I began my career in the sex industry as a webcam model. For those of you unfamiliar with sex camming, it is akin to an online version of a peep show. Webcam models turn on a camera in their bedroom or studio and interact with customers (mostly cis-men) who visit their chat rooms and tip. Performances vary, but nudity and sexual acts are allowed and encouraged. These sites create space for a wide array of sexual expression, but they are not free-for-alls; certain things are always off limits. This list includes many things that you might expect: minors, incest, scat (anything with poop), verbal abuse, and performing while intoxicated, among other things.
What may be less obvious—particularly for an industry that is largely populated by female-bodied folks—is that menstruation is also banned. Indeed, one large cam site, Chaturbate, says in its Terms of Service, “Displays or reference to menstruation, vomit, feces, or urine are not permitted.” (One of these things is not like the other!) Chaturbate is not alone; all of the major cam sites have similar such rules. When I asked about these rules on Twitter, MyFreeCams model GoAskAlex responded in a tweet:
“No blood or simulated blood (this is a sort of fuzzy rule on Halloween) on [MyFreeCams]. In my opinion, ‘if you can’t see the string then it ain’t no thing.’”
Or in other words, it is fine so long as you can hide it.
The reason for this seems to have less to do with the platforms’ own bias regarding menstruation, and more to do with the constraints placed on the adult industry by payment processors. But, regardless of the forces driving these policies, they have a real impact on both women in the industry and in our culture about menstruation. With inadequate, and sometimes non-existent, sex education, pornography often serves as a teacher. For those who learn what they know about sex and women’s bodies from porn, which is a surprising number of people, porn’s silence on menstruation renders it unspeakable.
What I am interested in is how people who work within the sex industry, in a broad sense (not just porn or webcam modeling), negotiate their periods when nudity and sex is part of the way they make a living—or in other words, how menstruation impacts the financial and emotional well-being of sex workers, and what steps they have to take to mitigate its impact. To answer these questions, I reached out to escorts, strippers, porn performers, and cam models.
While folks who work in different parts of the industry face different challenges, periods seem to be a common source of stress. Josephine told me in an email:
I think the most exhausting work was actually stripping on my period. I worked briefly at a full nude club that was heavy on lap dances and champagne room sales so being sure you weren’t showing or leaking was always so nerve wracking.
But, as someone who also does escorting, Josephine says that planning ahead with clients was also difficult: “My period is irregular and therefore exhausting when it comes without warning when it came to pre-bookings.”
Maria Moore, who has worked in various sectors of the industry, echoed this sentiment in an email: “My periods have always been a source of great stress.” Learning to come to terms with it has been a process over the course of her life. “It was just something that happened to my body as well as every other woman’s. If a man was offended by it that was his issue not mine.”
“Anything hormonal made me bleed every day until I stopped it…. At long last, I had the bitch (my uterus) removed. We had a bad relationship.”
For transgender escort Taylor J Mace, having his uterus removed improved both his work and his relationship with his body. He said in an email:
“I had a hysterectomy in March of 2017, which was fully unrelated to work, though no longer having that influence my work is a definite perk. It’s something that I had wanted to do for most of my life, that’s one of the few things that caused dysphoria for me, and has really helped my overall mental well-being, including my work.”
While he didn’t seek out a surgical solution because of his job, he does express the ways in which being on his period negatively impacted his work: “I hated everything about menstruating, mentally and physically, and my energy would be completely thrown off, so I very rarely enjoyed taking clients during those times and never felt ‘on my game,’ which would throw me off further.”
Trans sex worker Rivera Rain relates, tweeting: “I’m a trans escort & cammer, my method has been to uh, scream & cry into the void while panicking about how to pay bills?? I didn’t bleed for years on T, now it’s back and causing me a WHOLE crisis.”
Mace describes what the crux of this crisis is for him and other trans masculine sex workers:
Since the average transmasculine escort has lower traffic and fewer booking than the average female worker, taking time off would always feel like a hit for me, and balancing the financial risk versus the emotional…risk was never something I enjoyed calculating.
When I asked Twitter how sex workers dealt with their periods on the job I got many responses. None was quite as succinct as ActualSexWorker, who seemed to sum up much of the practical responses in a single tweet: “Shove a sponge up your nethers, get on the pill and skip that bad boy, buy black or red condoms to help hide leaking.”
