lens of the prosperous, who have a vested interest projecting an image of success. Working in the industry teaches you that clients will pay a premium if they believe you are popular and your time is limited. The reporting the public gets about online sex work, in other words, tends to focus on outliers—it paints an incomplete picture.
I answer the phone and it’s a new voice, someone I haven’t spoken to before. He tells me that he wants to do a role play, but when he describes the character I will play I realize it is me. He has studied me and my interests and has drawn my character with a frightening degree of specificity. I try to ignore this as I move into the fantasy. That is, until he makes it clear that my character will be murdered.
How to Become an Online Sex Worker, for Real
I am able to live off my sex work income during the pandemic because I have spent years building a brand, a platform and a client base. I have become one of the outliers. What started off as a side hustle that wasn’t lucrative enough to pay the bills, has become the income that supports my writing and other creative projects. Sure, a few people who have the right combination of traits (and lots of luck) are catapulted into quick success, but for most of us, getting to this point is a long, labor-intensive and, sometimes, painful process.
It is hardly something that can be used as a quick fix for a deep economic crisis.
He reveals that he has been fantasizing about men, and that these thoughts make him uncomfortable. He knows I have a male partner, and asks if we can create a MMF bisexual fantasy for him—giving him permission to feel his desires. We make a custom video inviting him into our dynamic, telling him we both want him. I encourage him to kiss my lover, to fuck him, to cuddle him. After he watches it, he tells us that this is the first time he has ever cried while masturbating.
To get into sex work now, during a global pandemic, means stepping into an already oversaturated market crowded by long-time performers and models, in-person sex workers pivoting their business online and newcomers who dive in head-first, with every intention of making it a long-term career. While stay-at-home orders have exaggerated loneliness, driving some new potential clients to the sites where we work (Chaturbate, ManyVids, PornHub Premium, OnlyFans, NiteFlirt, to name a few), this hasn’t been a jackpot for performers. Clients old and new are dealing with their own economic anxieties, lack of privacy while quarantining with wives and kids, and an excess of options for sexual gratification—many of which are free.
We are talking on one of my sexting platforms when he tells me to check my Twitter DMs. I go there to see a message from him saying that while he likes talking to me, he’s already blown his budget on other models, and was wondering if we can just chat on Twitter (for free).
Being a Sex Worker Takes a Toll on Your Emotional Health
Even if online sex work were a sure path to financial security, no one gets there by randomly dropping sexy selfies—or even hardcore scenes. The work of sex work consists of constant fan interaction, social media savvy and promotion, all leading to a degree of exposure that makes it likely that your mother, your boss and your best friend will at some point encounter images of you having sex.
I learned this the hard way when my mom saw a pirated picture of me on PornHub, and when my partner’s uncle told his entire extended family that he saw me giving a blowjob on Facebook. (The Facebook part obviously isn’t true, but I guess this partial lie was less embarrassing for him than admitting he actually found out about my work on a porn site.) This same exposure that makes you an object of concern (at best) and repudiation (at worst) for family and community will also open you up to trolls that pick apart your body, your life and your career choices. It will mean constantly having to defend and protect yourself from the threat of piracy, doxing, judgment and violence.
Moreover, it will require a high degree of involvement with clients: negotiating complicated transactional relationships, payment structures, intimate connections, jealous attachments and conflict. It is sitting with clients as they mourn their dead wives, express deep-seated shame about their desires or project their misogyny onto you. It is learning to weed out time-wasters, cut off big spenders when the relationship becomes toxic and learning to really listen so that you know how to best meet your client’s needs.
He messages me and tells me it’s been a long day and all he wants to do is cry. When I ask him why he tells me that his child’s friend committed suicide and that, because of social distancing, no one is allowed to get out of their cars at the funeral; no one can hug the parents as they stand by the graveside of the child they are burying. I let him tell the story of his child’s friend.
COVID-19 Has Proven Sex Work Is an Essential Business
One of the things that have been interesting during the COVID-19 pandemic is to see the way that the influx of newcomers has shifted the story about what online sex work is. Both journalists who are covering the online sex industry during the pandemic, and those newcomers who are trying to make a living within it, are coming to the realization that sex does not, in fact, sell itself. This is evidenced by the volume of articles on the theme coming out from almost every major news publication in the last few months. All of us who have been doing this job already know this: We have learned these lessons the hard way. We talk to each other about our failures, our frustrations and our fears—because doing so publicly doesn’t help us market ourselves as valuable to clients. Moreover, such conversations feed into the hand of anti-sex work crusaders who use the stories of our struggles as evidence that our work should be more heavily regulated or criminalized.
What we have also learned through this pandemic is that our work is essential, it is the lifeline that many of our clients need in a very uncertain and increasingly isolated social world. I am grateful to be doing this work now—and that it still provides me a secure income—but I am also glad that I was able to make it sustainable before the world entered crisis mode.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).