Webcam Sex Work Is a Lifeline for Women Who Lost Their Jobs During COVID

Women left unemployed by the lockdown in Colombia have turned to webcams to make a living, and sex workers are flipping to use digital services to stay safe and isolated.
Colombian camgirl model Rebecca performs during a webcam session at her apartment apartment in Medellin, Colombia on April 11, 2020.
Photo by JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP via Getty Images

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Some were sex workers with a list of sugar daddies. Others used to mix drinks at clubs, and a few once handled cash at bank desks.

Now, some young women in Colombia whose jobs were decimated by the pandemic have found a new calling. Employed again, they are beaming adult content across the internet from webcam studios nestled in quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods. A few of the more entrepreneurial ones have even set up their own work-from-home studios.


“When you do webcam, you don’t have to make physical contact with anyone. And you don’t have to have sex with people you don’t want to, like I had to before,” says Isabel, a 27-year-old unemployed escort who recently turned webcam model.

As importantly, hard cash hits their bank accounts twice a month.

Colombia’s tourist capital Medellín once boomed with jet-setting thrill-seekers, and erotica was often part of the appeal. When the coronavirus hit, Colombia’s President Iván Duque imposed a lockdown that lasted five months. Tourism was hard hit, but now seven out of every ten sex workers who once offered their services to American and European sex tourists are finding rebirth online, according to those working in the trade interviewed by VICE News for this article.

Ex-bank tellers and former bartenders are joining sex workers who used to work the streets in the booming webcam world, which allows them to make a decent buck without having to touch a living soul in the midst of a crisis that is ravaging vulnerable Latin American nations.

“People who were all locked up in their homes needed to find digital work where there was no physical contact,” says Cristian Cipriani, spokesperson for ManyVids Latin America, an adult webcam platform. “Webcam work is all about a pornographic experience where the model doesn’t make physical contact.”

Frank Hoyos, a manager who works at G7 Modelos, an agency and studio for filming adult material, says they went from managing 80 models before the pandemic to 40 now. “A lot of girls who used to work for us left during the pandemic and went independent,” he said. “Now, women who never used to work in the industry are coming to us.”


Unemployed and alone in the middle of April, 25-year-old Alessa, who is Venezuelan, lost her day job streaming adult videos across the internet at a Medellín webcam studio when it was forced to close during lockdown.

But instead of waiting for a call to return to her work and go back to being jam packed with other people, she bit the bullet, dropped a few thousand dollars on some equipment, and set up her own studio. She went freelance.

“I didn’t want to go back to run the risk,” says Alessa. “When I made the decision to go independent, I knew that my previous account with all my followers would evaporate. I had to start all over again.”


Alessa, a webcam model, chats with a client from her home studio in Medellín. Credit: Wes Michael Tomsaelli

Alessa’s studio looks out from the sixth floor of a building in Medellín’s quiet Simon Bolívar neighborhood. Her immaculate white space is decked out with three giant Samsung LCD screens and two computers. From here, Alessa blasts some 15 hours of adult content a day into the cloud. As if it were a call to the heavens, her fans in Europe and the U.S answer by sending back some $10,000 a month.

Alessa, Isabel and their peers build profiles on specialized adult web platforms. What Facebook and Instagram are to millions across the world, Chaturbate, Live Jasmine and CamSoda are to webcam models and the content-hungry users who use them. Models put up teasers on their profiles, pump videos out through social media, and then get paid to go private and perform any assortment of desires, ranging from twerking (74 tokens) to double penetration (2,111 tokens). Some platforms make payment in bitcoin.


The money is providing a real lifeline. “A lot of the girls in this line of work aren’t spending their money on cocaine and high heels,” says Nineteen Eighty Four, a producer with a local studio who manages webcam models. “Most of them are supporting their families. During the pandemic, I think there are a lot of families eating off webcamming.”

Inequality in Colombia is staggering. Before the pandemic, the economy was considered one of the strongest in Latin America and 9% were still jobless. After lockdown, around 20% of Colombians have lost their jobs. In a place where the minimum wage is less than $300 per month, the kind of money that Alessa is pulling in is a ticket out of poverty and tough situations.

COVID is continuing to disrupt the industry. There is a growing supply of young women who want to webcam, and the surge in competition over the past several months is now making it tougher for new models to gain top ratings. Like Isabel, many start off at a studio where there’s less of a barrier to entry, but owners often charge the models a 40% cut of their earnings to work from their studio space.

And then there are the Eastern European models. Romania, Hungary and Czech Republic are Colombia’s biggest rivals. On Chaturbate, there are 20 pages of Eastern European models. Colombia is a close second with 11. Folks from the U.S., the U.K., France, and Japan are the main consumers of Colombia’s adult webcam content, according to ManyVids data.


But working the webcam has its downside. Isabel said that jealous ex-boyfriends have found out about her job and shamed her in front of friends and family members. Other models live with the fear their grandmothers will find out and their families might disown them.

“The wife of one of my good online customers wrote me on Instagram and called me a slut and a bitch,” said Alessa. Her father won’t speak to her, but when she left her home country of Venezuela, she figured: “Either I get out of this hole where I am and keep my principles, or I sacrifice my principles and see how far away I can get from here… And even if my family disowns me, at least I’m making money.”

Alessa said she’ll work two more years in front of the camera. Once she makes enough money to buy a “modest house,” she said she will sign off Chaturbate forever.

Cover: Colombian camgirl model Rebecca performs during a webcam session at her apartment apartment in Medellin, Colombia on April 11, 2020. Credit: Photo by JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP via Getty Images.