“Your value as a woman is determined by what you look like and how sexually available you pretend to be.”
In front of one of the universities where I teach there are two parked cars. No one ever enters them. Why? Probably because there are advertisements for video chat studios on them. As we know, Romania is in first place for the most video chat workers. Poverty and a good internet connection make our country an ideal candidate for online erotic services. I was very surprised that I myself received an invitation to work as a video chat model. The invitation was in a private message from a former student. Many people who saw the message have hastened to criticise me and accuse me of having a classist attitude and arrogance. There’s nothing more incorrect than that. I was humiliated and frightened as I thought of being in a precarious material situation and being unable to refuse jobs which I would not normally accept. It doesn’t matter whether the job is video chat model, or bicycle courier. So this invitation made me think: What does consent, sexual emancipation, and choice mean? My intuition was that there is a risk in labelling these activities as “erotic services”, as it so happens in this case, when the notion of “sex worker” is used.
There is a thin line between using these terms out of the legitimate desire to protect people who practice these activities and the tendency to normalise situations of abuse. It is very well to accept this type of activity as a kind of labour activity. In essence, it is what these people do in order to make a living. But it is not just any type of labour. To say that it is a regular job, is an exaggeration. It means refusing to recognise the specific alienation and humiliation which people in these activities endure as a risk of the profession. In the capitalist economic system, which is centered around profit, we are all exploited. But to pretend that my level of exploitation in a profession of high social prestige is identical to that of a sex worker is at least controversial. There is also the risk of legitimizing terrible situations of abuse, where as a result of abduction, beatings and threats, people are forced into sexual slavery. Plenty of women often don’t know that behind the attractive invitations they receive, hide human trafficking networks. There are people who refuse to pay models when models threaten to quit. In essence, it is natural to be like that. Exploitation through slavery brings the greatest profits. To interpret this job only through the lens of so-called “choice” in order to explain it, is also a form of paternalism. What we are – university professors, sex workers, and online “erotic service providers” is not always the result of an individual choice. It is the result of a whole series of social factors – family, where we were born, which school we could afford to attend, our parents’ investment in our education. These factors predetermined our professional road.
The online discussion which followed my invitation to work in video chat, brought me to Andreea (name has been changed in order to protect her identity). I have been talking to her for many months. In the beginning, I didn’t know her and if she was some kind of invented personality. But slowly, we got closer. She told me she has been doing video chats for 15 years. We continued to talk and I got to know a lucid, thoughtful and balanced person; a person who has read a lot and has a critical perspective on liberal feminism and other emancipatory women’s movements. After some time and with great difficulty, Andreea found the time and emotional resources to share her perspective about video chat. It is an interview, which I have made especially for the students who pass by the cars in front of the university every day – the cars with advertisements promoting studios and the fabulous life of a video chat model.
When did you hear about video chat modelling for the first time?
At the age of 19 I read something in the newspaper about it. My boyfriend at that time knew somebody who had a video chat studio. We met with him and he explained how things were done. He told me that one can make a good amount of money, gave me a web camera, made accounts for me on some sites and took photos. I had to give him a fee of 30%, even though I worked from home. I also had to return the camera after our cooperation ended.
When did you actually start working?
I started working immediately after I spoke with the man.
What made you follow this road?
I had just entered university. I didn’t have money. Neither of my parents could help me. I wanted to be able to buy clothes, shoes, perfume, to be able to go to cafes with friends. I didn’t dream of things like having a business or anything extravagant. I had a childhood and adolescence of great material deprivation. I remember when I made my first thousand dollars from video chat. I bought clothes and my first perfume. I cried. I cried, because I never had so much money and all my childhood I jealously watched my classmates who were not coming to school with the same clothes every day and had more than two pairs of shoes.
What was it like in the first days? Was it what you expected?
My boss told me what I had to do: “You strip, but try to buy time with various stupidities.” This was my training. The clients were ok in the beginning. They didn’t have great expectations. I remember some of them tried to get to the part with the stripping faster, but I refused them. The majority were agreeable and even asked me for my pardon, that they had tried to force me. A lot of girls were buying time. Others never wore clothes and were making a lot of money. This was before the explosion of pornography. I think that most men were coming to watch me, because they felt alone and wanted attention. Masturbation was a secondary motive for them.
How long have you been doing this thing?
I have been in this industry for 15 years, but I have taken long pauses. I’m not the type of person who constantly does video chat. I do it in order to pay my debts and have a decent life.
Do you make a lot of money in this business?
It depends on a lot of factors: A well-set schedule, how many hours are spent online, physical appearance and a great ability to pretend.
What do you do now?
I still work in the industry, but in the sector related to domination and fetishes. I don’t masturbate.
Do you make good money now too? If not, why have you withdrawn yourself?