The first suggestion, the sponge, is the advice that came up most consistently from sex workers. Indeed, adult film star Stoya has previously spoken in great detail about the way that porn performers use the sponge on set. But there are issues with this solution as well. Indeed, Lindsay Irene tweeted: “Can we start a thread about all those times you couldn’t get your sponge out and you start mega panicking thinking you’re gonna be featured on a Reddit thread about hilarious ER stories from doctors?”
Moore shared one such story with me over email: “I did get a sponge stuck once and had to have my gynecologist remove it. That was rather negative, but it helped me open up to my doctor. So, that counts as a negative and a positive.”
“I tried everything. Warm baths, kegels, douching. Asked my boyfriend to go in there and get it out… Nope, she was beyond stuck. And at the 36 hr mark I went to a walk-in clinic. Scary Russian Dr pulled it out from where it got stuck in my cervix. never ever again.” Similarly, Carmen Reign tweeted: “Me and my friend both had a moment where ours got stuck the same day. We was terrified lol. It took me a lot longer to find mine since I’m bigger.” Another sex worker described body shape and size make sponges practical to use. Anna Bella tweets: “I very rarely bleed now but if I do then I don’t work. I’m too chubby to reach up there properly if the sponge gets stuck. my friends used to get stuck every damn time!!”
Despite the many tactics sex workers have learned to stop or hide menstruation, sometimes this is not possible, and in these cases, sex workers have to negotiate their boundaries with clients.
Mace talked about the way that, prior to his hysterectomy, he “would manage by not taking calls during that time when possible, using sponges and medication when it wasn’t, and pushing other forms of work, such as working as an in-person dominant or a financial dominant rather than things where I would be on the receiving end of penetration.”
Similarly, Alyssa Marie says that she would avoid working while on her period, “blocking it out for self care.” But when this wasn’t possible she tweeted about doing other things, “If it came early or lasted longer my client & I did other things to pass our time….Vaginal intercourse isn’t our only option & can be overrated. Be creative, he’ll love it!”
While Mace and Marie talked about avoiding penetration or other sexual acts that would call attention to his period, Jaycee Rivers talked about integrating her period into her work in various ways. In a tweet she said: “I have solicited clients that favored or desired that time of month. OH and for PMS I contact all of my clients that desire a more sadistic mood from me. There are also ‘cuddle dates’ extended to trusted and beloved clientele. Usually involving them giving me a back rub while we watch a marathon of movies or TV.”
And for the times when it is a surprise, Moore talked about learning to gracefully negotiate these things with clients. She described one such incident, “I was horrified as we were shagging. I thought possibly it had happened, but he was about to cum. He did and I was correct. He looked a little freaked out and I just said… look what you did to me… you broke me… He apologized like he really did and then we laughed and showered together (my bonus gift to him).”
In a culture in which both period blood and sex work are taboo, both can seem mystifying.
In some cases, sex workers will not take bookings or will not seek out new clients while they are on their periods. In the case of many cam models, they will often be up front with their customers and say that they will not do sexual, below-the-waist live performances on “shark week,” but still spend time with clients on cam and direct them to their pre-recorded content for their clients’ more sexually explicit needs. Strippers, like a friend of mine, once tried to cover up surprise leaking after a lap dance by “accidently” dumping red wine on her client. Other sex workers will seek out clients who either enjoy period play, or who are seeking non-sexual interactions like cuddle sessions.
In a culture in which both period blood and sex work are taboo, both can seem mystifying. Periods are typically not talked about outside of very intimate friendships or relationships, and period blood is purposefully hidden. Similarly, sex work is spoken about in hushed tones. In our cultural imagination, it is easy to think about period blood as something that would automatically turn clients off, causing sex workers to lose income, or that periods themselves would be so debilitating that they have the same impact. What I found, both in talking to sex workers and in being a sex worker myself, is that the relationship between work and periods is more complex. Like periods themselves, which vary from person to person, the impact varies from sex worker to sex worker. Moreover, individual sex workers may negotiate their cycles differently from client to client. It’s a personal experience, and yet a universal one, negotiating our periods one month, one partner, at a time.
photography by onourmoon