Since COVID-19 hit, the sex industry has operated almost solely online, with more sex workers than ever using virtual platforms to host chat rooms (camming), create custom content, and offer a virtual girlfriend experience.
But many sex workers are also mothers—and single mothers at that—which poses a challenge when it comes to what, if anything, their children know about their work. Especially now that work has entered the home. So how do they navigate this sensitive topic, made all the more sensitive by the stigma attached?
Most of the sex workers I spoke to didn’t want their children to know what they do for a living, but some have told their children about their jobs, or plan to when their kids are older. I asked some sex worker mums about how they broach the topic, and why. Here’s what I learned.
Regardless of what they tell their kids, that’s who they’re doing it for.
Chastity Rose is a UK-based cam girl at a virtual sex-work agency. She has participated in various aspects of the industry but her children, who are eight and three years old, believe she earns all her income as a singer and DJ. “I earn minimum wage with my singing work, and life really hasn’t panned out the way I expected,” Chastity says, “but I point-blank refuse to not give my children the lives they deserve. Being a mother just makes me strive harder. I sleep less so that I can work more and ensure they don’t go without.”
One couple from Washington in the US—we’ll call them Jane and Emma—recently started camming together when one of the women lost her job due to COVID-19. They don’t plan to ever tell their 10-year-old about this job. Emma plans to return to her job as a home carer when quarantine ends, and for now she tells her child that she’s working as an online tutor. The couple says that if it weren’t for their son, they could probably manage without the extra income camming brings in at this time, but providing for him makes them want to build up a financial safety net.
What they tell their kids depends on a lot of different factors, like stigma.
Sofia Sanctuary is also a cam girl. She says she worries that one day her son, who is five, could be on the receiving end of some “nasty comments about me”. That’s why she intends to be open with him about her work in the future—“I want him to fully understand and be aware of what [sex work] is really like”. But she is also hopeful that stigma will decrease over time, and that in ten years it won’t feel like a big deal.
In contrast, Jane and Emma from Washington say this stigma is the primary reason they won’t tell their child. “No one in our lives would be supportive of this,” Emma says, “not our church or family or even our friends. I don’t want to put him in the position of feeling uncomfortable when people talk negatively about the industry, or getting into arguments if he wants to defend us. I think it’s best if he’s protected from knowing. Ignorance is bliss.”
Tiffany, 36, is from Victoria, Australia. Before the pandemic hit, she hosted sex parties, worked as an escort, and offered the girlfriend experience. Her children, ages 12 and 14, know she is a sex worker, and that she’s moved her business online during quarantine. Her 12-year-old has told her he’s not ashamed of her job, but “I don’t want my friends to notice [you] online one day. I just don’t feel like dealing with those conversations because I don’t think they’ll understand.” Tiffany explains that she avoids this by blocking local customers with a special feature on her website.
Mel, a sex worker from Ireland, was 18 when she started camming, and her twins were toddlers. Once they went to school, she found simple ways to tell them about her work. “I don’t like dishonesty, so I told them that I show my body to people who want to watch me and I play… Over time, we’ve had some more conversations, but I only answer the questions they have; like, why people want to watch me. I tell them it’s because they find pleasure in it or that they like the company, and I avoid telling them more information than they need. They don’t know what sex is.”
Some see discussion of their work as an opportunity for life lessons.
Sofia doesn’t know when the exact right time to tell her son will be, but she suspects it will happen when he’s a teen. She also believes that in some ways, it will be “beneficial” for him. “I’ll be able to explain what the adult industry is really like. There are so many misconceptions that people can wrongly judge you for. I want to teach him to respect a woman’s mind as well as her body, and that your job does not define you as a person.”
It’s just as hard, and sometimes more so, than being a working mum in a “regular” industry.
“Sex work as the parent of a young one is challenging,” says Sofia. During the day, she’s engaged in activities with her child and housework. “Come evening, when he’s in bed and I would usually cam, I’m shattered. On the plus side, he has no idea what I’m doing because he’s asleep when I cam, but it also means I’m constantly listening out in case he wakes up.”
Mel, the sex worker from Ireland, says it’s exhausting having to keep her work so private, and it’s almost impossible to upload videos while her primary-school age kids are around. Her children have interrupted her while she’s camming in the middle of the night.
Tiffany says her children (12 and 14) understand many of the challenging aspects of the job, including the emotional labour, time and physical energy it requires. “I tell my kids that we’re not actually ‘partying’, even when we’re hosting parties. We’re not just having sex. We’re creating experiences for other people, so we have to be aware of their needs and put them first, while also trying to establish boundaries and keep ourselves safe. It’s a lot of multi-tasking.
“When I’m giving someone a girlfriend experience, I am typically available to them any time of the day, so I never get to turn off the job, even when I’m just trying to spend time with my family. I want my kids to know how hard we work.”
Her children sometimes worry about her. Her son says he’s happy she’s working only online right now, as he gets anxious that something could happen to her when she’s with strangers.
They want to teach their kids how to make informed decisions.
Toni, from the US, is an ex-porn actor in her late thirties. She has two teen daughters and a teen son, who know about her prior work, although when they were very young, they just knew she was in movies they weren’t allowed to watch. She’s no longer in the sex industry, but she decided to tell them because she feared they might find out from someone else one day, or come across videos online.
Toni believes it’s important to discuss her experiences with them, especially around exploitation. She wants her children to support sex workers more directly, for example by paying for porn through ethical websites that offer high commissions. “They’re always embarrassed to talk about porn,” she says, “but I let them know that it’s normal to be curious. Models and actresses don’t get paid well by these big companies, and they’re mistreated in other ways. I want everyone who uses porn to get it directly from the source instead … We have good dialogues and learn from each other.”
She says her eldest daughter has asked if she liked working in the industry, and she’s “honest about the good and the bad.” She warns them about the unsafe situations she encountered as a prostitute and dancer, warning her kids to be careful out in the world, even in situations that seem carefree and fun. “They trust me more than other teenagers seem to trust their parents. I listen and I make recommendations based on my own experiences.”
Tiffany wants her children to recognise that sex work and porn don’t need to be taboo. She doesn’t let her young teens visit pornographic websites, but says when they’re older and more mature, she will be supportive of them trying virtual platforms to explore their sexual identities. Open conversations about her role in the industry have led to healthy conversations about sex over time, she says. “I think they take sex and porn more seriously than other kids.”
They want their kids to know sex work is about human connection.
When Tiffany talks with her children about her work, she emphasises that it’s about creating opportunities for people to be close to one another. “I’ve been telling them that since they were young, and they understand … [for example], right now, I’m helping people who are struggling with mental health issues and loneliness in quarantine.”
She avoided telling them anything more specific about her work until they hit puberty. “When we finally had ‘the talk’, my honesty helped them see that my job isn’t anything to be ashamed of. That it’s a nuanced industry.”
Sofia agrees: “It’s not just about sex.”