Category Archives: Trafficking & the Internet

Live Sex Shows Heat up the Internet

Intimacy on the Web, With a Crowd

A cam model who calls herself Lacey works from her home in New Orleans, generally less formally clad. When she’s not on camera, she tracks metrics and promotes her business on social media.


A 25-YEAR-OLD woman whose fans know her as Lacey or Miss Lollipop, neither her real name, dipped an index finger into a small glass jar. She scooped up a dollop of foundation makeup and spread it on her forehead and cheeks.

“One of the other models showed me this,” she said, examining herself in the mirror. “It’s for high-def cameras. You don’t get that cake look.” She wore a low-cut purple cocktail dress and her hair was pulled into a loose bun.

“I’m late. I still have to set up the lights.”

She hustled to the corner of the small room to retrieve two inexpensive light stands. On the wall next to the lights hung some of Lacey’s props, including two wooden paddles she uses to spank herself. Most of her other sex toys and accessories were out of sight in a bureau and organized in bins.

It was 10 a.m. at Lacey’s home office, a three-bedroom rental in New Mexico. She was about to start work.

Lacey is a cam model. She performs one-woman sex shows, often from her house, though she has performed in a car, on a hiking trail, and once at an airport. The action is captured by a small, inexpensive camera clipped to the top of her laptop, and made available to anyone who visits a Web site called MyFreeCams.

The cam business, a kind of digital-era peep show, has been around for a few years, but as the technology has become better and cheaper, the concept of camming is proving well more than passing: it has created a money-making opportunity in a pornography business eroded by the distribution of free sexual content on the Internet.

Unlike prerecorded pornography, cam shows, which happen in real time, are hard to pirate. The traffic to the most popular camming Internet sites is substantial, with a handful of the top sites getting 30 million visitors a month, according to, which measures Internet traffic.

At any given time, hundreds of models are online, some being watched by 1,000 or more people, others giving private shows. The money generated by cam sites is hundreds of millions of dollars at least, and very likely a billion or more, according to industry analysts and executives.

The money generally comes not from subscriptions or pay-per-view, but rather from credits or “tips,” electronic tokens viewers give that allow them to interact with the models — instructing them through typed messages to use a certain sex toy or use it in a specific way. The Web sites provide the platform and then collect and distribute the tips to the models.

This payment structure, and the fact that the models can work in a safe place, slyly inverts the traditional power dynamic in the sex trade. A cam model does not need a pimp or protector. But as a decentralized business model in a traditionally sketchy industry, camming has its abuses, with some models driven by economic desperation or even enslavement. And some cam models discover that despite the sense of security the virtual platform provides, they still can be blackmailed, threatened with disclosure to friends and family, and pressured to do acts they didn’t bargain for. Using the Internet to find a mass audience exposes cam models to anonymous, unseen enemies, something Lacey learned the hard way when one customer apparently revealed her real name online.

There came a knock on the door of Lacey’s office. It was Jim Lewis, a retired Navy officer with unkempt gray hair and a goatee who worked as Lacey’s assistant.

“You’re late, Lolli. You want me to send a note?” he asked, meaning an e-mail to waiting viewers.

“I’m ready.”

Lacey’s regulars know many intimate details about her. But they may not realize that she runs a serious business. When she’s not on camera, she tracks metrics and promotes herself on social media, checks in with clients. She can’t see the men she performs for, but she watches their habits closely.

After Mr. Lewis returned to his station in the next room, Lacey picked up the laptop and placed it on a glass table beneath the lights. She let down her hair. It was the last day of the month and she wanted to end strong. In a good month, she says she makes $8,000, nearly six figures a year.

She clicked the laptop to start the camera.

“Hey guys!”

She started her work, a combination of old school titillation with a new economic model and serious new risks, too.

Business Driven by Tips

The erosion of the pornographic movie business has been well chronicled, and predates camming. The culprit was the Internet, which while it made pornographic content more accessible, also led to widespread piracy.

Shows by the cam model who calls herself Lacey or Miss Lollipop are available free through a Web site, MyFreeCams. Money is made through “tips” given electronically by viewers.

