For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only

The shifting sphere of digital sexual commerce
Katia Innes, A&E Editor

Admit it: You’ve watched porn. Most people past their early teen years—or who have used the internet for that matter—have consumed internet porn. According to a study by the National Centre on Sexual Exploitation, 64 per cent of young people aged 13–24, seek out pornography at least weekly. It is less routine, but still fairly common, to admit that you’ve watched a live cam show, or maybe purchased nude photos from someone’s premium Snapchat. It is even more peculiar, but increasingly common, to be the person selling used panties, or posing in front of the webcam. But many students have, in fact, found lucrative side hustles selling sexual services on the internet, leveraging the autonomous nature of online work and streaming from the comfort of their own homes. Jared*, a third-year McGill student, began working as a camboy during his first year at McGill. A cam boy or girl is loosely defined as a model performing any variety of sexualized acts to an audience in a chatroom. Jared used Chaturbate, a webcam site, to stream from his dorm room, initially by himself, and eventually with his then-boyfriend. Jared was drawn to camming as a means to make money and to explore their sexuality.

“I was a virgin at this point still, [and] the idea of just meeting up with someone, or just camming with someone and not actually having to have sex with them, was a huge deal for me,” Jared said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “I was like ‘How can I experience homosexual culture without having to take it in the ass?’ and that was literally where this came from.’”

Jared continued to cam for the next five months before quietly withdrawing from Chaturbate. There was no specific reason for his departure, Jared explained; rather, he simply no longer felt the desire to cam. Jared’s experiences aren’t unique: Many students have performed or distributed sexual services online to make money on the side. It is very easy to start earning profit from digital sexual services, and it is just as easy to delete your account, resulting in an industry that is constantly in flux.

Similarly to Jared, Naheed* began camming not out of a specific desire to engage in sex work, but out of curiosity. During her junior year of high school, Naheed began using Omegle, a free online chat website, as a platform for sexual exploration, eventually realizing that she could turn these online interactions into financial transactions. Though Naheed has stopped doing online sex work and divulged that she has since repressed the memories of most of her experiences, she still cites this period as a formative part of her adolescence.

“It actually really made me fulfilled in some ways, even past the more traumatic or negative experiences,” Naheed said. “I felt like I was in charge, I felt really empowered after some instances, and so in terms of my self-perception, I understood myself to be a whole being, one with sexual thoughts, feelings, [and] rights, and also one who had experienced trauma, not only under [the digital] sphere.”

The definition of digital sexual commerce is still nebulous, but can broadly be understood as a term that encompasses many forms of sexual labour that often overlap and intersect. While some platforms allow sex workers to create accounts linked directly to their bank accounts, sex workers who use unregulated platforms, such as Omegle, often receive payments via e-transfer or PayPal. Distributing pornographic images or videos via digital platforms is another way to engage in virtual sexual commerce. Although premium Snapchat and OnlyFans are platforms that are not exclusively designed to support sex work, their framework, which allows a select group of paying ‘fans’ access to content at a cost, has monetized this labour.

Similarly, digital sexual commerce extends to the sale of physical fetish materials: Used underwear, hoseries, and hygiene products have found sizeable markets. PantyDeal, a popular website for used underwear distribution, boasts over 500,000 buyers worldwide. These forms of digital sex work often complement camming, with workers using multiple platforms to increase engagement. Depending on platform, type, and frequency, digital sex work can range in its lucrativeness. This flexibility in work hours and income is compelling to many students. Jared believes that he made roughly $100 per week during the six-month period when he cammed.

“I didn't treat it as much [like a] business as some of the more established people, [who] treated it like a main source of income,” Jared said. “I definitely was more [of a] hobbyist with it [....] It basically came from me wanting to get things, like a new laptop.”

On Chaturbate, clients purchase tokens for $0.05 each, and use them to pay models during live-streams for specific requests. Popular cam stars can make anywhere from $5,000 to $14,000 per month, Students who are not tied to one specific platform generate a clientele and can therefore set their own prices per item or bill on an hourly basis, depending on the type of work. Naheed was not tied to one platform, and she would receive payments through PayPal after deciding on a price with the client.

It is very difficult to become entirely financially independent via online sex work: While popular models on a site like Chaturbate can amass followers in the tens of thousands, this requires almost daily performances. In a student’s hectic schedule, this is often unrealistic. Regardless, outlets such as camming can prove to be fruitful side hustles. Bella French is a webcam model and CEO of ManyVids, a Montreal-based webcam platform. She began camming after graduating from HEC Montreal, and recognizes that digital sexual commerce offers a flexibility that can be attractive to students.

“Students are uniquely positioned to understand [...] the benefits of being [their] own boss and freelancing, using mobile technology to carve out their business opportunities, and leverage their diverse skill set to take on anything they choose [....]” French wrote in an email to the Tribune. “You’re your own boss and you set your own schedule, working as little or as much as you want.”

Freelancing as a webcam model, though socially taboo, is perfectly legitimate. The purchasing of sexual services that occur in the physical realm is illegal under the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act . However, as long as the individuals presented are over 18 years-old, pornographic materials, including webcam streams, photographs, and videos are perfectly legal. Despite this, it remains difficult for students to talk about their experiences in online sex work: Preconceptions of this kind of labour, as well as a reluctance to address sexuality, bar many of these discourses from happening.

