College students often make ends meet with a part-time job in retail or food service. Others don’t.
Cal Poly junior Julia strips for strangers on the internet. (Editor’s note: Last name, age, major and online username have been omitted to protect the source from potential harassment and to not affect her future job opportunities.)
Julia started her career in the sex industry five years ago in Dallas, Texas. Fed up with the $6.13 federal minimum wage for waitressing, she began stripping at a club to earn extra cash. Now, the student performs as a “web model” on MyFreeCams.com, where she’s paid to do things like twerk, take her clothes off and drink wine from a glass. Regardless of the social stigma surrounding her work and the objectification she faces, Julia said her job is a passion of hers, one that she wants to stick with for a while.
A day in the life
Because of the scarcity of strip clubs near San Luis Obispo, Julia shifted to webcamming when she transferred to Cal Poly in Fall 2016. It’s an easier alternative than driving to the nearest strip club in Santa Maria, and it allows her to set her own work schedule. Once online, she can be asked to do anything from rub her own feet to have sex on camera, but it’s up to her to call the shots as to what she does.
“Ever since I got into the sex industry, I’ve mostly sold my personality,” Julia said.
She offers uplifting and “positive vibes” via chat, she said, “because there are plenty of men who are lonely, sad and just want that emotional connection.”
Julia does perform sexual acts for clients, but never without a price. Her host website, MyFreeCams.com, allows clients to tip web models using digital tokens, each of which is worth 10 cents. Julia is considered an independent contractor for MyFreeCams.com, she’s allowed to decide how many tokens each act is worth.
“So, for example, at 500 tokens, I’ll take my top off. And you can change that any way you want,” she said. “Like, for 50 tokens, I will take a drink of my wine glass … 10 tokens, I’ll flash you. Something really quick.”
Because Julia received a full scholarship to Cal Poly, webcamming pays for her groceries and other necessities. MyFreeCams.com takes 50 percent of each web model’s profits and the amount of money she earns per session varies, depending on how long she’s online and how many tips she gets. For a three-hour webcam session, she said her income can range between $30 to $300, but she typically earns $1,000 biweekly.
“I’m making money doing what I want. I love working in the sex industry,” Julia said. “As long as you don’t let it devour your soul, you’ll be fine. It’s enjoyable. It really is.”
Sex and tech
Julia witnessed firsthand how technology has changed the nature of the sex industry. She said five years ago, it was easy to make $1,000 in the club on a Sunday. Now, because the web makes sex widely available for anyone with an internet connection, sex itself is cheaper.
Esquire Magazine reported that in 2015 alone, more than 4 billion hours of porn were watched on Pornhub.com, the web’s largest pornography site. What’s more, it’s estimated that porn takes up approximately 37 percent of the internet. With sex so easily accessible online, Julia said, it’s harder to make as much money in clubs, and web models are now likely to do more for less.
However, sex industry workers still can and do use technology to their advantage. Utilizing social media platforms, webcam models and other sex industry workers can easily attract and engage with customers. It also helps them earn a little money on the side, an opportunity that wasn’t available five years ago.
Twitter and Snapchat are two of the biggest social media outlets webcam models use to their advantage, according to Julia. Web models primarily use Twitter to promote themselves and charge customers for access to their Snapchat username. Once a customer pays, he or she will have access to all Snapchat content posted by that model, which includes anything from private chats to naked shower videos.
Some models choose to charge for Snapchat on a monthly basis; for others, it’s a one-time deal. Julia said Facebook isn’t as prevalent in her industry anymore, though the social media platform definitely stirred up some talk in 2011 when it was found that sex workers were using Facebook to recruit customers.
Jane Lehr, associate professor of ethnic studies and department chair of women’s and gender studies at Cal Poly, said there are both advantages and disadvantages to using technology in the sex industry.
“In terms of camming, I think there is excitement about that as an option because it does seem to reduce risks. It reduces risks of bodily fluids, risks related to being in physical environments that you might not have control of,” Lehr said. “That said, we know, even in web-based interactions, horrible things can still happen … there’s still the opportunity for somebody to not have control, or to have their emotional or mental boundaries violated.”
While Julia’s experience with webcamming is overall enjoyable for her, she has experienced the online abuse and objectification that comes with working as a web model.
“[Some customers are] just so blunt, like, ‘Show us your pussy!’ And if you say, ‘No, you need to tip me,’ they’ll be like, ‘I’m not going to fucking tip for an ugly bitch like you,’” she said. “That’s frustrating to deal with and you get that a lot. Especially more on webcamming.”
Finding empowerment in the sex industry
Despite it being frustrating at times, working in the sex industry is fun for Julia. Even in the face of objectification and rude customers, she finds ways to keep herself sane.
“I love it when a customer just makes me mad. Because then I’m just going to fart on them and then leave. That is the most satisfying thing ever,” she said.
In the academic world of women’s and gender studies, Lehr said there’s debate about whether or not sex work can be truly empowering for women. However, she said there’s no way to come to a general conclusion; each individual case must be analyzed contextually.
For Julia, working in the sex industry is both empowering and safe. She said she feels particularly safe working in the webcam modeling business, and though some of her co-models have encountered issues with stalkers, she said she’s never had that kind of issue before.
While her work may be empowering to her, other people sometimes feel uncomfortable with her profession. She said because of the stigma surrounding sex workers, it can be hard to start new relationships with people.
“Men are too insecure to handle a woman in the sex industry, let me tell you,” she said. “Unless they’re a pimp and then they’re all for it.”
In addition, Julia said her family doesn’t know about her part-time gig as a web model. Though she plans on telling them at some point, she said her family has a don’t-ask, don’t-tell attitude, and it hasn’t come up in conversation yet.
“I just can’t break it to them,” she said. “My poor grandma!”
Still, Julia sees herself continuing to work in the industry, even after she graduates from Cal Poly.
“I’ll probably work at a club. It’s just so fun and so empowering. Like, people pay to go out and drink with their friends,” she said. “I get to go, all my drinks are paid for and I get to go home with some money in my pocket. I love it.”
Note: The age and online username of the student originally quoted in this story have been omitted to protect the source from possible harassment.