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      I Spent a Month Living in a Romanian Sexcam Studio

      December 9, 2013

      By Jack Davies

      Illustration by Julia Scheele

      Until July I shared an apartment in England with two cousins, Lorenz and Alessandro. When I moved out at short notice, I was worried that I'd left the pair in the lurch, but as it turned out my timing couldn't have been better. "We're moving to Romania to open a catering business," they told me. That plan seemed a little unusual, not to mention completely economically unviable, but they assured me that they had it all worked out. They knew a guy who was already running a similar operation in Bucharest, they said.

      Come September, I got a message from the cousins asking if I could help out writing up some sales copy for their business. "Sure, tell me more about it," I wrote. "Well, it's a secret," replied Alessandro. It's tricky to write about secrets, I told him, and after some coaxing he revealed, unsurprisingly, that it wasn't really a catering business they had opened at all, but a studio full of stripping, pouting, masturbating camgirls and camboys. I told the pair that I didn't feel comfortable writing sales copy for that kind of thing. Not to worry, they said, before inviting me out to stay with them. Which is exactly what I did at the beginning of last month.

      Webcam studios are to bedroom masturbators what brothels are to Johns. And if the internet had a designated red light district, it would be Romania, where there are currently an estimated 2,000 studios in operation. The cousins’ studio—Kazampo—is the latest addition to that digital den of sin. It’s housed on a Bucharest backstreet in a building that can accommodate up to 11 "models" at a time, all masturbating in the direction of a webcam for lonesome, horny Americans thousands of miles away.

      I was feeling pretty anxious about the 21-hour train journey from Belgrade to Bucharest. I was expecting to turn up at the house and find a disgusting nest of cyberpunk depravity—beautiful tragedy-eyed boys and girls in varying degrees of undress hoovering internet drugs off each other as they jigged about to whatever Western club music is currently setting the cultural pace in Romania (Steve Aoki?). But what greeted me upon arrival was disappointingly pedestrian.

      I got there at noon, which would ordinarily be lunchtime. Except lunchtime in a studio like this is 9 PM, because 90 percent of paying "members" (the webcam world shares the IRL sex trade’s love of euphemisms) live in North America, meaning that 90 percent of a Romanian studio’s clientele are anywhere between seven and 12 hours behind the models. Peak working hours in Kazampo are between one and 7 AM.

      That suggests that America is starting to outsource an impressive amount of its hands-off sex trade to Romania's webcam industry—solitary men are swapping tables at stripclubs for laptops in bed. Which I suppose makes a lot of sense; it's private, reliable, and arguably more intimate: members are able to check back in with their favorite models whenever they like. Webcams are also more or less completely detached from reality, meaning they don't have to drive anywhere or interact with anyone who's not on a screen.

      Camelia, Alessandro's girlfriend and the studio's maid-cum-madame, playing Farmville.

      Outside of working hours, the house is a fog of cigarette smoke and 80s power ballads. No one talks very much and the models spend a lot of time in the kitchen, either playing Farmville on a communal computer or Clash of Clans on their smartphones. Since nothing much was going on when I arrived, Lorenz sat me down to watch a half-hour interview with President Jose Mujica of Uruguay, who was imprisoned until 1985 for his activities as a communist guerrilla. Since then, he’s gone from enemy of the state to Pope Francis’s favorite atheist and South America’s most popular weed-legalising Marxist. Lorenz was silent the whole way through the interview. His face is constantly set in the thoughtful, brow-scrunching expression of a deeply conflicted Catholic saint. Once Mujica had finished his measured critique of Western capitalism, Lorenz told me his dearest wish: violent socialist revolution.

      The cousins come from privileged backgrounds and grew up nearly 10,000 miles away from Bucharest (they asked that their home country be kept confidential, for fear of being identified). As a kid, Lorenz was a firm believer in the right-wing politics of his parents. After going off to college in his homeland’s capital, he "started [to get] to know different realities of life" after mixing with kids from poorer backgrounds and doing some reading and thinking for himself.

