Ella* started camming during her first year of uni. Back home for a week, she made the mistake of leaving her phone out in the living room. Her mum picked it up and saw that some guy called John had sent her £75.
“It was really early days for me, so I hadn’t gotten into the habit of keeping my phone under wraps or turned off my notifications,” Ella says. “When you’ve never been a secretive person before, it’s counterintuitive. That was actually my first big payment, too, which was fucking unfortunate.”
Her mum asked questions. Ella considered making up a story and decided to be honest, thinking that her mum would understand. Instead the two of them had a row that climaxed in Ella refusing to come home for Christmas. Three years later, she says that things are back to normal between them – but only because she promised that she has stopped camming.
“The first thing I did when I got back to Manchester was buy a second phone,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t bother if I could just be straightforward with others about what I do, but that run-in taught me that even the people you trust most can treat you like shit when they find out you do sex work.”
Like most other industries, the machinations of sex work are increasingly online – a trend vastly accelerated by COVID. For planning, getting paid and even person-to-person interaction, phones have become vital tools. And in a country in which both the law and social taboos require sex workers to remain discrete, more and more are doubling up on devices to keep themselves safe.
Having worked a mix of stripping and sugar babying for the last two years, Ally got a dedicated work phone when she started offering full service about six months ago. “I didn’t want to be giving out my normal number, using the WhatsApp account with my real name on it – that kind of stuff,” she tells me. “Complete separation is good.”
Ally feels that multiple phones, even just as a cautionary measure, help to facilitate the shifting of identities that’s sometimes useful for sex work, regardless of its legal status. She has two phones – one professional, one personal, with one sim for each – but says it’s not uncommon for friends to have up to four.
“You might have a stripper one, a full service one, a sugaring one, your personal one,” Ally explains. “People have different lives, different names, different personalities for different clients. If you have a dom phone, you know that with anyone who contacts you on there you have to be your dom personality; that’ll be different from your sugar baby phone, where you’re cutesy.” Essentially, she says, they help with the performance aspect of work, just as they do for lawyers, bankers, politicians and anyone else who becomes an adapted version of themselves when they walk through the office door.
But second phones also help sex workers in a much more direct sense. Nadine*, who’s been in the industry for 11 years, says the way she works changed fundamentally with the development of apps like Client Eye and Ugly Mugs, which let workers vet clients and report abusers and time-wasters. In 2018, a survey showed that those networks were key to making sex workers feel safe, vastly reducing the likelihood of physical assault.
“You can’t have apps like that if you’re worried about someone who doesn’t know you’re working looking over your shoulder,” Nadine says. “And, sure, it’s easy to say ‘delete them and just download them when you need them’, but who has time for that? I hate admin just as much as non-sex workers do. Imagine expecting office staff to re-download Excel every day.”
Last year, members of the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement, or SWARM, had clocked the rising demand for second phones. In March, just before the country went into lockdown, it launched the Dialtone Project, which collects and distributes donated phones to sex workers who need them.
“It’s something that happens a lot in the sex work community: people swap resources – phones, knowledge, clothes, things like that – all the time, so I thought it would be good to formalise some of those exchanges,” says Polly, Dialtone’s organiser.
The project’s website points out that affording one phone can be difficult for lots of sex workers, so getting a second one might seem impossible, which in turn makes working, especially working safely, more challenging. “Some individuals just need a phone in order to work and live,” adds Polly. “I don’t ask for details: if someone’s trying to scam a tiny project out of a second-hand phone, they probably need one anyway.”
She tells me that one of her biggest challenges so far has been reaching out to those most in need. That means people working on the street, who are often less familiar with networks like SWARM or the projects in place to help them.
“Sometimes people are kind of surprised that we want to help, but that’s what we do,” she says, adding that lots of the phones donated so far have come from other sex workers who recognise Dialtone’s importance. “We’re a community and we look after each other. There’s a historical sense that no one else is going to help us, so we have to help ourselves.”
This is one of the specificities – along with questions of discretion and safety – that makes Dialtone necessary: most sex workers don’t have work phones included in the corporate package now commonplace for middle-class white-collar staff. Despite that, Ally and Polly are both keen to note that the demand for second phones above all proves that being a sex worker isn’t that different to any other lifestyle requiring a healthy work-life balance.
“If I go away on holiday I won’t take my work phone, which gives me a break from the emotional labour,” Ally says. “When you’re texting clients you have to be perky all the time. I can’t always be bothered with that.”
Polly adds that Dialtone isn’t about sex workers being secretive or duplicitous. “Second phones aren’t something you need for sex work,” she says. “Sometimes it can be as simple as wanting to turn off for a bit and not wanting to read the work emails coming in. And that’s a universal experience.”
*Names have been changed.