The kids aren't alright Why Russian adolescents are selling self-created pornography online
In a growing trend on social networks and instant messengers in Russia, minors are creating their own erotica and pornography, and selling it online to make a quick buck, aware that they face no penalties under Russia’s Criminal Code for such actions. The explicit content is distributed in communities populated by thousands of clients and resellers, giving rise to a whole subculture with its own slang and even its own songs. In a special report for Meduza, Pavel Merzlikin explains the architecture of this illegal industry, and looks at how much money minors themselves are earning making child pornography.
A body without a face
Nastya is 15 and lives in Novosibirsk. She dances and does rhythmic gymnastics. She listens to hip hop music and is generally a B student. In her spare time away from school, Nastya earns money selling pornography she makes herself: explicit photos and videos where she plays the starring role.
Nastya told Meduza that she got started in this business about five months ago, in February 2017. Back then, she was making some money as a designer, creating social-media avatars and album art for local bands. One evening, Nastya was browsing the Internet, looking for ways to turn a bigger profit on her work, and she came across a group on Vkontakte dedicated to the sale of erotic photos. “Then I thought, why not sell pictures?” she remembers. “Just not the ones I was already selling.”
She says she registered a new Vkontakte account under a false name, choosing a profile picture that revealed her slim figure and long dark hair, but not her face. And then she got to work.
Nastya spends a few hours a day at this job, visiting different Vkontakte groups, offering to sell her erotic photographs to anyone who will pay. One nude photo costs 10 rubles (about $0.17), and Nastya will write a personalized message on her body for an extra 25 rubles ($0.42). Videos showing Nastya performing a striptease or masturbating cost 150 rubles ($2.50).
Everyday, she gets about 15 different clients — men who want to buy either her photos or her videos. Nastya says her daily earnings can reach 1,500 rubles ($25), and she makes roughly 15,000 rubles ($250) a month. She spends most of this money shopping for clothes online.
“Nobody orders anything weird from me. There are very few perverts. Mostly it’s just regular people who are attracted to my age. Some of them even give me compliments. I like my work. You just sit there and earn money doing almost nothing,” Nastya told Meduza.
Nastya lives with her mother in a single-parent home, but she stresses that she wouldn’t be desperate for money, if she stopped selling pornography. “It’s just that there’s no normal work in this city for a 15-year-old. And I want to have my own money. Really, I’m totally fine, and my family is very understanding,” she says.
Nastya’s family and friends, however, apparently have no idea that she sells her own porn on the Internet. She only films herself when no one is home, and she never reveals her face in any of her videos or photos. She is also careful never to save her work on the home computer or her phone, storing everything in a cloud account. “It’s very easy to hide everything. Nobody knows anything yet, and I doubt they’ll find out,” Nastya says.
“CP in DMs”
On Vkontakte, there are hundreds of young boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 16 selling their own sexually explicit content.
The spread of child pornography on social media has become an established part of modern Internet culture. A special vocabulary has even emerged, and you don’t have to look hard to find memes or discussions where someone is joking about “central processors” (child pornography) or “CP in DMs” (child pornography in direct messages). Amateur rock groups and bloggers have dedicated whole songs to the online spread of “CP.” For example, the Russian videoblogger “Sovergon” has a song about a person suffering from depression who “rots from within” until a friend cheers him up by sharing a database of child pornography (“300 gigabytes of hope”). The song has some interesting lyrics, like “Don’t delay! Get that torrent going, and you’ll soon be glowing,” and the protagonist in the tune also addresses his own doubts about committing a felony (child pornography trafficking): “Somehow it’s immoral. Somehow I’m ashamed. It feels like Mizulina will have me maimed,” Sovergon sings, referring to the famously conservative Russian senator.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many adolescents are selling their own porn online today. Many of these individuals register backup accounts to market their content. Some of these accounts are fake, and sometimes they’re actually traps created by groups trying to fight pornography’s spread. Despite this maze, however, it’s clear that there are at least several hundred minors in Russia working in the industry.