Camming is the next disruptive influence. Some content can be free to users but, in fact, tips and other fees produce substantial revenues. Exactly how much is a tough number to come by given that there are hundreds of sites, most privately held. Douglas Richter, an executive-level consultant with LiveJasmin, one of the most visited cam sites — and a competitor to MyFreeCams — estimates industry wide annual revenue from camming at more than $1 billion. The pornography business as a whole is estimated to be about $5 billion, a sharp drop from a decade ago. Steven Hirsch, the co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment, a prominent pornographic movie studio, said that while there remained a market for prerecorded movies and clips — available for download and through cable subscription — interactive entertainment, including camming, accounted for half of the sales in the industry.

Internet traffic numbers bear out the popularity of camming. According to Alexa, a site owned by Amazon that measures Internet traffic, LiveJasmin, which is based in Luxembourg, ranks as the 80th most popular site in the United States and 103rd globally., a unit of Kantar Media, reports LiveJasmin has around 25 million unique visitors from the United States per month. Compete.Com puts MyFreeCams at four million unique visitors per month, while Alexa ranks MyFreeCams as the 341st most popular site in the United States.

That traffic still pales by comparison to the draw of pornographic sites that offer free prerecorded content. Pornhub ranks 56th in the United States, but its prerecorded clips are free. Among the ways it makes money is by converting visitors to customers of cam rooms.

“Live cam has become the most prominent part of the industry,” said Alec Helmy, the publisher of Xbiz, a sex-trade industry journal, eclipsing previous forms of pornography in popularity if not yet in total revenue. “Camming is driving the adult industry.”

The sites make money through sales of tips. The users of the site (most, but not all, are men) buy the tips in bunches; on MyFreeCams, the cost is $19.99 for 200 tokens. The men “tip” the models by giving them tokens during a show. (They can also buy “private shows” for much higher rates.) According to Mr. Richter, from LiveJasmin, credits for tips are purchased by about one in 300 men who visit the sites with female models. He said the gay-male audience tends to buy more. (There are cam models and sites catering to different audiences.)

The cam model sites are talent aggregators, middlemen, but only in the sense that Apple is the middleman for bands selling music on iTunes. (MyFreeCams is registered to a man named Leo Radvinsky, based in Glenview, Ill. He did not respond to requests for an interview.) The cam models work for themselves, listing thumbnail pictures and descriptions on the sites. The sites keep a percentage of the tips, but the amount varies. Big earners can get a bigger chunk of their tips. Lacey tends to get 50 to 60 percent.

The business model has become so popular that competitors are racing to catch up. Witness the efforts of Kink, a pornography company based in an old military armory in San Francisco. A few years ago, Kink was seen as ushering in the new age of pornography; it catered to various fetishes by filming and streaming content ideal for Internet consumption. These days, Kink is turning rooms at the armory into cam studios that independent cam models can, effectively, rent. “Strategically, this is the future,” says John Sander, vice president for marketing at Kink. “The value of prerecorded content has eroded across the industry.”

Todd Blatt once produced pornographic movies in Southern California and had several Ferraris to show for it. Last year, he sold 72,500 pornographic DVDs he had collected over the years, getting $30,000 for all of them, compared with $700,000 he once thought the collection would bring.

“If you’re the middle guy who has been eating off this industry for 20 years, it’s a big change,” said Mr. Blatt, 45, who recently sold the last of his Ferraris. “The girls don’t need anybody.”

Incredibly Isolating Job

“Hello Dugging!”

Lacey, sitting on the floor, sipping coffee, greeted guests as their screen names popped onto her laptop.

The lighting was bad “because Archie chewed through the cord,” she explained to about 150 far-flung people she couldn’t see, who were watching from unknown locations. Archie, she told them, is one of two dogs she’s fostering.

For Lacey, this sort of virtual relationship is nothing new. Her first intimate relationship began online when she was 14 years old, back in New Zealand. As the middle of nine children, she found connection in a chat room on Napster, the online music service.

There, she met a 17-year-old from Arkansas named Dawson. That was his handle, not his name, which she declines to give. (Lacey asked not to use her real name because her parents do not know she is a cam model. She told them that she does marketing for pornography companies.)

Dawson visited Lacey in New Zealand when she was 18. They married, and she moved with him to Arkansas. There, she discovered that having a relationship could be tougher in person than online. “When we had a fight, honestly, if I needed to talk about something,” she said, “I would e-mail him, even though we lived together.”

