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The sex work industry has changed a lot in recent years. Due to its interactive, approachable nature, the use of webcams has become increasingly popular. How do online sex workers earn their money? And what are the terms of employment like in this fast-growing industry? PhD candidates Hanne Stegeman, Emilija Jokubauskaitė and postdoc Rébecca Franco are researching revenues, working conditions and legislation inside the online sex work industry.

LiveJasmin, Chaturbate and Stripchat and many others are large online sex work platforms offering a choice of dozens of categories, hundreds of thousands of performers and thousands of live streams. As a sex worker, how do you ensure people will find you within this continuous stream of content? 'In that respect, webcam sex platforms work similarly to other content creator platforms,' Emilija Jokubauskaitė explains. She is researching the technical elements of platforms that are also part of the working environments. 'Algorithms make sure users are presented with the content they want to see, encouraging them to spend money. As with social media, it is not known exactly how these algorithms work.'

Winner takes it all

Such an algorithm raises certain questions, while often causing inequality. 'A winner-takes-all effect is very common. Performers who attract a lot of viewers quickly move up the ranking, thereby increasing their revenue. This makes it difficult for the rest to gain prominence, and the result is that a small percentage of online sex workers brings in a large share of the revenue.'

Copyright: Rebecca Franco
Then Mastercard and Visa suddenly decided that hypnosis content is not safe, so it’s no longer monetised. This resulted in a sudden loss of revenue stream. Rébecca Franco

How much does a performer earn?

Although webcam sites are in many cases similar to content platforms like YouTube or Instagram, the payment structure is different. As an online sex worker, you are paid by the site visitors, who transfer money through the platform. The platform claims a percentage, and the rest is yours.

How much does an online sex worker earn on average? Jokubauskaitė looked into the tips received by performers during online shows on one webcam platform. 'The amounts vary a lot. In just two weeks I saw a popular streamer earn 20,000 dollars, but the average amount during the same time was only 120 dollars. Half of the performers, however, earned 1 dollar or even less. You can really see that winner-takes-all effect.'

Hair colour, breast size and cigarettes

Another form of inequality is that white performers are ranked higher on the website than performers of colour, research shows. Hanne Stegeman took a closer look at discrimination on online sex platforms. 'On webcam platforms, categories play a bigger role than usual. You can search by hair colour, breast size and whether someone is a smoker. These categories are classified in a way we don't normally talk about people. For instance, you can filter by body type, race or a fetish.'

While categories can exacerbate negative stereotypes, they also have benefits, Stegeman stresses. 'People that have a fetish search for a particular characteristic. It is therefore possible to highlight part of your identity to reach a specific target audience. In short, categories can lead to discrimination, but they can also be used to make extra money.'

Payment processors set their own rules

Rébecca Franco looked into the porn offered on webcam platforms. 'In the old days when you bought porn, hardly anyone would know what you had purchased. Online, this is different. You have to go through a payment processor to make a transaction. Credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard can know exactly what their service is used for. They therefore can be held accountable. Not only legally, but also in terms of media coverage and the company’s image. As a result, they are cautious about facilitating payment for pornography. Payment processors create their own rules that determine what content is or is not allowed on webcam platforms.'

Hypnosis content

Sex workers are frequently disadvantaged by these self-imposed rules of credit card companies. As webcam platforms do not function as an employer towards the performers, actions to counter such disadvantage are lacking. Franco gives an example: 'Take hypnosis content, where you "hypnotise" people through a sensual ritual. A performer has made numerous hypnosis videos, builds a dedicated fan base and earns good money from this. Then Mastercard and Visa suddenly decided that hypnosis content is not safe, so it’s no longer monetised. This resulted in a sudden loss of revenue stream.'

The appeal of online sex work

Discrimination due to categories, unfair income distribution and hardly any terms of employment. So what makes online sex worker an attractive job? Hanne Stegeman interviewed several webcam performers about their jobs.

About half of the women she spoke to were mothers. It struck her that there is a perception in our society that women who webcam are bad mothers. 'If there is one thing that helps these women be good mothers, it is online sex work. Whereas mothers with "regular" jobs spend a lot of money on childcare, these women can work when their children are at school or sleeping. This allows them to spend more time with their children.'

Actually, there are many similarities with influencers in this respect. 'Webcamming is easy to do from home, you set your own working hours and you are virtually your own boss. It offers a more favourable work-life balance than most traditional professions.'