The prices of self-created child pornography are roughly the same across the market. A single photo runs between 5 and 20 rubles ($.08 to $0.34) and a video costs a few hundred rubles (no more than $17). Adolescents also offer explicit livestreams over Periscope and Skype. They find their customers in both open and closed Vkontakte communities dedicated to the sale of erotic content. Each of these groups has several thousand members.
Meduza reached out to roughly a hundred adolescents now selling their own pornography online. In the end, just 10 individuals agreed to talk to us. We conducted the interviews over Skype to verify that these people are who they say they are online.
All 10 teenagers say they first learned by chance or from a friend about the possibilities of earning money by selling their explicit photos on the Internet. Some say it was life circumstances that pushed them into the business. Yana, a 14-year-old girl living in St. Petersburg, says her father is seriously ill. She’s been selling her erotic photos and videos for three months now, earning up to 500 rubles ($8) for a night’s work. She says her clients are “pedophiles and ordinary boys her own age.” “The job has seriously changed me. I’ve realized that everything is for sale, and that pedophiles really do buy this. They should all be locked up, but I can’t throw them behind bars. And I need the money,” Yana says.
Fifteen-year-old Vika sells her pornographic videos for 300 rubles ($5) each. “My parents are drinkers. I can’t remember the last time I saw them sober. And I need money to live my life. This work is just temporary. I’ve been doing it for a few months, and I’ve already realized that it’s disgusting and full of perverts,” she says. Vika is certain that nobody will ever identify her. She sells her content from a fake Vkontakte account, and accepts payments on a Qiwi online wallet that’s registered to a phone number not in her name. “Even if someone recognizes me in the photos,” she says, “I’ll say it’s Photoshop.”
Of everyone who agreed to talk to Meduza, only one person, 16-year-old Dasha from Kazan, said she started selling her photos and videos because she “likes it and it turns her on.” Everyone else stressed that the work is temporary, saying they plan to quit as soon as they can. Some of these girls, however, have been at it for more than a year now. They’ve kept it up despite the generally small income: average monthly earnings rarely top 10,000 rubles ($167). Inna, a 14-year-old girl living in Novosibirsk, says she only made 1,000 rubles ($16) in a month’s work. She says she was trying to save money to buy a new computer. Inna’s family couldn’t afford it, so she decided to give pornography a shot. Now she says she’s quitting because the pay is too low.
Meduza was only able to find one account selling porn that apparently belongs to a boy. He refused to speak to us.
Fakes and sellers
According to the girls who spoke to Meduza, the clientele for their content is mostly teenage boys their own age, as well as “ordinary men between the ages of 25 and 30” who “drown them in compliments” when making purchases. Only some of the clients buy the photos and videos for themselves. Some customers pose as fellow adolescents and then turn around and resell the content elsewhere. The girls call these clients “fakes.”
Meduza managed to speak to one of these people. He told us that he created a fake profile on Vkontakte roughly a month ago, after downloading several publicly available archives of child pornography. For his user picture, he chose a frame from a video showing a young girl in a holiday dress. Then he shared a nude photograph of the same girl on his profile page, with a caption that invited people to buy other photos and videos from this 13-year-old “little candy.” He says he’s only managed to make about 1,000 rubles ($16).
“I won’t say exactly, but there are a lot of people doing this. There’s an especially booming market for fake accounts buying and reselling other fake accounts’ photos. Then we circulate them on Vkontakte, as if we’re selling them ourselves, and people think they’re buying them from the girls themselves. I bought 10 photos, for instance. Then I sold them. Then I did it all over again. It’s not much money, but then 100 rubles is left in your bank account, and you didn’t do anything for it except send off a few photos and videos,” the man said.
Major marketers of child pornography will also buy explicit photos and videos from adolescents selling their content online. It’s easy to find these purveyors on social networks and message boards where pornography is sold or erotic actors are recruited; you just need to use the right keywords — like “CP” — in your searches. These groups also share audio clips on Vkontakte with instructions about which email addresses to contact in order to acquire child pornography. They post the information in audio clips because Vkontakte has a harder time flagging and removing such content. The child pornography itself — the photographs and videos — is stored on numerous cloud services.