My income is smaller, because now I work in some niches. The classic video chat tires and wearies you. Yes, it looks simpler to stay in bed and speak with cool men from all over the world. This is what the video chat studios say happens. In reality, the men often have the feeling that they are interacting with a doll or some kind of online prostitute, towards whom they have no respect. You could say that your value is determined by how you look, what toys you use and where. What is most gruesome is that this happens not only online. In everyday life a lot of men appreciate women firstly and exclusively in accordance with how they look and how accessible sexually they think they are.
What were the hardest things that you have had to do?
The false smile and the simulation of “pleasure” when all I wanted was not to be there. Video chat in its great majority is very repetitive. The same men, with whom you make boring pseudo conversation and then you reach the masturbating part. Their desires are determined by what they see in porno films. 90% of heterosexual pornography is very violent and degrades women physically, verbally, and psychologically. Anal masturbation is a desire which has become so common. You can’t avoid it when other models offer it, because otherwise you lose clients. Big toys are another desire. Fisting, squirting: something fake taken from the porn films. They think that women can ejaculate. In fact, this means to pee in bed. They think that what happens in porn movies is real and that actresses actually feel pleasure when they are humiliated and punched.
You say that you have gotten sick because of this work. Can you say something more about that?
The video chat reminds you brutally, almost every time you enter online, that your value as a woman is determined by how you look and how sexually available you pretend to be. You know those animals in the circus, which distract the paying public? The job is something like that. These are the same men, who are capable of feeling pleasure when they watch porn films which dehumanise women . They come “to visit” you. You have to be kind all the time and do what you are told. Depending on how sensitive you are, this can affect you psychologically and emotionally.
Aren’t you afraid of being discovered by your friends, parents, family?
My parents know what I do. It is not something I speak about openly or something that I am proud of. There is a lot of stigma in Romania about this issue. I isolate myself a bit and I have to lie about my job.
I would like to talk about the experience of a friend, who at one point in time managed to have a group of friends who she was going out with. Of course, she didn’t tell them what she does. But they have found out. The men from her group were entering porn sites, where her clients were posting films of her without her knowledge or consent. So these men started to make proposals and treat her differently in comparison to the way they treated her before.
Was there evolution of this activity? You told me that it was much more difficult. Why?
The clients’ expectations have grown. There are a lot of models, who can do a lot of things, which not only don’t give them any pleasure, but even harm them. I knew somebody who injured herself, because of too big toys. I recently read about a girl from the UK, who at the age of 21, died accidentally because she suffocated herself to please a client. When police made a search of the client’s house, they found extreme and illegal pornography (snuff porn) on his computer. So you interact with sexual psychopaths.
It is only a matter of time before a client comes to tell you his fantasies about children and animals. It has happened to me a lot – being asked if I have a dog and if I would like to do sexual things with it for a certain sum of money. The sites should censor such people in principle, but in reality they don’t. They only send a warning, through which they inform the clients, who break the rules, that such fantasies are not permitted. Often models don’t report such clients to the sites, but send them to other platforms such as Skype and Discord, where they can accept clients with taboo fetishes.
Have you ever been visited by women? Or only by men?
I have not been visited (in the sense of being paid) by any woman. Only by men and by trans women.
You were saying that there are people who have adapted to this work. Tell me how do you evaluate the situation of those who practice this profession.
We live in patriarchy. We are taught from our childhood to be sweet with men and to be submissive. Many women accept a lot of misery without being paid, as if video chat is a dream job: You earn money if you consent/submit to doing these things. For sure, it is more convenient and more profitable to work as a video chat model than work 8-10 hours in a supermarket.
You told me that video chat studios sell this profession as a “dream job” but take a large percent of the earnings. The same is valid for the sites. Tell us a bit more about that.
As I said earlier, the studios present the job as you being in control. Yes, in theory you can always refuse what you don’t want to do. But in reality, where a large majority of models offer what you refuse, and clients are dissatisfied with what you offer, you make no money. There are sites which take 70-75% of what you make. Also, almost all the studios take more than 50% of earnings.
Almost all the sites rank models, which is determined by the income you generate and the amount of time you spend online. The higher you are on the page, the more clients you get. The sites promote their successful models and bring them more traffic. That is how models fight for positions on the site, which means that they tend to lower their prices or do things, which they wouldn’t regularly do, just to be sure that they remain at the top.
How would you respond to the liberal feminists, who maintain that this job is a matter of personal choice and that it is a profession like any other?
