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Inside Kyrgyzstan’s growing webcam model business

For many young women in Kyrgyzstan, video chats are the only way they can make a living. This work is not subject to any legal constraints, and they are often at risk of violence.

Elnura Alkanova Kamila Eshaliyeva Dariya Taalaibek kyzy
4 March 2019

Room of a webcam studio in Bishkek

Over the last few years, webcam modelling has transformed into a fully-fledged market in Kyrgyzstan, with mostly young women offering virtual sexual services to foreigners online. There are as yet no official statistics on the numbers of people involved in this business, but it’s a highly controversial and much discussed issue in the country. Yet while some people want to point the finger at the young women and accuse them of immorality, others earn a very good (and apparently tax-free) living from them.

Both men and women work in this growing industry, but in Kyrgyzstan it’s mostly young girls who are involved. It’s rare that these women find the websites themselves, figure out what to do and begin earning money for their services. As a rule, enterprising businessmen identify the girls who they want to make money off.

There’s nothing glamorous about this – it’s just a matter of buying computers, web cameras, lighting equipment and then renting premises for models to work in, after which they take up to 70% of their earnings.

Who are the webcam models?

Over the last three years, Kyrgyz classified sites have been full of ads for webcam models. Here’s an example:

“Looking for attractive girls to earn $1,000 or more. No training period involved, cash earned from the first day. Live-in accommodation also available! Free tuition from our experts on all the secrets of the webcam business, how to behave in front of a camera and the technical basics. We treat all our models with respect!!!”

Social media adverts meanwhile offer suspiciously high wages for Kyrgyz women – up to 200,000 som ($2,877) a week, with flexible hours and no experience needed. But few people have any concept of that kind of money: according to official figures, the average Kyrgyz citizen earns roughly $227 a month.

Advert for webcam studio work

Webcam modelling usually involves quite a big team, with a clear professional hierarchy and carefully chosen roles for each employee – the key role goes to the young women, who earn their living from online video meetings (usually of an erotic or pornographic nature) with clients.

“Askar” (name changed), a resident of Bishkek, told us about his two years as a camera operator in one of the capital’s major webcam studios. Some studios, he says, are located in multi-room apartments, while others are in large rented detached houses. One room is used by an administrator as an office; the webcam models work in all the others. Each room contains a bed, lighting equipment, a computer with a web camera and various props such as sex toys.

“The apartments used as webcam studios are usually rented, and the owners never knew what we were up to,” says Askar. “If they wanted to check up on the apartment, we would ask them to give us at least four days notice, so that we could clear up and hide all the computers and the models’ props.”

In August 2018, Kyrgyz Interior Ministry criminal investigator Azamat Djanaliyev told the 24.kg news agency that there were around 50 pornographic webcam studios in Kyrgyzstan. There are, he said, as yet no concrete charges that could be brought against the organisers of these studios, and the models also don’t face any charges for working in them.

Webcam models and camera operators work in pairs, but from different rooms. The operator’s work consists in driving the conversation in the chatroom, and when the client (the visitor to the site) sends a message, they translate the text for the model and then send a response. The conversation takes place in English, but the operator is always off-camera, so the visitor doesn’t notice anything odd. The young women work six hours a day each, in three shifts. The best times are night or early morning, when it’s evening for clients on the other side of the world. It’s usual to give the model a tip during the session, but a private chat has its price, which varies according to the model.

“The price for the model’s services depends on the client’s wishes, from simple conversation to erotic dances or the use of a wide range of sex toys to suit every taste,” says Askar. “And the model’s wage directly depends on how long they can keep their clients interested: the longer the client watches the model, the more she earns.”

According to Askar, up to 100 models can work in shifts in one large studio, and in most cases they get up to 25% of the money earned in the week. The rest goes to the website and the studio owners.

Underage models

Kyrgyz police have more than once arrested webcam studio managers for introducing underage girls to the business. One edition of the Sputnik.kg online newspaper ran, for example, an article saying that during a raid by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Bishkek, underage girls were found working as web models in apartment studios, and a criminal case is under way.

In August 2018, investigator Azamat Djanaliyev also confirmed that girls under the age of 18 could frequently be found working in the webcam business. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a law we could use to charge and punish the people involved in this ‘service’ (although there are laws against setting up and running a brothel). When we found webcam studios like these, we noticed that most of the people working there were underage girls. And we don’t have the right to arrest them, although we can arrest the business’s owner.” Askar claims, however, that his bosses only hire young women over 18, to avoid legal problems. And the sites themselves have a rule of not hiring underage staff, and demand ID to prove it when registering.

