They are called "performers", "models" or "entertainers"; in fact they sell virtual sex. They work over the net using a PC with a webcam. The image on screen is of a bed or an armchair in a room whose décor often evokes a brothel or a no-tell hotel; there may be background music. From this digital street corner they try to tempt clients to join them in a private chat room, where they strip, expose themselves, mimic sexual arousal, pleasure and orgasm, and respond (via the keyboard or vocally) to suggestions from "guests", received as short messages.
They may be based in the Philippines, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, the US, Colombia or France; most are young women, but there are also men, couples, mature women and transgender performers. There are platforms that provide access to a worldwide list of performers in different time zones, allowing webmasters to have performers available around the clock. (The LiveJasmin site claims to have 31,315 "girls" and 8,921 "boys" on its books, with several hundred online at any one time.) The platform operators deduct a substantial part of the takings, paying 30% to the webmaster.
Unlike websites or forums where the object of advertisements is to arrange a physical meeting that may lead to real sex, these markets are entirely virtual. On many sites the conditions of use specify that anyone trying to contact a performer will be barred.
Performers receive a percentage of the per-minute fee charged for connecting to the website; they get $3.50 to $7 (depending on the website) for a 10-minute chat with four customers. At best, they can expect to earn the equivalent of France's minimum monthly wage for 10 hours work a day; at worst, a fraction of that. The companies that have invented and promote these working arrangements are often based in tax havens (the Dutch Antilles, Costa Rica, Luxembourg, Gibraltar) or in US states such as Delaware or Oregon, where business laws are particularly permissive.
In France, as in most western countries, pornography workers are considered to be on short-term contracts and are paid a fee. People working for adult services offered on the Minitel Videotex system or on telephone services are generally employees. In France, prostitutes have legal and administrative status only in the sense that their earnings are taxed as non-commercial income. The status of these independent sex workers is different again. Like other work-from-home advertisements, recruitment ads for cybersex workers refer to "making ends meet", "flexible hours", "earning money" as an entertainer and "getting paid for amateur performances". The platforms offer guaranteed rates of pay (which vary according to the viewer's country) ranging from a few tens of cents to $1.4 a minute for private chats that may be shared by a number of viewers, each paying just over $1 a minute. Performers are paid monthly, by bank transfer or via PayPal, which allows them to remain relatively anonymous.
This virtual economy involves no contracts, no financial commitments and no actual premises – only rental fees for servers and sufficient bandwidth for sound and moving images. Business owners and shareholders are invisible. With its mix of technology, virtual reality, marketing, percentages, fluidity, tax havens and poverty, it could seem like the epitome of a dematerialised economy.
Sex industry as pioneer
Producing content is less profitable than organising or marketing it. The content hosts enjoy obscurity with regard to their profits. There is a complete lack of transparency surrounding the profits made by content hosts. Poverty and competition do the rest. A global proletariat is emerging, made up of content providers who are not covered by labour regulations or protected by any image copyright or intellectual property legislation. As ever, the sex industry is a pioneer.
According to some research, the online sex industry accounts for 12% of all websites and about 25% of all Web searches. It has played an important role in the development of online micropayment systems, video compression and Web technologies, and pioneered a marketing model based on "showcase" sites that can be accessed free of charge but redirect visitors to pay sites. It has also created and refined techniques for link sharing, transferring traffic between sites and building customer loyalty.
One in two men in France, and one in five women, say they view pornography regularly. The percentage of men using prostitutes has remained relatively stable (3.3% in 2006 compared with 3.1% in 1992), but the numbers using online sex have soared. According to Alvin Cooper, former director of the San José Marital and Sexuality Centre at Santa Clara, in California, many men use online sex to combat stress or to engage in sexual fantasies while remaining faithful. It can compensate for feelings of anger, disappointment, boredom, tension, anxiety, loneliness or sadness, but, like any compulsive behaviour such as gambling or drugs or alcohol use, it can also lead to distorted perceptions of others and of reality, disengagement with real life and social isolation.
The competition between sites is unremitting, and the free sites that show scenes from pirated or "amateur" movies are designed to attract visitors to pay sites. A sign of the strength of the sector is the fact that in 2006 the domain name "sex.com" was sold for $14m. The industry has also persuaded the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which manages domain names, to create a dedicated extension: ".xxx". By the time it was launched, Icann had received more than 200,000 reservation requests for domain names ending with .xxx. To gain a clearer understanding of the mechanisms and business practices, five researchers temporarily created their own websites. Their study revealed wide-ranging commercial warfare, including the pirating of visitor traffic and click fraud.
The online sex industry is transforming relations between employers and workers. Unlike the pornographic film industry, the cybersex industry has no directors telling actors what to do; unlike a telephone message service or peep show workers, the performers get no training and their dialogue with clients is not scripted. On the basis of the vague list of preferences that has brought their clients to them, they are assumed to be able to act out scenarios and adopt patterns of behavior that will satisfy the clients' desires and fantasies.
Internet sex is frequently mentioned in parliamentary debates in France, but only in connection with child protection and the suppression of child pornography. No questions are asked about cybersex or workers in the adult entertainment sector, the sweatshop workers in a lucrative industry.
Translated by Charles Goulden