      Without finishing his degree, Lorenz left for Europe to learn the art of self-reliance. He credits the experience of joining the "labor class" in what he described as "a real socialist country" for his radicalization. He came to see that the wealthy prosper from the suffering and poverty of the lower classes. In his words, "I came to see that if you are able to share—that is, work together for a common interest—things can be really good." In short, he found socialism.

      "If only everyone would stand together then they would be able to change things," Lorenz said. Since he's so passionate about revolution, I asked him why he isn't manning the barricades. He answered with a pimp’s pragmatism: "If I tried to live my life according to my ideals, I don’t think it would be possible. I’m just one person." And does he regret turning his back on his homeland? "If I’d stayed at home, this," he said, waving his arm around Kazampo’s Ikea-furnished office, "never would have happened."

      By which I assumed he meant he never would've had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to a country where the average monthly wage is less than $300 and exploit young people who will do just about anything for money.

      I asked him if he sees any contradiction between his socialist ideals and his decision to enter the digital equivalent of the world’s oldest profession. He didn’t quite get it. I pointed out that, as a webcam studio owner, he owned the means of production and that the models were the oppressed workers. He thought about it for a minute before explaining that, no, that doesn’t apply at all. You see, "We’re not managers, because the models aren’t employees," he explained. "They pay us part of their earnings in return for us providing the facilities. We're facilitators."

      According to Lorenz, he's not in it for the money. "This is not strictly a business," he said, "it’s something I’m going to enjoy and use to make myself a better person in different ways. I don’t want to become rich, I just want to get to a place where I don’t have to worry about money." Which I’m pretty sure is the definition of rich.

      Raffi, the Kazampo studio dog.

      While Lorenz is idealistic, Alessandro is a little more capital-driven. While we were out picking up groceries one day he gave me a rough primer on the economics of webcam studios. "I know a studio that has 15 models, all guys," he said. "Every period, that place turns over €25,000 ($34,300). A period in this business is two weeks. Now, you think that guys only make half what girls make; imagine you have 15 girls working for you—that means you’re making 50 grand every two weeks. That is my dream."

      As we stood outside the supermarket finishing our cigarettes, a girl walked past and Alessandro switched from mathematics to aesthetics: "This girl, her face—she can make money. I look at their faces and I see money."

      At the house there were aspirational books scattered all over the place; Richard Branson's autobiography, a translation of a book by a German financial wiz called How to Be a Millionaire in Seven Years—that kind of thing. Lorenz might have got into the webcam game for a slightly confusing set of spiritual reasons, but Alessandro’s eyes are always on the numbers. Neither cousin seems motivated by sleaze. Alessandro eventually wants to be able to hand over the reins of Kazampo to a manager and pursue other ventures, and Lorenz had promised me, "We’re not going to take the pimp attitude. For us and them, it’s just a job. As our workers, they deserve respect." To these ends, Alessandro has employed his Romanian girlfriend Camelia as maid-cum-madame. In his words, "It’s good to have her, because when the models get out of line she can shout at them and bring them in line, and I don’t look like the bad guy."

      Despite their slightly skewed view on what constitutes being the bad guy, the cousins both hope that their studio can inspire some small changes within the Romanian webcam industry. For one, they both make much of the fact that they only take 40 percent of their models’ earnings, compared to the 60 to 75 percent that is the norm in Bucharest. They spoke of this as though it were an act of charity. Actually, it’s a commercial necessity; webcam modeling is so widespread in Romania that it’s actually quite hard for a new studio to find models.

      It’s so tough, in fact, that Kazampo only had three models working for them at the time I came to visit at the beginning of November. That left eight of the 11 workstations lying dormant.

      One of the rooms in Kazampo.

      Those workstations resemble something between a teenager’s bedroom and a private booth in a low-end strip club. Each room has a square bed facing a computer and comes complete with that trusty signifier of eroticism: a bottle of disinfectant cleaning product. The walls behind the beds are painted pink and covered in strips of pink and gold wallpaper, usually sporting a motif based around love or something equally saccharine. The other walls—the ones that the camera will never see—are left bare.

