It was Friday night and Madame Namio, a 26-year-old professional New York City dominatrix, would usually be laying out her flogs and ball gags in preparation for meeting one of her six paying “subs.” But in a pandemic, neither dom nor sub was willing to risk meeting up in person for a night of ritual humiliation. “I’m going crazy,” she told me on the phone. So instead, she opened her laptop, grabbed a few dildos, and prepared to cam.
Like many sex workers (and their clients) right now, Namio is struggling with enforced abstinence. “There’s been a huge drop in demand,” says Molly Simmons, a sex worker and founder of SWOP Brooklyn, an advocacy and support organization for sex workers. “Our source of income is reliant on intimate human contact. We have no social safety net outside of it.” And as for the federal stimulus, for those in the informal economy, it is deeply unstimulating. With much — or sometimes all — of their income under the table, “What are we going to claim unemployment from?” she asks.
Which is where technology comes in. Just as millions of office workers now spend their days in Zoom meetings with colleagues, working from home, anyone can do something like sex work from a safe distance on platforms like OnlyFans. There, users pay a fee, typically between $5 and $20 a month, to subscribe to a steady stream of adult content from their favorite hottie. It’s a bit like following an Instagram set to private, but racier and more interactive. Special requests cost more. OnlyFans takes a 20 percent cut of all transactions.
According to Steve Pym, the head of marketing for OnlyFans, traffic has spiked as people are forced to quarantine. “Everyone’s camming now,” says Devon M, 36, a male escort in Manhattan.
For sex workers like Namio, camming is a lifeline. But many sex workers who were not already doing digital shows are being left behind. “It’s a completely different skill set,” explains Simmons. Many sex workers “might not have access to a computer or a camera.” And it takes some getting used to. “Right now, I’m working on a quarantine video, like, ‘You’re in quarantine. The only thing you can eat is my ass.’ But it’s really hard to get the shot of my ass,” complains Namio. “I have to keep checking my phone to make sure I got it, which is time consuming and annoying.”
Meanwhile, there’s the question of how to get clients. “There’s a whole new aspect of branding and marketing needed,” says Simmons. A well-tended PG-rated free Instagram with lots of followers can help drive traffic to OnlyFans pages, for example. Which means catching up to established cammers who already have a following.
Camming is its own economy. Some people who are big on camming are also escorts and use it as a form of advertising for new clients (porn acting, which doesn’t pay what it once did because of the internet, works the same way.) Others are not in-person sex workers at all; the barrier to entry for many who do it on the side is relatively low. According to Pym, with more people at home with time on their hands, sign-ups are way up: There has been a 40 percent jump in new “content creators” between March 1, when the first COVID-19 patient in New York was announced, and March 27.
Which means competition is more fierce as other now-unemployed workers are turning to camming as a last resort. “I just helped a friend set up her account,” says Devon M. “She’s a hairdresser, a perfect southern girl, and mother of two who never thought she’d do this.” (“There’s something for everybody,” he says, plus “I get a referral link.”)
Not everyone is happy with the camming boom. Not only is their work “already devalued,” according to 30-year-old Brooklyn-based sex worker Fera Lorde, but it’s easily recorded and reposted. According to SX Noir, host of the sex podcast Thot Leader, camming operates the same way that everything else does in the digital word: The person who owns the platform takes a big percentage. “The white male who owns the company is getting a lot more than they should.”
But for those who can’t make the pivot to camming — or can’t make enough money at it to survive — there are still johns willing to risk it. And force them to do things that are risky. Fera Lorde says she’s noticed “a rise in predatory behavior … clients who are pushing unsafe practices like non-barrier contact for a fraction of our advertised rates. The motherfuckers are starting to come out of the woodwork.”