Calling himself Daniil, one of these large resellers told Meduza that he only sells child pornography on social networks in his spare time. He has a normal day job, where he earns 25,000 rubles ($420) a month, but he says he makes twice as much selling porn. Daniil says he finds clients through his own Vkontakte group and by spamming Vkontakte users he selects, based on their community subscriptions and stated interests. He sells the content in bulk for a few dozen rubles per photo.
Daniil says he decided to take up selling pornography because it’s a very simple business. “I sit at home, managing one group and making a decent income. Demand is pretty high. I earn more at this than some people in this country make [doing ordinary work]. We operate mainly on Vkontakte. There are a ton of users there, and the network doesn’t ban groups for explicit content as often as other networks do. They ban you maybe once every couple of months,” he explains.
Daniil stresses that he plays no role in the creation of child pornography himself, saying he only resells what he buys from the adolescents who make it at home. “These gals are uploading it all themselves. I’m just finding it all and selling it,” he says. “The times when porn was created in a studio are long gone.”
Daniil says he worries that he could be sent to prison for what he’s doing, but he’s reassured by the fact that nobody in a long time has heard of anyone being prosecuted for such things. He isn’t planning to quit this business anytime soon. In fact, he says he’s looking to grow his output tenfold, and raise his monthly earnings to 700,000 rubles ($11,750).
There’s just no way to get rid of all the kids
Both the resellers and the adolescents marketing their own pornography say they find most of their buyers in special communities on Vkontakte.
There are several dozen such groups with more than 1,000 subscribers. The communities specialize in photographs of adult women, but in most of these groups anyone can post messages, including the sellers and creators of child pornography. The administrators in many of these communities condone the trafficking of erotica featuring girls in the “7+” age category, and don’t delete the messages from their groups’ Vkontakte walls.
Many of the administrators in these communities manage several similar groups simultaneously. A woman who created one of the biggest porn networks on Vkontakte (composed of about a dozen different groups) told Meduza that administrators are trying to fight child pornography in their communities, deleting posts by adolescents marketing their own content, but it isn’t working. “There’s just no way to get rid of all the kids. For example, when I see anyone under the age of 16 trying to sell anything, I delete it immediately. But there are so many that there’s simply nothing we can do,” she says.
The woman also explained how people in her situation make money: the creators of these groups on Vkontakte collect money (anywhere from 50 rubles to several thousand rubles a day, depending on the popularity of the community) from individual models to promote their content. They can also recruit their own models and take a commission on anything they sell. “The only costs are buying advertisements in other groups. In general, we make a good living. We’re not left wanting,” the woman says.
According to the adolescents selling porn, most of the buyers aren’t boys their own age or resellers, but anonymous adult men whom the girls themselves plainly call “pedophiles.” Meduza managed to speak to several of these buyers. They say they buy the child pornography through fake Vkontakte accounts accessed through Internet anonymizers like the Tor browser. These men told Meduza that they’re confident no one will find out who they are. These buyers also complained that “real teenagers” are quite hard to find among all the marketing by fake accounts and resellers. Many of these men say they’re aroused not just by the photographs, but also by the chance to order and buy them from real-life underage girls.
The administrator of one of Russia’s largest pedophile forums (the users themselves call it the “Pedoforum”) told Meduza that only “dim-witted” pedophiles use ordinary social networks to find content, risking the attention of police.
On the condition of anonymity, one child pornography buyer told Meduza that it’s “far safer” to connect with major child porn suppliers on the anonymous parts of the Internet, where there are dozens of websites dedicated to “child love.” Sets of 30-40 photos go for $20-$30, and single videos cost as much as $150. The price of custom-made films can reach several hundred dollars.
A source familiar with Russia’s porn industry told Meduza that the domestic market for traditional adult content filmed in a studio is disappearing: only two such studios are still operating in Russia, and they sell their products exclusively in the West. Another source told Meduza that demand in Russia for professionally filmed child pornography has fallen dramatically in recent years. “In the heyday of child pornography, back in the early 2000s, so much material was filmed that it would fill terabytes of storage and take years to watch it all,” the source says, explaining that veteran child pornography clients don’t like the homemade content sold today by adolescents on social networks. The production value is just too low, he says.