Webcam model

We decided to check this information and contacted several webcam agencies in Bishkek, supposedly looking for work. It took a lot of effort to find contacts for studios, and we couldn’t get through to some of the phone numbers from the classified ads – this is no longer the way that models are found. Instead, organisers of webcam studios have set up a database for contacting models, and in order to recruit new models they ask the women already working for them to bring their friends and acquaintances along.

In the end, we were only able to contact three studios out of eight. Studio staff were happy to chat on messaging apps, but were wary of actually meeting. During a phone call with a representative of one studio, one of the authors stated she came from a poor family and needed money, but that she wasn’t yet 18. The person on the other end of the line promised they would find her a way out of her dilemma and suggested meeting to discuss concrete details. He said she needed to take a high quality photograph of her ID document and send it to him, and the he and his colleagues would try to change her date of birth in a picture editor.

Obeying the law

We contacted other webcam studios and asked whether the people offering young women work had officially registered their business. They all replied that they didn’t pay taxes on their income, although it was telling that three out of the six agencies we approached said they would be happy to work openly and pay tax. At this point they are still not ready to be open about their businesses for ethical reasons, and this is why they stay under the radar. We can only guess at how much money never reaches the taxman.

People in Kyrgyzstan’s webcam business also told us about the frequent cases where their staff were detained at their workplace when rivals informed on them to the police: “Generally, rival businesses phone the police and say that there is a brothel at such-and-such an address,” one of them told us anonymously. “Then the cops arrest the girls and other staff members, accusing them of prostitution, running a brothel or producing pornography.”

Correspondence with studio representatives.

Lawyer Nurlan Sadykov gave us his assessment of webcam business in Kyrgyzstan, pointing out that it is not illegal, but that no one had yet raised the issue at the legislative level. He also told us that providing virtual sexual services under the age of 16 and any compulsion to perform any acts of a sexual nature were against the law.

Everything beyond this is permitted, says Sadykov. “If activity like this in a virtual space isn’t extremist and doesn’t involve any incitement to hatred or hostility, then it doesn’t break any law.”

Not easy work

For over a year now, the Telegram messaging service has included two groups that shame young women who offer online sexual services in Kyrgyzstan. On one of them you can find thousands of intimate photos of webcam models from Kyrgyzstan, and members of the other group discuss these photos or ask for information on one model or another. In most cases, anonymous members criticise and insult the women for doing this kind of work.

Entry to these groups is by invitation only, and in the last year the number of members has risen to 5,000, most of them young men. Some of them even pay to share the models’ contact details and addresses. The young women who earn a living with their bodies believe that their work can only be seen by people abroad: the webcam agencies promise them that it can’t be accessed in neighbouring states. But this system is unreliable. You can see the young women’s photos by simply changing your VPN location.

In an interview with Kloop.kg, Adyl Omorov, press officer of Bishkek’s Directorate of Internal Affairs, said that models were reporting a surge in leaks of intimate photos as well as blackmail attempts. “According to official reports alone, since the start of 2018 there have been three cases of young women writing official complaints against people who were blackmailing them by circulating intimate photos,” Omorov said. “In two cases it was young men who were doing it, and in the third it was another young woman. They have all been charged with criminal offences.”

A young woman who works on these porn sites shared her reasons for taking up this work with the CABAR.asia analytical site. “Do you think I like showing my body to strangers? I just needed the money,” she said. “A client once asked me to dance around some furniture and pretend to have sex with various objects. He forced me to kiss myself in a mirror, put on high heeled shoes and do all sorts of other things I’d be ashamed to mention. I spent five minutes with him and earned ten dollars. In general, we have to make fools of ourselves for the camera. Another client asked me: ‘Are you breastfeeding your baby? Express some milk for me, I’d like that.’”

According to this woman, models are under constant pressure and are often subjected to virtual attacks by visitors to the sites. (Some, for example, have been blackmailed, using screenshots of their faces taken when they were with clients).

We asked Meerim Kadyrkulova, the programme coordinator of Bishkek’s Sezim Crisis Centre, whether webcam models had ever approached the centre for help and why she thought these young women were choosing to do this work. Kadyrkulova said that it paid well: some models were putting themselves through university or just earning a good living. It’s telling that the crisis centre hasn’t encountered any models who have been treated badly, but they are aware that social media is full of compromising photos, which Kadyrkulova regards as a breach of the models’ rights and personal boundaries.

We also contacted Kyrgyzstan’s Internal Ministry to inquire what they knew about the webcam business and what criminal charges were levied against it last year, but we received no reply.

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