Yes, it is a choice. But it is also a choice to sell drugs or to accept living with a man who is disgusting but has money. It is a choice, isn’t it? This idea is promoted a lot (both for video chat work and for prostitution) – that women do it for pleasure. The sexual appetite of the big majority of women is much smaller than those of men. We are taught to be like that. It is a matter of social success to be as sexually active as a man. But if a man masturbates 3-4 times per day, it is a fantasy to expect that a women be excited 8 hours/day. Double penetration is painful for women. But it is wanted a lot by men, who see it in porn films, actresses drink and take drugs or pills in order to bear the pain. Romania is in first place for the number of video chat models, followed by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and other poor countries. But I ask myself: Why, if it is a profession like any other, is it not practiced by women who have money and important social positions? Why is it practiced a lot more by women who have grown up in material deprivation or come from families with problems?
As far as I understand, the so-called feminists say that it is an unjustly stigmatised profession. From what you say I understand that first comes the stigmatisation of the women and of sexuality and later this type of profession. I know that you have researched this topic. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Conservatives see women as private property: loyal wife, good mother, lady. They consider this the natural order and God created us this way.
Liberals, or those of them who declare themselves as leftists, see women as public property. They support women’s emancipation and sexual liberation, but they dictate what exactly emancipation or sexual liberty means.
An open-minded woman is the woman who is promiscuous because, in their view, monogamy is territory of the Christian religion. It is impossible for today’s liberals to imagine that there are women, who although are neither conservative nor religious, that have different preferences from those which are promoted.
An open-minded woman is pro-BDSM, in their view. A few decades have passed since women were strongly sexualised and objectified on all media channels. Pornography teaches boys at vulnerableages that a women loves sex which gives her pain. Pornography informs our sexual preferences, especially in Romania, where we don’t have sexual education programmes in schools, and where more parents refuse to discuss sex with their children. Which are the most popular categories of porn? “Teen porn” and “painful anal”: It is pleasure combined with pain – this is how the masses see “sexual liberation”. And this message is not sent only through pornography, but it is even in the mainstream: All the glossy magazines for women and adolescents encourage women and teens to subordinate themselves, to satisfy, to accept, to want in the name of sexual emancipation.
In the movie “50 Shades of Grey”, a mainstream movie, we see the story of a young woman without any sexual experience, accept being beaten by an attractive man who has money. “It is their choice” – a choice, the result of a lack of experience in life, which allows for other choices. It is a choice, which you make, because if you don’t take risks, you will be stigmatised, because you are “conservative, full of inhibitions and sexually frustrated.”
In order to qualify for the title of “open-minded, sexually emancipated, kinky-not boring” you MUST do… Any ideology which tells me and imposes on me what I have to is for me manipulation and control.
What are the principal causes for the fact that women use this way of making money?
Would you recommend this activity to the young?
I do video chat modeling. Even though I don’t do it in the standard form. I won’t do blogs. I won’t write articles which promote this activity. I won’t go to marches with banners “Sex work is work”. I won’t see a woman, who does video chat modeling or works as a prostitute as a lower human being than other women. I am worried by the fact that there are no realistic opinions from women who have been doing this work. I am worried that the not-so-good-parts of video chat are not presented from the standpoint of people who are neither liberal nor conservative. The choice belongs to any woman, but the real choice is an informed one.
The good sides: It is possible to know men who are simply alone and don’t want or don’t know how to approach a woman otherwise. They appear rarely, but they do exist. Video chat is used exclusively for fast sex and as a form of entertainment. It happens to me sometimes in the free chat that some visitors are not focused on erotic shows, but on the idea of sexy daily vlogging. It is possible, but you need luck, you need to be extroverted and able to communicate well and also be entertaining.
The good sides of video chat I also have to mention are that you work from home without an imposed schedule. This happens if you don’t work for a studio. In the studio you have a schedule, which you have to respect and to respect it even if you chose it.
After all, choice and consent cannot be bought. They can’t be obtained when a person is in a desperate material situation or under the influence of drugs. It can’t be obtained when you use manipulative techniques or shaming along the lines of “if you don’t accept this, you are closed.”
During a video chat you will receive orders, you will be insulted, you will have to do things which don’t give you any pleasure, but you have to pretend that you like them. You have to entertain these banal conversations while they are angry; you will find what your value is in the eyes of the men who visit you, you will be recorded and your videos will be published on sites with free porn, accessible easily from anywhere, including in Romania. And the sites where you work, record parts of your shows and use them to promote you in other places so that they bring you traffic.
What final advice would you like to give young people ?
To think critically (or “use common sense” as Americans would say). Not to isolate themselves in sects which pretend to be progressive or liberatory.
Photo: Jean-Louis Forain: Le client (Collection of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN., Public Domain)
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Maria Cernat is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences (FJSC) (2001) and the Faculty of Philosophy (2004) at the University of Bucharest. She obtained an MA from FJSC in 2002 and in 2008 she was made a doctor of philosophy. She is currently a PhD Lecturer in the Department for Communication and Public Relations at Titu Maiorescu University. Since 2011 she has published articles on Romanian websites for political debates (CriticAtac, Cealaltă Agendă, România Curată).