She worked in an animal shelter, making $65 a day. With her marriage faltering, she started engaging in intimate relationships online. She read about camming on an erotic story site. When Dawson went to a trade school in another state, she decided to try camming. “I needed to make good money — immediately.”

Her first show was Oct. 1, 2010. She earned $50. The next day, she earned twice that. One night that December, $400. Then, the woman who owned the animal shelter found out and fired her on the spot, telling her only a woman desperate to feed her children should do something like this.

Economic desperation absolutely drives some women to camming. Some use it as a platform for prostitution. And some women, particularly overseas, are forced into it, sex slaves just working in a new medium, said Kathryn Griffin, a former prostitute turned sex-industry recovery coach who works for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston.

Lacey has various ways to draw tips from viewers; one is the whiteboard game, in which viewers are encouraged to give the amounts on the board. In a chat room, the audience can see the tips as lines of text, as well as one another’s responses.

Even those women who become cam models of their own free will take on serious risks associated with sex work, Ms. Griffin said. Those risks, she said, run from the low self-esteem that comes from working on the margins of society, to using drugs to cope with a job that can feel shameful, to getting into other activities, whether stripping in a club or prostitution. The still-unsolved murders on Long Island of women who advertised as prostitutes on Craigslist also speak to the risks of going it alone in the sex industry.

“The longer they do it, the more vulnerable they become to going to the next stage and the next stage,” Ms. Griffin said of camming.

That said, Sienna Baskin, a co-director of the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, said she was not aware of a widespread problem of domestic cam workers’ being coerced into the activity. “To my knowledge, it is not a very common form of human trafficking,” she said.

Kari Lerum, a sociologist at the University of Washington, Bothell, where she studies the sex industries, said camming could provide more comfort and autonomy than other sex work. “The women work out of their homes, it’s safe, they have more control over working conditions,” she said.

Lawrence Walters, a Florida lawyer who is an expert in obscenity law, said that there was nothing inherently illegal about cam shows, as long as the models were over 18.

There is another risk. “There’s a perception that you can be a stealth webcam model,” he says. “That’s not always the case.”

Serena Blair, the stage name of another cam model, studied biology at a major university, but came to camming in 2011, frustrated that she couldn’t find a research position that paid more than minimum wage. Now, in a good month, she said, she makes $8,000 in tips. But the choice to become a cam model carries a burden: she fears her parents would shun her if they discovered how she earns money. She can’t put camming on her legitimate résumé, and not long ago she worked a night at a strip club, something she thought she would never do (and vows she won’t do again).

Lacey has faced more immediate problems. Two years ago, a particularly heavy tipper started making demands about what outfits she should wear. He became threatening. Afraid of losing his tips, she initially acceded to his demands, but then stopped. Soon after, her real identity started showing up around the Internet, tied to her cam name and her real address.

She went to the police, but was told there was nothing that could be done; putting real information on the Internet is not illegal. (She did get the sites where her information appeared to take it down.) Then, she found out that the same man had outed several other models, or threatened to. “My big fear is he would call my parents and tell them. If that happens, I will deal with it, but it won’t be pretty if it does,” Lacey said, adding: “Camming is like doing small-scale porn. Your image is out there forever. You have to be O.K. with that before you get into it.”

Some cam models said they weren’t prepared. “Camming is an incredibly isolating job,” wrote one woman, echoing the sentiments of others reached on an Internet forum for cam models, noting she was confident and happy on camera and increasingly withdrawn in the real world. “I spent so many hours a day” being the person she was on the webcam, she wrote, “that I have days where I no longer feel like my real self.”

Lacey seems more comfortable than some with those trade-offs. She said camming was “the best option but not the only option” for making money. She attended one year of college in New Zealand, and could have returned to go back to school or work in her parents’ hotel. “I never felt trapped.”

But she also said that camming was “potentially very dangerous.”

Back in her chat room, the tips were flowing. When they arrive, there’s a pinging noise — like a slot machine — that all participants online can hear. The tips also show up as lines of text highlighted in yellow on Lacey’s screen, typed by the viewers. Their responses can be seen by others watching, creating a strip-club dynamic, with the guys cajoling each other to tip, egging each other on.

Someone with the screen name BBB0223 tipped 24 tokens. That is $2.40, of which Lacey gets roughly half.

“Thank you BBB!” Lacey exclaimed.