      Lorenz was embarrassed by the half-arsed job that had been done on the rooms—except for the one with the pole. The previous tenants, who had also been running a studio, were in such a rush to depart they’d left pole dancing equipment in one of the rooms. That had clearly gone down well with the cousins, as they'd invested extra money in what had been left behind, installing a disco ball and a laser to shine at it. I never properly met the girl who worked in there, but whenever I passed by dance music was filtering out under the door.

      In an attempt to fill the remaining empty rooms, Alessandro has been making 700-mile round trips to Belgrade—where webcam modeling is nearly unheard of—to try to recruit new faces. The mass acceptance of webcam modelng in Romania has its roots in the country’s experience under communism, so the Serbian capital seems as good a city to enlist models from as any other in the former Eastern Bloc.

      Belgrade was the capital of what used to be communist Yugoslavia, which broke away from Moscow in 1948. Their experience of communism was one of cultural and economic prosperity, and to this day it’s pretty common to find portraits of former leader Josef Tito in people’s living rooms, or even hanging in anarchist squats.

      Romania, on the other hand, didn't shake off the Russian yoke quite so quickly. After the communist takeover of the country at the end of World War Two, a number of "SovRom" (Soviet-Romanian) companies were set up to generate funds for reconstruction, with both parties supposedly receiving equal amounts of revenue. However, the ventures were mainly designed to guarantee the Soviets access to Romania's natural resources, which they exploited for a decade before the Romanian authorities dissolved the SovRoms between 1954 and 1956.

      Then, once things had finally picked up in the 80s, the Romanian Communist Party decided its citizens deserved to be fucked over by their own government. Food production in particular had never been so efficient, yet General Secretary Nicolae CeauČ™escu forced his people to subsist on starvation rations while building himself the ironically named “Palace of the People/” It still holds the world record for being the largest administrative building in existence.

      Marius and Anica—a couple who are both models at Kazampo—told me that Romanians don't think about tomorrow. When a girl makes her first €1,000 ($1,370) webcamming, she doesn’t set any of it aside to pay her rent—she spends it all on a swanky clothes and fancy perfume.

      A child of the revolution, 24-year-old Marius was in the army before he became a model, but the pay was so bad that he used to moonlight in the private sector on his days off. He told me, "In this country, in this business especially, people are not thinking about the future, just what can they have today." So what money he does make, he spends immediately.

      He drives a small BMW that would have been called a sports car when it rolled off the assembly line in 1993. Now it coughs and splutters at the slightest touch of the accelerator thanks to a cracked exhaust manifold that there’s never any money to fix. This suits Marius just fine, though; in another life he would have been a rally driver, and he guns through the streets of Bucharest like he’s playing Need for Speed, dodging between oncoming trams and traffic.

      Driving through Bucharest with Lorenz and Marius.

      If they're not splashing it on shoes and cars, Romanian students often use modeling as a way of funding their education. Anica has a degree in tourism management, but there’s nothing she could do with it that would earn her more than she gets webcam modeling. "It’s common to do this, but it’s even more common to fuck for money," she said—which is where she draws the line.

      I asked Anica and Marius if they’d ever thought of performing together. Marius’s eyes lit up until they met his girlfriend's. She looked slightly downcast. "The money is not enough for how much you are hurting yourself," she said, the usual bounce absent from her voice. I changed the subject and asked how she got involved in webcamming.

      Her career in the webcam world began as a non-adult model, where members pay for conversation only, she said. Oddly, the money she now makes as an erotic performer isn’t much better than what she made when she was starting out, which speaks to just how lonely the client base is.

      The bread-and-butter of a model’s income is earned through "privates," sessions where members pay $2 a minute for a one-on-one webcam chat with a model. Some of that normally goes to the hosting site, then 40 to 75 percent goes to the studio, leaving the models with between 60 and 25 cents a minute, depending on what studio they work in.

      The key, even for erotic models, is to keep your clothes on for as long as possible, which isn't too difficult because ejaculation is less of a priority for members than you’d imagine. Most of them are divorced men looking for a little companionship. From Anica’s description, modeling sounds a lot like working in sales: ask them lots of questions about themselves and be interested in what they say and they’ll love you forever—or at least until their money runs out. Eventually they might ask you to take your clothes off, at which point you’re expected to lie back and get it over with.

