‘It was sex work or starvation’: How poverty is forcing women to perform for men on webcams
Increasing numbers of women in low-paid jobs who have children are being forced to perform on webcams for strangers online to survive, campaigners have warned.
“Camming”, which has become a huge part of the sex industry over the past decade, is where clients pay to either watch a livestream of a woman or have an individual video chat with them.
The fastest-growing sector of the global porn industry, it is a 24/7 market – with the majority of clients logging in from western Europe and North America.
Data collected by webcam management agency Off The Record found the average number of viewers has risen by 29 per cent in the past year alone.
A leading campaign group which supports the decriminalisation of sex work is now calling for greater protection for cam girls, arguing they are left with no support if they are subjected to stalking or harassment from clients.
The English Collective of Prostitutes said all the women who approach them for advice who do cam work are mothers, many of whom are desperate for a way to earn money in a way that allows them to take care of their children.
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the organisation, said: “A lot more women are doing it because of rising poverty. We see women who have their benefits cut who start doing camming directly as a result. One woman was left with no money and had a kid and started doing it because she was desperate.
“But women who do cam work want more protection. A lot of women end up getting stalked. You are much more likely to be exposed in your local area and among your local community due to people recognising you. Women are also angry you have to provide a picture of yourself and your passport when you register for cam sites. It seems very unfair that when you are working in a stigmatised environment you have to give your real identity. This is particularly true for women who are mothers.”
The campaigner noted women were now having to work longer hours for less money due to the market for cam work becoming increasingly saturated – adding they were having to perform more services and “be more creative”.
Eva*, a 30-year-old who has been working as a cam girl since 2010, said she was forced into the industry due to being signed off work because of illness. Her employment support allowance had not been enough to live on, she added.
“My ex-boyfriend was having to buy my food,” Eva said. “I was backed in a corner. It was sex work or starvation. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a direct correlation between poverty, austerity and sex work. To deny that is misogyny.”
She added: “Since I started camming, I haven’t signed on. The flexibility changed my life. It allowed me to work and earn an income from home. I paid for my masters in cash upfront because of webcamming. I would put my books to one side and perform, and then when it finished I would move my books back and carry on working.
“I don’t tell people how much money I earn but I would get more in an eight-hour day camming than I get in a week in the charity sector. I just bought my first house – paid for by camming and other types of sex work. Sex workers are just people. We are not vampires. We are not people with fishnets leaning into car windows. We don’t have a sign above us saying ‘sex worker’. I work in a charity job and I visit my mum at the weekend. I love my job but they don’t pay me a great deal and without topping up my income I would struggle to make ends meet.”
Eva said she would work 16 hours a day at her peak of camming – getting up at seven in the morning and continuing through until midnight on a few days, working up to 60 hours in an average week. Now she only does two or three evenings a week to supplement her income from working in the charity sector.
She said the industry had changed massively in the decade she has worked in it due to camming becoming more popular, explaining there were now more women doing it than ever. She noted there were also now American websites based on tips, which means some men are able to watch for free. Eva also argued the growing popularity of the industry meant women were having to do more “specialised” activities while on cam.
“Women have had to find their niche because the market is more saturated,” she added. “Whether it is a particular fetish or having grey hair, hairy armpits, being pregnant or being a milf – you have to find a USP. I play cricket. I would literally wear pads and a helmet and nothing else. I had a friend who was into track racing who would wear a bib and cleats on her feet. She was a beautiful woman, so imagine if you are a guy who is into cycling. There was one girl who would put a dildo on the end of a drill – she realised she was the only one doing it and she became popular. Women have to hustle harder now.”
She said cam girls were also having to work across a greater number of platforms and more of them now have a social media presence – with some having millions of followers on Instagram.
The clothes she wears while camming vary from jeans and a T-shirt, or a dressing gown with underwear underneath, or jeans with a bra. She has never had anyone recognise her on the street but has had men email her to tell her they saw her doing her shopping or going for a run. She said that while she felt very “surveyed”, she was nevertheless “appreciative” that they did not approach her.
Eva said she was aware of men setting up cam profiles but had never seen them do any actual work. She, nevertheless, noted that lots of couples do cam work, and she did it with her ex-boyfriend. “I saw it as labour,” she added. “He saw it as fulfilling a fantasy. He saw it in a sexual way.”
Eva said that while webcam work had ultimately had an “incredibly positive” effect on her life, there needed to be greater employment protections within the industry.
“I want it to be recognised as work,” she added. “I don’t want it to be stigmatised. I would never go to the police with a complaint about something that happened while camming. I think sex work altogether should be fully decriminalised. The Nordic model and the situation here in the UK is responsible for women being under attack and stigmatised and in jail.”
Betsy*, who has been working as a cam girl for around three months, started because her job as a retail manager was making her stressed and she was not earning enough money to save for her future.
“I love it,” the 25-year-old said. “I don’t even take my clothes off. I just wear summer dresses or jeans or T-shirts. I don’t perform any sexual acts. I do anything from instructing masturbation to straight-up chit chat. I speak to a lot of men who enjoy cross-dressing but can’t do it in their normal day to day life.”
She added: “Some people are on there looking for certain things that are taboo, and there are strange requests – for example, people asking you to either wee or poo on cam. But you can always say no. If you click one button, the cam is closed. Some can be not so charming, but 90 per cent of the people I talk to are absolutely charming. They want a break from real life. I play music. I sing. It is basically offering a friendship. You can get called a ‘money grabbing whore’ but I’m not easily offended. It is the nature of the job.”
Betsy works as a cam girl nine hours a day five days a week and earns four or five times more than she was earning in her previous job. She charges £2.50 a minute in private chats and takes home more than £1,000 a week, but says that some weeks it is a lot more.
“I have been recognised,” she said. “He started asking me specific questions online – like, ‘Do you have any tattoos?’ – as he had seen me around my home town. I had an intuition he knew me because of the questions he was asking. I asked who he was. He said, ‘I have always had a crush on you’.”
He then told her that he used to work across the road from her but he did not put his camera on so she could not see who he was. She said that around half of men either choose not to switch their cameras on or do not even have cameras so she is unable to see them.
Eva said she had told her close friends and her mother she was now doing cam work but had chosen not to tell her father because he is “old-fashioned”. Her friends had reacted pretty positively to her career change apart from one of her oldest friends branding her a prostitute behind her back, she added.
Rosie*, a 20-year-old fellow cam girl who has been doing it for three months, said she had initially started doing it as a “temporary job” but could now see herself doing it for a long time.
“There is a stigma around working in the sex industry, but once you are working in it you find out you are in control,” she said. “You do whatever you feel comfortable with. I do about four hours a day. I don’t show my body but I accommodate people’s fetishes.”
* Not their real names to protect their identity