The tip amount is not random. It pertains to the day’s theme, which Lacey calls the whiteboard game. It’s one of many games she has devised to draw tips from her viewers. Behind Lacey, a whiteboard is covered with 50 numbers from 20 to 70. When someone tips an amount on the board, Lacey erases the number. When all the numbers are off the board, she promises, she’ll start the racier part of her show. But behind the scenes, the hard-core business already is under way.

A New Kind of Intimacy

Outside Lacey’s office, at a desk beside the brown couches in her living room, Mr. Lewis was tracking the users in Lacey’s chat room, sending Lacey notes through a private channel when big tippers arrived.

Mr. Lewis is known to the regulars as Lolli’s Helper, his screen name. Lacey hired him last October. She was working five or six days a week on camera, often more than one session. She was also writing for her two blogs, running a membership site and posting to Twitter. She met Mr. Lewis at a local association of people involved with bondage and sadomasochism.

Lacey offered him 5 percent of her revenue to help her expand the business. He built a database of the screen name of every one of the 1,594 people who tipped Lacey since October and how much they tipped. Another database logs Lacey’s shows, the theme and how much money each generated.

This gave Lacey metrics. One of her best shows, in which she applied oil while in her backyard, brought in 48,795 tokens (about $2,439 to Lacey); the “maids and room service,” a more typical show, brought $534.85. She has Mr. Lewis look at what other models are doing, explore new trends, try to measure what works and doesn’t. She goes to pornography industry conventions. She offers promotions and prizes on Twitter and offers business counsel to other models in cam forums.

Lacey has a boyfriend who does not much mind that she spends time naked in front of other men, but he does say he wishes that she would sometimes stop with the round-the-clock entrepreneurship and “turn off the brand.”

That morning Mr. Lewis was monitoring the number of guests in the cam rooms. “She’s the eighth most popular room,” he muttered. Impressive, considering there are nearly 1,400 models online. A guest named “Whodeybuckeye” had tossed in nearly 10 tips. “Interesting,” Mr. Lewis says. “I’ve never seen him before.”

There were a few regulars hanging out, but not a lot of her big tippers. Among the missing was Alex K.

Alex is 53, a warehouse manager in western Massachusetts. His last serious girlfriend was just after high school. He describes himself as a loner, but less of one since he found Lacey. He has spent nearly all of a lottery pot of something less than $20,000 on Lacey. “She’s a very open person,” he said. “There are no lies. No big walls.”

Dr. Lerum, from the University of Washington, says men are more open, vulnerable and emotional in cam rooms than in, say, strip clubs. They can also become invested in a relationship that exists only on the screen. “This is mutual objectification,” she said of camming.

Alex spends hundreds to thousands each month on Lacey. He bought her things — a scarf, hat, coat, sex toys — and cleared out her Amazon wish list. He sent her a computer. They communicated daily by phone, usually by text. Finally, last year, he met her in person over breakfast at a pornography conference in New Jersey. Alex, who was interviewed by phone, said, “It was like meeting someone I’ve known for a long time.”

Lacey describes their relationship somewhat differently. It’s business, but also, she said, it’s “complicated, a friendship.”

Models like Lacey think of themselves as digital geishas, therapists, consorts, virtual performance artists. Unlike traditional pornography, or even old-school peep shows, the cam medium titillates with the promise of virtual friendship.

“They’re defining a new kind of intimacy,” said Viviana Zelizer, a Princeton sociologist and author of “The Purchase of Intimacy,” about the interplay between economics and relationships. It’s not traditional sex work, not a relationship, but “something in between.”

Blurred Lines

About 90 minutes after the show started there were about 1,150 guests in the room.

Then it was over.

Flushed, Lacey started chatting with the group, and the watchers responded to her with text questions and commentary. They talked about New Zealand and her dogs. “If you like me and miss me,” she said in a final plug, “check out my forum.”

After signing off, she appeared in the living room in her robe. Lacey and Mr. Lewis looked at the stats: It had been an O.K. morning, bringing in around $350.

A chunk came from the new guy, Whodeybuckeye, who seemed to have made the leap from lingerer to tipper. Two weeks later, when Lacey got the flu, she did a show from her kitchen, fully dressed, sniffling. Whodeybuckeye was there, part of the loyal gang tipping her to hang out and just chat.

