The world of sex work is largely invisible to many of us. Sure, we may be porn consumers, or see prostitutes in pursuit of customers on corners, or even be acquainted with an escort or two. However, the people who work in this vastly diverse area of employment remain, in many ways, a mystery. The attached stigma alone is enough to keep sex workers in the closet. One particular sect that is especially underrepresented in conversations about the adult entertainment industry is that of what is colloquially known as camwhores — women who perform live on camera for their customers in a chatroom-like setting.
Former camgirl Hannah B.’s story is one that begins with a certain amount of cliché. Finding herself in university and uncertain of what major she should pursue, Hannah decided to take some time off school and was looking for an easy way to make some cash in the meantime. Cam work seemed like a natural choice and she entered into the profession free of conflict. As she explains, “As a sex-positive feminist, I feel that it is my body and I can absolutely do what I wish with it. I guess I never felt objectified if I was doing what I wanted when I wanted.”
That said, there were surprises early on. “You find your niche, or rather your niche comes to you. I thought my basic appearance — you know, dark hair, tattoos, heavy eyeliner — would lead me more towards domme work, but really people wanted me to be very sweet and cutesy, almost like a tough-looking girl next door. It wasn’t what I expected.” Perhaps you’d be inclined to think that for an intelligent, pretty, soft-spoken woman in her 20s, this would be something of a relief. For Hannah, it was quite the opposite. “A lot of it is conversation. It has to seem genuine and I didn’t particularly want anything to do with that. It’s very easy to just yell at someone and tell them they’re a piece of shit and make some cracking noises with a whip. Beyond that, it’s like, ‘How do I portray sweetness in a natural way?’ I think it pushed me in a very strange direction to develop these aspects of my personality.”
Hannah’s average workday was very flexible. “I could work at any time really, but most people are at their jobs at certain times, so I normally wouldn’t start until 5 or 6 p.m. That left me my days, which I really enjoyed! I had time to create music, and art, and go outside if I wanted and take a day off if I felt like it.” Kicking off her workday was really very similar to what many women in other lines of work do: shower, hair, makeup. “Getting ready involved putting on a lot more makeup than I usually would because webcams kind of wash you out and, when I first started, I was very overeager to embody a more stereotypical porn star look. Later, I realized that many men wanted real-looking women.” Dialling back the makeup and easing off the compulsive hair removal served to build her appeal with certain demographics. “They didn’t care that when I sat I had a belly flub. I used to spend so much time worrying about that and trying to position myself perfectly that I was actually hurting myself.”
Certain aspects of the job were enjoyable and even fun for Hannah. “Do I want to be a blowup doll today? Do I want to be the girl next door? It was fun playing around with that.” However, this constant reinvention that camgirls do is a double-edged sword. “You play a sympathetic ear, you play therapist, you play wife, you play girlfriend, and you play faceless whore. It’s a strange thing to change hats so often.”
Typically, you’ll be in a free chat area beforehand, clients message you to describe what they want and, if you agree to it, they’ll take you to a private show. For Hannah, her preferred customers were fetishists. “Something that was very menial to me would be fascinating to them and they’re paying five dollars a minute for it. My favourite was foot fetishists. Very simple. You put the high heel on, you slide it off. You put it on, slide it off. You stretch your toes, put them in your mouth, roll down your stocking and 15 minutes are up. It was easy money.” Once she made $300 for a 20-minute show, but other days, she’d make next to nothing.
While Hannah is adamant that she has no regrets when she reflects on this period of her life and calls it “a learning experience,” she freely admits that aspects of the work affected her deeply. “I definitely started out just thinking, ‘This is a computer screen, this is not real, and I’m just going to get it done.’ By the end of it, I found that I was not necessarily emotionally involved in the people, but emotionally involved in the work. It was draining.”
By far, the most difficult aspect of the job was the abuse she endured at the hands of the very people she was relying on to pay the bills: “If there was a request I didn’t want to fulfill, [potential customers] would become very verbally abusive and it wears you down. I got called a fat whore almost every day. They would say they were going to find me and kill me and cut me up and put me in a dumpster. You think you can’t be affected by some typed out words on a screen, but I found myself breaking down and crying quite regularly.”
As for potential consequences for her history as a camgirl, Hannah has a tentatively positive outlook: “Fortunately, I’ve never been recognized in public, but there’s also a big hole in my resume where I have to lie. Most of my friends and my family don’t know — maybe less than five people. I feel that perhaps I’m hiding a part of myself, and I don’t know if that comes from shame or I’d just be exhausted trying to explain it all. Most sex workers feel alienated: if you have a bad day at work, who do you really get to talk to? Who would even understand if they did offer a sympathetic ear?” Hannah also notes that relationships were a virtual impossibility while she was in the industry, as most people aren’t comfortable dating a sex worker, but pointing out that “adding another individual and their emotions at the end of the day would have probably been too stressful for me anyways.”
For other aspiring camgirls, Hannah’s advice is such: “When you’re done work, you can’t necessarily leave it. It’s your bed. It may be perceived as a highly safe form of sex work [because of the absence of physical contact or risk for STIs], but you need to have a hard heart. Eventually something is going to get to you and you need to prepare for that.
“It shined a spotlight on aspects of myself,” she muses. “Maybe I’m not as tough as I thought.”
By EZ Breezy