Too young for the gavel
Every adolescent who spoke to Meduza expressed certainty that they risk no criminal liability by creating and selling their own pornography. Pavel Domkin, a lawyer who has worked on almost 50 trials involving the illegal spread of pornography, confirmed to Meduza that teenagers in Russia can’t be tried for manufacturing or selling child pornography — at least not until they’ve turned 16. Once they hit this age, however, adolescents face 10 years in prison or a 15-year ban on any work that involves children, if they’re caught distributing their own underage pornography.
According to Russia’s Supreme Court Justice Department, 200 individuals were tried last year for spreading child porn. Only a single suspect was acquitted, and six defendants were ruled unfit to stand trial.
Domkin says Russian judges used to hand out suspended sentences to people convicted of spreading child pornography, but that trend has changed in the past three years, and offenders can now expect to do hard time.
Juveniles who have reached the age of 16 are prosecuted for sharing pornography. For example, in September 2015, a teenager in Irkutsk was convicted of uploading child porn to social networks, though he claims he was only trying to catch pedophiles; in June 2013, an underage boy in Novgorod got a one-year suspended sentence for sharing pornography on his Vkontakte page; and in February 2015 an underage girl in Tambov was tried for sharing an erotic video starring her 34-year-old friend.
Domkin says these cases are typical for Russia, because the justice system lacks the technical skills needed to unmask the major sellers and distributors of child pornography. Instead, police focus their search on individuals who repost content using social-media accounts registered in their real names or registered to their real phone numbers.
A source close to Russia’s Interior Ministry confirmed to Meduza that investigations into the spread of child pornography frequently begin by chance. “It’s very difficult to identify these people, especially since it’s hard for law enforcement even to know when a crime has been committed. Often an investigation begins when an officer stumbles onto something online or when an acquaintance comes forward with information about a specific case,” the source explains. The police know about adolescents selling homemade pornography, the source says, but they try to concentrate their efforts on adults who coerce juveniles into creating such content.
“When we encounter this sort of thing, we just inform the parents”
One of the groups fighting child pornography on the Russian Internet is the Safe Internet League — a government-friendly organization founded in 2011 by businessman and Orthodox Christian figure Konstantin Malofeyev. The league includes representatives from all of Russia’s major telecommunications companies. The Safe Internet League monitors the Internet, identifying child pornography and working with law enforcement agencies and Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censor, demanding that officials block websites with child porn. (The league is also known for having drafted an early blueprint for Russia’s “Internet blacklist,” which the government has since expanded to include various forms of extremism and hate speech, frequently blacklisting socio-political content.)
In a typical year, the Russian authorities block thousands of child-pornography websites and launch roughly 500 criminal investigations, Denis Davydov, the Safe Internet League’s executive director, told Meduza. About 100 of these cases are particularly serious (involving, for example, the abuse of children between the ages of four and seven). Nevertheless, Davydov says the illegal content continues to spread on social media, especially Vkontakte: “Some of the child pornography is distributed using simple text documents containing a list of hyperlinks for online pedophiles. And it’s easy to find child pornography itself, as well.”
Davydov says the sale of pornography by adolescents has yet to become a mass epidemic in Russia, but he wants the administrators of public communities and social networks to do more to fight it. “When we counter this sort of thing, we just inform the parents,” he says.
Vkontakte spokesman Evgeny Krasnikov told Meduza that the social network carries out several hundred thousand blocks of such content every month, and “cooperates with police agencies as required by the law.” Krasnikov added that Vkontakte scans not only for pornography uploaded to the site, but also monitors all shared hyperlinks that redirect users to external websites.
“We can say safely that it’s virtually impossible to use us as a ‘repository’ or to accumulate such content through Vkontakte without triggering our monitoring systems. It’s certainly more complicated, if we’re talking about some kind of ‘unique’ content that’s being shared in a tight circle of selected people, but sooner or later they’ll set off our automatic monitoring system or pop up in some other way, and they’ll be blocked,” Krasnikov insists.
The Vkontakte spokesman says he’s aware of the Internet’s “peculiar sense of humor” when it comes to child pornography. “The topic itself is online folklore,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time you see ‘CP in DMs,’ it’s nothing but somebody’s opening line in a conversation. We’re careful about distinguishing these things, otherwise a witch-hunt could lead to any mention of Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ getting blocked, and other absurd situations.”