With the business going well, Lacey and her boyfriend decided in June to move to New Orleans. There were several reasons: his family was nearby; Lacey didn’t like New Mexico’s dry air; New Orleans is “a destination city,” which other cam models might visit to do shows with her; and she might make some extra money persuading customers to visit and pay to have dinner with her. “No sexual contact,” she said, adding that her boyfriend would go along on these outings.

As she pursues the edges of this new business and the decision to move, she sounds like any young person describing the chance of a lifetime. “I didn’t want to wake up 10 years from now and say, damn, I had all that opportunity, and I didn’t take it.”

In this case, though, the opportunities show how this business can escalate, inviting potential hazard by further blurring the lines between the virtual and the real.


Children Blackmailed into Performing Sex Acts Online


Illustration photo. Children as young as eight are being blackmailed into performing sex acts live on webcams, causing some of them to self-harm or even commit suicide, a British watchdog has warned. (AFP/File)

LONDON (AFP) –  Children as young as eight are being blackmailed into performing sex acts live on webcams, causing some of them to self-harm or even commit suicide, a British watchdog warned on Friday.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) said it had conducted 12 investigations over the last two years which involved this worrying trend — and suggested British children are particularly at risk.

Paedophiles pretending to be children target their victims on open chat sites, before moving them into private areas where they persuade the child to send sexual images of themselves.

“Once the child has sent images, the offenders begin blackmailing them either for more indecent images or, in few cases, for cash,” the centre said in a statement.

“And unless the child agrees, the offender threatens to share the child’s pictures with family and friends.”

In some cases, the children are also forced to perform other acts live on a webcam, including writing degrading statements on their body and cutting themselves, it said.

CEOP said it had identified 424 child victims of online sexual blackmail over the last two years, through its own work and that of its international partners.

Seven children were driven to serious self-harm and seven killed themselves, it said.

“The stories we hear are truly tragic and you cannot help but be touched by the emotional rollercoaster these youngsters must be going through,” said Andy Baker, deputy chief executive of the centre.

A significant proportion — 184 — of the victims were from Britain, which CEOP operations manager Stephanie McCourt blamed in part on the popularity of the English language.

“They (the abusers) are able to threaten the children if they can communicate to them,” she said.

She added: “The offenders have actually said that because they perceive the UK as a very free and open and liberal society, they think that they will have more success in targeting UK children.”

No-one at CEOP was immediately able to give details on the nationalities of the other victims, or which other countries were involved in their research.

The centre offers support for victims online and said it was working with authorities around the world to catch those responsible.

U.S. Hospital to Offer Rehab for Internet Addiction

Digital Detox

net addiction

Do you spend way too much time online?

By Meghan Neal

The jury’s still out on whether “Internet addiction” should be considered an official psychiatric condition. On the one hand, it didn’t make the cut when the latest version of the DSM came out—even in the “conditions for further study” section. On the other, the last few years have seen a deluge of digital detox camps, retreats, and addiction institutes promising to help people who are hooked on the web.

Now, the debate be damned, the first US hospital is offering a program to treat online addicts. A voluntary, 10 day inpatient rehab program will open on September 9 at the Behavioral Health Services wing of Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania, Fox News reported. Web addicts will get psychiatric help in the section of the hospital that offers drug and alcohol detox programs, from experts with backgrounds in those more traditional addictions.

The program was founded by Dr. Kimberly Young, who literally wrote the book on internet addiction back in 1996, when she suspected it was an “emerging disorder.” The way Young sees it, the problem can be even more pervasive than alcohol and other addictive substances, because “the internet is free, legal and fat free,” she told Fox. Not to mention, millions of people rely on it to do their job and earn a living.

The 10 day treatment is pretty straightforward. Four patients are admitted at a time, and right off the bat are cut off from any internet for 72 hours. At that point, patients might start showing withdrawal symptoms. A February study found that internet withdrawal works a lot like coming down from a drug-induced high, like the inevitable crash after a rolling on Ecstasy. After the detox, patients go to group therapy to learn ways to limit internet use and avoid unhealthy behavior.

Since being cyber-obsessed isn’t recognized as a medical disorder, health insurance won’t cover the program, so the $14,000 cost of the program will have to come out of pocket. That could help weed out the web users who just can’t stop watching cat videos when they need to do homework, and focus on those who really need professional treatment. People like this guy, who was so addicted to War of Warcraft he didn’t leave his house for five weeks and was subsisting on takeout and failing out of school before seeking help.

