Sex Work on Their Own Terms: How Latin American Web Cam Models Are Making Globalization Work For Them

A still from the documentary 'Cam Girlz'

Latin American web cam models can make more than ten times the minimum wage from the comfort of their bedrooms while sexually pleasuring themselves in front of their laptop. Is it any wonder that there’s a growing contingent of young people more than willing to push the digital envelope when it comes to sexual mores?

“The jobs here are shit,” says Mafufu Sejmet, a 21 year old who moved to Mexico City from Playa del Carmen for art school and turned to web camming during a month when she couldn’t figure out how to pay her rent. “Here, everyone has a pimp. You have to be [Carlos] Slim’s kid for it to work out. But with web cam work, you’re going to make good money, you’re going to be able to pay for your food, your rent, you’re going to be completely set.”

Successful web cam models build relationships with regular clients from around the world, who e-hang with them for multiple hour sessions, exchanging banter and tipping for the acts they’d like to see the model perform. (The acts are usually sexual, but not always — Mafufu has charged for her drawings, or to even to drink alcohol). Unlike heavy porn consumers, many of the people who spend the most time and money on web cam sites are looking for human connection. Disrespectful users are weeded out, easily blocked in chat rooms by the models themselves or super fans who act as designated chat room moderators.

“It’s a very selective public made just for you, because your clients searched for your exact attributes,” says Mafufu. “They look for ‘Mexicans with big tits’ or ‘chubby girls.’ There are girls who say ‘I’m not going to do well in web cam because I’m really fat.’ I’m like, there are people who love women who are really fat!”

Mafufu Sejmet. Photo via El Universal
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“You meet all kinds of people, those who respect you as you are and others who say ‘don’t show that body part,’ or ‘I don’t want to see that,” says 23-year-old Joako Moko, who learned about web camming through Mafufu, her arts school classmate. As a trans woman, Joako says web camming has led her not only to financial gain and a flexible schedule that accommodates her schoolwork, but that the adoration of her regulars has helped improve her own sense of self. “Here, I am the one in control,” she says. “I can do whatever I want. Little by little, you empower yourself with your own image. You create strength.”

The level of control – financial and otherwise – afforded to cam models may explain why Latin America is home to a growing number of performers.  Mafufu says she can make 800 pesos ($43.54 USD) for a five hour shift in front of the camera, markedly more than what the average IRL sex act commands. According to a study published last year by la Brigada Callejera, a Mexico City advocacy group whose focus is outdoor sex workers, the average price of an IRL 15 minute sex act was 100 pesos ($5.47 USD.) Findings showed that only one-third of that money stayed with the sex worker after they paid for hotel rooms and gave pimps, corrupt government officials and members of organized crime their cut. The same research says that between there are between 100 and 600 thousand women who work in the Mexican sex industry — over 45 thousand in Mexico City alone — and that between 22 and 30 percent of them were working against their will, or had been subject to threats, violence, or lies to get them into the sex trade.

Web camming is emerging as a way people in so-called developing countries can actually benefit off of disparate financial systems.

Meanwhile, web camming is revealing itself to be a method for sex workers to make globalization work for them. Industry data says that the average cam customer is a 25-34 year old male gamer from an English-speaking country, but models for the top sites come from a much more varied background. Romania, Russia, Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine are well represented in the $1 billion plus industry, but Colombia is fast becoming one of the countries with the highest number of performers — some numbers put Colombians at 35 percent of the entire market. Some sites have instituted on-screen translation functions to aide in cross-cultural web camming, though a knowledge of English is still seen as essential to attract tippers from rich countries. The decision to came may seem like a no-brainer to Latin Americans with the proper set-up. What may seem like a small pay-out for long hours of work to those living in the United States translates to big bucks in countries whose currency is weak against the dollar.

Still, web camming is not accessible to everyone. A computer with a good internet connection and decent camera is essential. A private place to do multi-hour shows is also extremely useful.

To open up access and foster dialogue with a larger community, Joako and Mafufu decided to begin hosting three hour seminars to share learnings on finances, security issues and web camming technique. Their seminars regularly fill the sofas, counters and floors of Casa Sejmet, Mafufu’s small apartment, with students of all genders. After the courses, they create Facebook group messages so that classmates can keep in touch with each other as they start broadcasting and offer tips to keep each other motivated.

A still from the documentary ‘Cam Girlz’
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Not all the students go on to be successful web cammers. But slowly, a sex work positive network is growing, which is just as important from the standpoint of Mafufu and Joako. At the very least, people are learning that web camming can be a safe and consensual way to stay financially independent. “We’re probably not making a big change in the web cam industry, or the sex industry in general,” says Mafufu. “But at the local level we’re creating a change in consciousness with these seminars that is spreading, little by little.” She has plans to expand Casa Sejmet in the future so that it includes rentable studios for use by models who don’t have space at home to work.

They hope the spread in consciousness will eventually help to address the societal stigma towards sex work. While performing for online audiences is generally acknowledged as safer than many other types of sex work, cam models still run the risk of blackmail or threats to expose their identity to friends and family. For the moment, none of the Mexico City models interviewed for this piece allow people from their country to have access to their cam shows (you’re able to stipulate geographic availability on most sites). That’s partially because there are fewer web cam clients in Mexico who can afford to tip as much as those from North America, Europe and Asia, but also because models fear being recognized by someone who could expose their identities to their families or do them IRL harm.

Twenty-four year old actor and beginning pole dancer Emilio Bastré was hoping to utilize his skills on the pole at his home to rack up the tokens. But after taking the Casa Sejmet class and getting started, he couldn’t quite find his audience and quit after a few weeks of broadcasting.

He’s far from ashamed of the experience. “Various people from my industry have freaked out and asked me why I would do this if I was an actor and I could ‘burn’ myself,” he says. But web camming is the least of his worries — in fact, he wants to make another go at it once he can buy some new sex toys to keep big tippers happy. The promise of a flexible source of income is too attractive and the haters, he says, only make him recall a quote from Mexican trans actress Alejandra Bogue Gómez: “Más manchada ya estoy por otras cosas en la vida.”

Activism aside, web camming looks like it’s emerging as a way people in so-called developing countries can actually benefit off of disparate financial systems.