There’s nothing uniquely Russian about adolescents photographing or filming themselves and then sharing it with others. Police in countries all over the world, including some of the richest nations on Earth, deal with this phenomenon. What appears to be distinct about Russian teenagers is that they do it for money. In many foreign countries, adolescents share pornographic selfies with partners. Law enforcement usually gets involved after someone takes these private messages and publishes them on social media.
In Australia, for example, more than 100 adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17 are tried every year for sharing erotic content (their own, their friends’, or their partners’). These individuals are prosecuted for distributing child pornography, and teenagers above the age of 16 face prison sentences. Younger convicts might escape incarceration, but their names are added to the national registry of sex offenders. People on this list are required to report their movements to the police, and provide the authorities with any necessary personal information.
In the United States, according to The New York Times, about seven percent of the individuals arrested for distributing child pornography are themselves juveniles. Like in Australia, most of the U.S. treats sexting with anyone underage as the dissemination of child porn. New legislation already passed by the U.S. Congress would raise the maximum penalty against teenagers who share child pornography to 15 years in confinement. Offenders as young as 11 would face different kinds of incarceration, including house arrest, institutionalization, and imprisonment.
Some parts of the U.S. have adopted their own laws to regulate underage sexting. For example, Connecticut teenagers over the age of 16 are permitted to share their own erotic pictures. In Texas, meanwhile, adolescents in romantic relationships can sext, so long as their age difference doesn’t exceed two years.
According to data analyzed by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, underage sexting prosecutions rarely end with incarceration for juveniles. U.S. law enforcement agencies handled an estimated 3,477 cases of youth-produced sexual images during 2008 and 2009. Arrests occurred in just 36 percent of youth-only “aggravated” cases (incidents that involved additional criminal or abusive elements beyond sexting), and in only 18 percent of youth-only cases where no one acted maliciously.
According to human rights workers at ECPAT (“End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes”), anywhere between 10 and 70 percent of adolescents in developed countries engage in sexting. Many teens say they view sexting as entertainment, considering it a fact of their private lives, and they’re unaware that they might be breaking the law.
While smartphones and webcams have led to a surge of youth-produced sexual images online, adult-produced child pornography remains a major industry. ECPAT says adolescents around the world are still forced into the business, usually by parents, relatives, or close family friends. Minors are either forced to create the content themselves, or they’re coerced into working with porn producers. Juveniles are also brought into the industry by other teenagers already earning money in porn. There’s no exact data about how children are recruited, and it’s also unknown approximately how many children this business has victimized. Consequently, it’s difficult to know which adolescents participate under coercion and which do so voluntarily. Another concern is that children involved in the creation of pornography grow up to experience serious psychological problems and are at high risk of suicide, according to ECPAT.
Maya Rusakova, the director of “Stellit,” an organization that fights child sexual exploitation in Russia, told Meduza that the government is taking some measures to improve the situation, but she says officials still don’t fully understand the problem. “Our society isn’t having the necessary discussion about this issue. And the state is acting like the problem doesn’t even exist. You can’t deal effectively with this until you’ve acknowledged that something is wrong. But it’s easier to pretend that it’s not there,” she says.
Rusakova notes that the children in Russia targeted by pornographers are usually from the same vulnerable socioeconomic groups targeted by pornographers in other countries. It’s not uncommon for children in poor families to turn to prostitution or pornography because of poverty, she says. This work often becomes their first source of regular earnings, which is a big problem: “They grow accustomed to a certain level of income, to a certain level of consumption, and then it becomes difficult for them to quit.”
One of the adolescent girls who spoke to Meduza described this exact problem. She’s been making pornography for two years now, and she says, “Not all parents can provide for their children. But we want to have a good life, too.”
Fifteen-year-old Nastya in Novosibirsk says she shares this point of view. She also says she plans to leave the business, despite the fact that she likes the pay. She told Meduza that she will start living a “normal life.” One day, she says she’ll go to culinary school and study to become a chef.