Net compulsions like gaming or shopping are one offshoot of web addiction, which experts have decided over the years is too broad to stand alone as an all-encompassing disorder. Now it can include computer addiction, cyber-relationship addiction, cybersex addiction, and information overload.

What’s more, the definition of addiction itself is notoriously vague: A habit becomes an addiction when it interferes with your daily life. Seeing as the internet is what powers many Americans’ daily lives, that’s not going to cut it for modern society’s latest could-be addiction. For further clarification, Young devised a quiz that’s supposed to detect the tell-tale signs that your cyberspace habit is out of control: Do you feel preoccupied with the internet? Do you need to use it with increasing amounts to feel satisfaction? Have you repeatedly tried to stop or cut back but failed? Do you feel depressed or moody when you stop using? Has it jeopardized real-world relationships? Do you use it to escape problems in your life?

I bet a lot of us could answer “sort of” to more than one of these questions. Where do you draw the line between enjoying too much of an unhealthy vice, and needing hospitalization? Bar-hopping until 4 AM doesn’t necessarily an alcoholic make. Netflix-binging all weekend isn’t a sure sign you’re a TV addict. But what if you do it to escape from a shitty day? Do we need to look into film addiction? Book addiction? Virginia Heffernan made a good point in a New York Times editorial, writing, “In general, if a pastime is not classy, those who love it are ‘addicted.’ Opera and poetry buffs are ‘passionate.'”

Where the internet is concerned, the gray area can get murky. It’s so murky, the experts can’t even agree on when to call it addiction. Some say cyberspace is compulsive, compelling, and distracting, but not addictive the way chemical substances are. Yet other research shows web addicts’ brains change the same way drug addicts’ do.

recent study published in PLoS ONE found “abnormal white matter” on brain scans of internet addicts similar to the scans of people hooked on alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, meth, and ketamine. Both showed disrupted pathways related to emotions, decision making, and self control.

For the majority of web users, the situation isn’t that extreme—yet. Still, a break from the endless cycle of emails, social networking, news, torrenting, gaming, and cyberspace’s black hole of entertainment and information sounds like an awesome idea. You know, before psychiatric help is required.

78,000 Men Solicit Sex Online in Phoenix

ASU Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz

PHOENIX (CBS5) -By Lindsey Reiser

The sex trade in the Valley is booming, and while law enforcement groups are learning more about the victims and their traffickers, little is known about the customers – also known as Johns – until now.

“They are so protected by anonymity,” said ASU Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz. “They don’t have to drive where there are prostitutes on the corner.”

ASU researchers posted an ad on for 15 cities, including Phoenix, and kept track of the men that called or texted and their area codes.

“Some of the messages we got from voicemails and texts sound like this: ‘Can we hook up? What kind of guys are you into?'” Roe-Sepowitz said.

Then they posted the same ad one week later, again keeping track of the area codes that responded. They made note of the repeat callers, and using a formula, came up with a rough estimate of the Johns in each city.

“We believe one in every 20 men in the Phoenix metro area, not just the city of Phoenix, are responding to online ads,” Roe-Sepowitz said.

The researchers believe there are more than 78,000 men in the Phoenix metro area looking to buy sex online; that’s more than enough to fill the U.S. Airways Center four times over.

“If it were not for the demand for our the victims, then we would not have as many victims,” Phoenix Police Lt. Jim Gallagher said. He said the number the researchers came up with is shocking, and they want to focus on educating the public.

“What the consequences are of demand, what it means for the individual and what it means for the Johns themselves and what it means for the community at large,” Gallagher said.

Out of the 15 cities they studied, Houston, Kansas City and Las Vegas had the highest percentage of Johns. Phoenix has the sixth-highest.

Soliciting Sex Online

Hong Kong Sex Workers Forced to Pay for Good Reviews Online

JJJ association set up counter to help local sex workers at TST district. Photo taken from (CC: AT-NC)

Written by

Many believe that the Internet has empowered individuals and social minorities by giving them a voice. For sex workers, however, it is another story. As Hong Kong law criminalizes “the exhibition of advertisement on sexual service” and “conspiracy to live on earnings of prostitution of others”, they cannot run their individual websites and are exploited by those who are capable of running sexual service promotion sites overseas.