      Making $15 to $36 an hour wouldn't be terrible under normal circumstances, but given the nature of the work, it’s a good thing there are alternative revenue streams available to models.

      The first of these is tips. Members can tip models in and out of private chats to try and coax them into giving a little extra in their performance. While working in another studio, Marius alternated shifts with a female model. At the end of every shift she’d leave her water glass in their shared room, making her the webcam equivalent of the housemate who always leaves dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. One night, a member offered Marius a big tip to piss on camera. A little creeped out by the request, but not seeing the harm in it, Marius looked around the room for something to piss in, and there it was—the glass. If modeling sounds like easy work, try finding someone who’ll pay you to piss on your housemate’s dirty dishes.

      Then there’s Skype, the use of which allows models to keep 100 percent of their earnings by circumventing the studios and websites. They also make more per minute by telling members that chatting in their free time will cost them more. The sites have rules against this; models and members are forbidden from exchanging contact information—but that isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, and it can be very profitable for the models when it does.

      Marius's working room.

      One day, Anica told me about a member named Clarence, who works as an administrator at a North American university. He makes $15,000 a month and is madly in love with Anica, so much so that he flew to Romania this spring to meet her in the flesh. She’s always honest with her members, so she brought Marius with her, introducing him as her boyfriend and explaining that, while Clarence is her "best friend" (OK, maybe she's not entirely honest), if he ever lays a finger on Marius she’ll slit his throat. Undeterred, Clarence continues to put $1,000 a month on a credit card he sent her; he's also given her an iPad and pretty much anything she asks for.

      It’s easy to point out that the studio owners and the members are using the models’ relative poverty to exploit them sexually. This is true, and the industry is unethical at the very least. But the models too are exploiting the loneliness and frustration of their clients halfway across the world—a fact that’s not lost on Anica. "Of course I feel guilty, but I need the money," she explained.

      Marius knows of love-struck or addicted members who have drained all their financial resources keeping models in private chats all night, every night. He told me about one member who would take out credit from anyone who would give it to him to keep a model in a private chat every night. When the cash runs out and the members beg for some time in private, the successful models usually stay strong and refuse to contact them until they can pay again. It sounds cruel, but a model's got to eat.

      It’s not all gloom and exploitation, though. Every night Camelia and Anica would prepare dinner for the models, the owners and me, a meal that was the highlight of my day. One night Marius said to me, "Hey, check out my friend’s new house," passing me his smartphone, which displayed a white-picket-fence American house. "He’s a member?" I asked. "No, he’s my friend," he replied. Marius was the first webcam model the guy had ever spoken to; now their relationship is completely chaste.

      Marius's friend is almost 30 years old and lives in the southern United States. He hasn’t come out to his parents as gay yet, but Marius is coaching and supporting him through the process. Their relationship is non-transactional as well as non-sexual—Marius’s friend tries to wire him a couple of hundred dollars to help him out when he can, but Marius insists the friendship would continue even if the money stopped.

      The cousins aren’t the only foreigners running studios in Bucharest. The internet is full of people from America and Western Europe looking for advice on setting up a studio in Romania, and plenty of studios were founded with foreign investment. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about the business, but the return on investment can be phenomenal. A talented model can generate $13,000 of revenue in a month, which is big money in one of Europe's poorest countries.

      Officially, the Romanian government is not a fan of adult entertainment. The law requires that anyone starting a porn site in the country must password protect it, and multiple laws have been proposed over the course of the last decade to allow for the blocking of adult websites. Unofficially, someone's put a lot of work into the country’s telecommunication infrastructure, with the result that Romania now has a faster download speed than any G20 nation. Like it or not, webcamming is a great way of getting foreign capital into Romania, and that’s not going to change until someone finds a better alternative.

      Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned in the story.

      Update 12/9: A previous version of this article was unclear about the nature of post–World War Two relations between the USSR and Romania. The paragraph in question has been revised to provide more detail.

      Follow Jack (@jackoozell) and Julia (@juliascheele) on Twitter

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      Topics: webcam studios, online sex, Bucharest, Romania, sex industry

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