Photo: Getty Images / Manuel Breva Colmeiro
Ella * started camming in her first year at university. For a week at home, she made the mistake of leaving her cell phone in the living room. Her mother picked it up and saw that a guy named John had sent her 75 pounds.
“It was really early for me, so I wasn’t in the habit of keeping my phone locked or turning off my notifications,” says Ella. “If you’ve never been a secret person, that’s not intuitive. That was actually my first big payment too, which was damn unfortunate. ”
Her mother asked questions. Ella considered making up a story and decided to be honest because she thought her mother would understand. Instead, the two had an argument that peaked in Ella and refused to come home for Christmas. Three years later, she says that things are back to normal between them – but only because she promised she’d stopped camming.
“The first thing I did when I got back to Manchester was buy a second phone,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t care if I could just talk to others about my work, but that encounter taught me that even the people you trust the most can treat you like shit when they find out you are Doing sex work. ”
As in most other industries, the machinations of sex work are increasingly online – a trend that is being accelerated significantly by COVID. For planning, payment, and even person-to-person interaction, phones have become essential tools. And in a country where both the law and social taboos require sex workers to be discreet, more and more devices are duplicating to protect themselves.
After doing a mix of stripping and sugar babies over the past two years, Ally got a dedicated work phone when she started offering full service about six months ago. “I didn’t want to reveal my normal number and use the WhatsApp account with my real name – things like that,” she tells me. “Complete separation is good.”
Ally believes that having multiple phones, even just as a precaution, will help facilitate the shifting of identities that are sometimes useful for sex work, regardless of their legal status. She has two phones – one professional, one personal, and a Sim each – but says it’s not uncommon for friends to have up to four.
“You could have a stripper, a full service, a sugary one, your own,” explains Ally. “People have different lives, different names, different personalities for different customers. If you have a Dom phone, you know that you have to be your Dom personality with anyone they contact you. It’ll be different than your sugar baby phone, where you’re cute. “Essentially, she says, they help with the performance aspect of work, just as they do for lawyers, bankers, politicians, and anyone else who becomes a customized 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 has been in the industry for 11 years, says the way she works has changed dramatically with the development of apps like Client Eye and Ugly Mugs that employees can use to investigate customers and report abusers and time wasters. In 2018 a survey revealed that these networks were key to making sex workers feel safe, which greatly reduced the likelihood of physical abuse.
“You can’t have apps like this if you’re worried about someone who doesn’t know you’re looking over their shoulder,” says Nadine. “And of course it’s easy to say, delete them and just download them when you need them. But who has time for it? I hate admin as much as I hate non-sex workers. Imagine expecting office workers to re-download Excel every day. ”
Last year members of the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement or SWARMhad clocked the increasing demand for second telephones. In March, just before the country was in lockdown, it launched the Dialtone project, which collects donated phones and distributes them to sex workers who need them.
“It’s something that is common in the sex community: people are constantly exchanging resources – phones, knowledge, clothes, things like that – so I thought it would be good to formalize some of those exchanges,” says Polly, Dialtone’s organizer.
The website of the project points out that many sex workers can find it difficult to afford a phone. Therefore, it seems impossible to get a second one, which in turn makes working, especially working safely, more difficult. “Some people just need a make phone calls to work and live, ”adds Polly. “I don’t ask for details: if someone is trying to cheat on a tiny project from a used phone, they probably need one anyway.”
She tells me that one of her biggest challenges so far has been reaching those most in need. This means that people are working on the street who are often less familiar with networks like SWARM or the existing projects to help them.
“Sometimes people are a little surprised that we want to help, but that’s exactly what we do,” she says, adding that many of the phones donated so far are from other sex workers who are realizing the importance of dialtone. “We are a community and we care for one another. There is a historical feeling that no one else is going to help us, so we have to help ourselves. ”
This is one of the specifics – along with issues of discretion and security – that make dialtones necessary: Most sex workers do not have work phones in the corporate package commonplace now for middle-class employees. Even so, Ally and Polly are both keen to note that the demand for second phones above all else proves that sex work is no different than any other lifestyle that requires a healthy work-life balance.
“When I go on vacation, I don’t take my work phone with me, which gives me a break from emotional work,” says Ally. “When you text customers, you have to be alert all the time. That can’t always bother me. “
Polly adds that Dialtone isn’t about sex workers being secret or duplicate. “Second phones are not what you are need for sex work, ”she says. “Sometimes it can be so easy to want to shut yourself off a little and not want to read the incoming work email. And that is a universal experience.”
* Names have been changed.