Mavis Siu for Hong Kong-based investigates the manipulation of sex workers by website, which is the biggest portal website for sexual services in Hong Kong. Her article originallyappeared on on July 24, 2013 in Chinese. The trimmed English version has been translated by Alpha Au and republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.



A number of newspapers have exposed that has taken advantage of “Money-Drop Review”, a customer review of service, to scam money from sex workers who were smeared by anonymous Internet users and ghostwriters unless they paid to get good reviews from the website-recommended ghostwriters. JJJ Association [zh], an organization defending the rights of sex workers, has debriefed the situation to local journalists.

Yet many still wonder: Why do exploited sex workers continue to register and have their profile shown on sex141?

Monopoly of the online sex industry

The scams that exploit sex workers are related to the monopoly of the porn site business in Hong Kong.

There are three major porn sites in Hong Kong, with sex141 being the most active with its index on “One-Woman Brothels”, the term for sex workers working out of small, often one-room apartments in the city. sex141 was created in 2002 by a local university graduate[zh]. The website allows sex workers to publish ads as well as offers a forum. Originally, it was based in Hong Kong, but after the owner was convicted of ”conspiracy to live on earnings of prostitution of others” in 2006, the web server has moved to the US, managed by a company called Black Lotus Communications. In recent years, it has expanded to other Asian regions such as China, Taiwan, and Macau.

The site that targets the Hong Kong market has a “VIP girls database”, which categorizes the registered sex workers according to location of their workplace to make the search results more convenient to customers. A campaigner from the JJJ Association said the porn site is very resourceful. For example, they have a legal team to back up their work.

Their web ranking and popularity is high and thus has established their monopolized status in Hong Kong. According to, sex141 was ranked 126th in web traffic in Hong Kong, while two other similar porn sites “Miss 148″ and “161 Sex” were ranked 1,088th and 1,638th respectively.

Miss Ho, a sex worker registered on sex141 for more than a year, believes that the high popularity of sex141 is a result of its marketing techniques. Other than the main site, sex141 also runs an online forum [zh]. The forum’s content is no different from any other public forum, except it has a lot of ads from sex141 and other sex-related products and services. The forum ranks 148th on Alexa.

Just like other porn sites, sex141 comes with a “paid member” system, under the name “Sponsored Member Scheme”. Members who donate $300, $1,000 or $8,800 have different user rights, such as taking or viewing the sex workers’ photos, reading service reviews, watching online videos and using search and other functions. Members could also earn credits in the forum to obtain more user rights.

Miss Ho pointed out that sex workers are the biggest source of income for sex141. “We pay 1,300 Hong Kong dollars [about 180 US dollars] each month for putting up ads,” she said. Currently, there are more than 3,000 sex workers on the site. It’s estimated monthly income is in the millions.

The high cost of bad reviews

Miss Ho agrees that sex141 is an effective platform for advertising their services. It helps her business. “I cannot explain why clients are so dependent on the site, anyway it helps us get more clients,” she said.

Yet sex141 wants to extract more from the sex workers in addition to their monthly ads fee. Miss Ho pointed out that sex141 has “many different tricks to exploit sex workers”. For instance, there is a “Star of Today — Flower Box” on the main page. The website has a function that allows clients to buy virtual flowers for the sex workers. But in most of the cases, the sex workers are paying 300 HK dollars (about 40 US dollars) to get themselves 30 virtual flowers from the system for self-promotion.

“These things are tricky, but none is worse than “Money-Drop Review”, she said.

“Money-Drop Review” is a recently added feature. It encourages members to write bad reviews, such as the service was terrible or even that the sex worker has sexually transmitted diseases. The writers are not responsible for the reviews, nor do they have the responsibility to offer proof. The reviews smear the sex workers, and they have to pay for good reviews.

“It costs $200 to delete a bad review. If the smeared sex worker was not a paid member of sex141, she has to pay 1,300 HK dollars [about 180 US dollars] to become a member, and another 1,000 HK dollars [about 130 US dollars] for FeiLung [a ghostwriter recommended by the website] to write three good reviews in order to maintain a positive image and business”, Miss Ho added.

