By Sebastian Shehadi and Miriam Partington Technology reporters
BBC.COM- Image copyright Getty Images
Most sex workers meet customers in person. For them, the coronavirus spells economic ruin.
“The virus is a disaster for client-facing businesses – and sex work is no different,” says Goddess Cleo, a dominatrix from London.
“Most of my income is generated from one-on-one sessions and events. I [normally] only make a bit of money through online avenues.”
But like many others, Cleo has switched focus to digital since the lockdown came into effect.
Online dominatrix Eva de Vil says: “There’s lots of new girls joining the scene right now – or offline sex workers moving online to help with finances.”
And she has seen a growing appetite from her clientele for isolation-themed roleplay “clips” – on-demand videos not filmed live.
“It’s not so hard for established cam girls like me to adapt to coronavirus. We’re used to working [online] and from home,” she adds.
Not so easy
But for many client-facing sex workers, moving online is not a simple solution.
“It’s not about flashing ya nipple and earning big bucks”, wrote UK sex worker Gracey on Twitter.
“It takes ages to gain an online following and even longer for [them] to buy your content.”
Using the online platforms means having to give them a cut of earnings.
And there is a need to invest in equipment, including “tripod, decent lighting, sex toys, et cetera”, which can be challenging to acquire during the lockdown.
Spending on Pornhub models grows across globe
“The marketing requires so much effort, it is unreal,” Gracey says.
“I’m not brave enough to [be] naked online and [receive audience] criticism.
“The emotional labour that goes into camming is unreal – constantly chatting, trying to be yourself [and] pleasant.”
Privacy is another concern.
It is much harder to hide one’s identity online and video content can be stolen.
In February, for example, London-based OnlyFans saw 1.5TB of content-makers’ pre-recorded videos and images leaked.
UK sex worker Lizzy says camming has become even more competitive since the pandemic began.
Max Bennett, from the Stripchat website, where audiences pay to watch livestreamed sex, says: “Adult performers are moving to livecams, as traditional [markets] have largely shut down.”
US-based livestreaming site Chaturbate has reported a 75% rise in the number of sex workers signing up since the outbreak began – an increase faster than the rate at which audience traffic is rising.
“We’re seeing traffic changes worldwide, especially in lockdown areas,” Max says.
“For those who live alone, we’ll see more traffic.
“But in [homes] with roommates or family situations, it may be more complicated.”
To drive demand, some online sex workers are taking special measures.
“I’ve seen quite a lot of girls running discounts,” Eva says.
“We’re sensitive to [customers’] drop in income – although I don’t yet see any evidence of a dip in spending.”
Camming websites are also taking action.
StripChat’s traffic surges
StripChat, for example, is handing out hundreds of free tokens to new viewers worldwide, enough for each recipient to pay a sex worker for a 10-minute private session.
“By acting as a central bank, we can increase the money supply and help the new wave of performers survive the crisis,” Max says.
“We’ve also doubled our payouts to our Italian models.
“As a social network of over 60 million people a month, we have a tremendous platform to [help] keep users off the streets.”
But for some sex workers, the costs and challenges of moving online are simply too large.
“There are sex workers still meeting clients in person because they don’t have a choice,” Lizzy says.
“That anyone has to choose between having enough money to live on and risking their and others’ health during a pandemic is ridiculous.”
Some support is available to these workers.
For example, Butterfly – an Asian and migrant sex worker support network – has published a Covid-19 guide that recommends sexual positions that minimise face-to-face contact, among other precautions.
But the nature of the industry makes it difficult for workers to tap into government schemes to compensate self-employed workers for lost earnings.
Prostitution itself is not illegal in England, Wales and Scotland – though it is unlawful to pay for sex in Northern Ireland – but the trade is often cash in hand and unrecorded.
In the US, the massive Covid-19 bailout bill explicitly excludes legal sex workers from protection.
According to the English Collective of Prostitutes, many sex workers are single mothers already made poorer by austerity measures – and the coronavirus is now exacerbating their situation.
With these concerns in mind, hundreds of online initiatives have popped up worldwide, such as the Covid-19 hardship fund from Swarm, a UK sex worker-led collective.
It says it has already used donations to support 234 sex workers in need
The long-term solution, however, is for better government support for sex workers, says Goddess Cleo.
“When sex work is treated as actual work and fully decriminalised, sex workers will have access to the same human rights as every other worker,” she says.