“I think the scariest thing for me [...] was that people were going to screen-record it and put it on like a pornsite or circulate it in a group chat or something,” Jared said. “And then also, [I was worried about] people that I knew watching.”

The digital world allows for a degree of anonymity, but presents a unique set of risks. Regardless of the ostensible impermanence of such digital platforms, selling erotic videos, pictures, and items, such as used underwear, leaves digital and sometimes physical footprints that may be traced back to the content providers. Personal privacy may be jeopardized as well, leading to online harassment, and in some extreme cases, stalking and blackmail. Sex workers who use unregulated platforms, or multiple types of platforms, are more vulnerable to such breaches of information and safety. After sharing her Skype contact information with regular clients, Naheed’s personal information was hacked and she stopped camming shortly thereafter.

The performative and permanent aspect of online sex work may also have lingering effects. Third-year McGill student Britney*, who began selling semi-pornographic photos of herself to rapper Lil B after he direct-messaged her on Twitter , was unconcerned with her photos being distributed on public digital forums. Although these photos have no link to any of her social media accounts or any personal information, her face is visible in every image.

“[I feel] more comfortable selling photos online than I do sending photos to a partner,” Britney said.

“With the intimate partner, there’s this whole issue of revenge porn in case you guys break up. They can hold onto it and use it against you, and it will be very much connected to you whereas sending photos out to random people without any kind of links back to you feels a lot safer, for me at least.”

The proliferation of pornographic images on the internet, devoid of context, leaves room for endless implications, allowing users and clients to imprint their own fantasies and desires onto the material. Conveniently, this barrier further creates a distance between the buyer and the seller, removing sex workers from scenarios in which they may be exposed to direct physical harm. For direct sales, such as physical materials, there is little interaction after the initial purchase. However, for camwork and other services that involve rapport between sex workers and their clients, maintaining an online persona can be emotionally exhausting.

“Because I had that barrier of an online realm, I could embody somebody else to an extent where my personal ideas, what woman I wanted to be, and what person I wanted to be in the world, were put aside,” Naheed said. “They were limited in exchange for offering someone a fantasy of gendered existence and a sexuality that wasn’t my own.”

Conversely, digital platforms may also function as a space for mediation between sex workers and their customers. On media specifically designed to distribute erotic images and videos, discourse often occurs in the comments section between sex workers and their clients. On Chaturbate, for instance, users can comment suggestions and requests in chatrooms, but these are only fulfilled if tokens are purchased. For sex workers with returning clientele, informal relationships may arise: It is not unusual for clients to reach out to sex workers, in some cases buying gifts and establishing routines for services.

“I never felt an emotional connection to any one of these people I met online,” Jared said. “It’s hard to feel an emotional connection with someone, at least in my experience, across a screen.”

Beyond the impersonality of chatrooms, Jared and Naheed both noted that selling sex work online can feel isolating, as there is a general reluctance to address the topic in the real world. While a few of Jared’s friends, and even his mother, were vaguely aware of his escapades on Chaturbate, Naheed did not share her experiences on Omegle until later. To help alleviate the feelings of isolation, community organizations such as Stella, l'amie de Mamie, le Piamp, and Centre for Gender Advocacy offer resources to help students who do sex work. Digital sexual commerce, by its online nature, can feel distancing, helping to create an illusion for sex workers that their experience is unusual when, in fact, this is a shared experience they can find solidarity in.

“I think the trajectory of how we, and by we I mean society, regard sex work has radically changed in the past couple of years, especially online sex work,” Naheed said. “I had friends ‘come out’ to me with these experiences and feeling a sense of solidarity, but also a great sense of loss for my 16-year-old self. That could’ve been accessible.”

Current university students have grown up alongside the internet, so it seems fitting that it has become intrinsically linked to our formative experiences, including our sexualities.

Tutorials and vlogs exist to document just about every part of the human experience, depicting heartbreak, college acceptances, and loss.

Sexual development has been pushed to the wayside, operating in relative taboo. While, to the consumer, internet porn is often conceived as empty and vapid, it has taken up a position of undeniable importance in modern coming-of-age.

“I found the ability to [...] I wouldn’t say love myself, but see a connectedness between my existence and some sort of value, some sort of worth, whether it be from some peoples’ pleasure or [their] finances,” Naheed said. “I found the majority of my self-worth in there.”

With all of its innovations and conveniences, there is no doubt that online sex work will continue to grow as an industry. For consumers, it is cheap, accessible, widespread, and often helps bridge gaps between our curiosities and desires. For performers and workers, the range of participation in online sex work can fulfill financial and emotional needs equally. Yet, with all the benefits that come with this open discourse surrounding sex, the internet remains an unreliable platform. Finding balance between the sense of empowerment and the sense of exploitation is tricky: What may count as meaningful representation of non-normative sexualities can also be warped into unhealthy fetishization by outsiders. Despite such shortcomings, digital spaces are perhaps the best platforms to allow for sexual expression and exploration. They hold great potential in providing healthy outlets in a tumultuous and technology-filled coming of age.

“I guess I look back and wish that there were more avenues for me to access that kind of feeling, and that it didn’t necessarily have to come from this type of sex work,” Naheed said. “It could have maybe come from somewhere else, but I don’t know if that was politically or socially possible.”

*Names have been changed

*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the selling or advertising of sexual services that occur in the physical realm is illegal under the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. In fact, purchasing sexual services in the physical realm is illegal under this act. The Tribune regrets this error.