This “Money-Drop Review” not only forces the paid sex worker members to pay more, but also forces others to join the site.

“141 could have raised the ads fee to, say, 3,000 to 4,000 HK dollars [about 400 to 520 US dollars], the sex workers could then choose whether or not to continue using their service,” Miss Ho indignantly said . The current bad review system has caused emotional stress as much as financial burden.

Miss Ho heard that one sex worker spends 10,000 HK dollars (about 1,300 US dollars) per month on ghostwriting, and some even get depressed and suicidal because of smearing. When a bad review accuses a sex worker of having sexually transmitted disease, her business will go down immediately.

Given the nature of their work, sex workers have no way to look out for bad reviews or refute untrue allegations. If they want to get laudatory words, they have to use the ghostwriter service. Miss Ho questioned why sex141 does not protect their sex worker members: “After all, we are the ones who pay for the ads! Why does the Money-Drop Review only target us? The other ads on the site like finance companies, sex products, and sexual hotlines do not have a similar review feature.”

The website defends their review feature citing freedom of speech. However, the “bad reviews” cannot be proved right and the review writers are not responsible for their untrue remarks. The “freedom” has undoubtedly hurt the sex workers. Miss Ho questioned, “When the information includes the workers’ addresses, names and phone numbers, how would its influence be unrelated to the real world?”

The admin of sex141 forum suggested that “the recommended reviewers “FeiLung” and “GwatZingKoeng” are chartered writers and are not employees of the site … no one is allowed to charge in the name of sex141.”

But Miss Ho questioned, “If there is no embedded interest, why does the advertising department of 141 recommend the two ghostwriters to us?”’s contributing reporter tried to contact the staff of sex141, but received the reply, “You know the nature of our website. We don’t accept media interviews. No comment.”

A member of the JJJ Association said that they have introduced other websites of similar nature to local sex workers, but the lack of popularity and view count cannot help them to attract clients. The association once considered setting up a new platform, but once they were confronted with legal risks and technical problems, they were forced to drop the idea. It appears that the workers have no other choice but to keep on “paying for their own discomfort” if the monopoly situation continues.

Couple Busted for Running $1mil High-End Sex Ring in LI Home

Vincent and Melissa Lombardo were arrested at their

Photo credit: Howard Schnapp | Vincent and Melissa Lombardo were arrested at their Massapequa home and are scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in federal district court in Brooklyn on money laundering and prostitution charges, authorities said. (July 18, 2013)

  • Last Updated: 2:58 PM, July 18, 2013
  • Posted: 2:04 PM, July 18, 2013

A Long Island couple have been busted running a high-end international prostitution ring from their suburban home – clearing more than a million dollars in the past two years that helped fund the duo’s lavish lifestyle, prosecutors announced today.

Vincent and Melissa Lombardo allegedly ran a stable of hookers from a Web site,, charging upwards of $3,000 a day for women who traveled to Florida, South Dakota, South Africa and Dubai and had trysts with johns from the US, UK and Russia, according to a Brooklyn federal court complaint.

The Lombardos – who rent a home in Massapequa and own a home in Boca Raton, Fl. – were arrested in Long Island and are due in Brooklyn court this afternoon.

The Lombardos took a 30 to 40 percent cut from their hookers in exchange for the right to advertise their services on the prostitution Web site, according to the complaint. Girls were required to reimburse the couple before noon on the next day following their liaisons.

In one instance, Melissa Lombardo – known as Pamela to the prostitutes – recruited women from New York to be flown to Miami for “a party in Miami for a group of politicians, lawyers and many other important businessmen [who] are looking for companions,” the complaint alleges.

The Lombardos also sent girls to South Dakota with a Russian businessman for a motorcycle festival, and to Dubai to work 5-star hotels, according to prosecutors.

The agency screened its prospective skin peddlers, and required that they provide oral sex, without condoms, to clients, according to documents obtained by the feds during the investigation.

The women also were required to send full face and body photos in for scrutiny before being hired.

“We don’t need trash girls or drug girls or girls that aren’t GFE,” noted one email from a Lombardo email account obtained by investigators. “It is our way or they don’t work with us.”

“GFE” refers to the “Girlfriend Experience,” a prostitution-industry term in which the hooker acts like a girlfriend to the client.

Records show that Vincent Lombardo did jail time for drug and weapons possession.