The photos are something like the virtual equivalent of an Amsterdam red light district flesh window. They feature semi-nude young women with tattoos and heavy make-up, each introduced with one or two sentences. The picture for Baran is accompanied by this caption: “She is rather expensive, serves only Tehran, and charges double for a full night.”
Early this week Kamal Hadianfar, commander of Iran’s Cyber Police, reported that authorities have identified 135 Facebook pages engaged in online prostitution. “We have taken action against a number of them and others on the list of the Morality Police,” he said.
Despite the Islamic Republic’s strict social codes and severe punishments for sex workers, prostitutes appear on the streets of Tehran every night. Authorities routinely raid brothels, called ‘team houses’ by the police, and arrested women are typically sentences to years in prison and lashes. Occasionally state television broadcasts confessions by prostitutes, their faces camouflaged, who talk about their sad lives and repent.
The severity of the state’s punishment for sex workers who are arrested on the street or through conventional brothels has increasingly pushed prostitution onto social media, where sex workers and their clients can connect more securely than on a Tehran street corner. Facebook pages now serve as online sex shops, where pimps and madams, customers, aspiring sex workers, and pranksters vie for each other’s attention.
One of these pages has more than 21,000 followers. The admin of this page is called “Aunt Mary” and the followers address her as such in their comments. Aunt Mary last posted yesterday, uploading three new photos. “My dears, this is Sahar, my sexy love…only in Tehran,” the post reads. “She does not go anywhere else. The cost for the night is half a million [about $190]. Whoever insults her will be blocked. Cash up front.”
I do a Google search on the pictures. All three have been published before on Facebook pages Duff Persian, Hot Duff II, andDuff Tehran. In the course of one day the pictures received more than 2,000 ‘likes’ and 823 comments. Some comments have objected to what Sahar, or perhaps Aunt Mary, charges, and some have tried to bargain the price down. Others have posted sexual jokes and a few have left a telephone number and asked Aunt Mary to contact them swiftly.
A few women have posted comments to advertise themselves, edging in on the space Aunt Mary has created for the girls she runs. “If you are looking for good sex, please include your phone number in your Facebook message along with a fully charged pay as you go SIM card writes Negar. “The priority is with those who pay for more for the SIM card …I am not a SIM card thief. If you don’t trust me, don’t waste my time.”
Pay As You Go SIM card thief or “charge thief” is a common refrain on these pages. These profiles customarily require a fully-paid SIM card number first before contacting male customers, a practice that seems largely designed to defraud potential customers. The profile names are usually a combination of a female name and a lewd prostitution term. Many users have purchased the credit for Pay As You Go from Iran Cell mobile company, but have not received the expected service. An example can be seen right below the above comment. “Please don’t trust them,” Hamed writes. “They are all alike. Twice I have purchased credit for…but when I sent it I got no answer and was immediately blocked.”
Many have posted comments similar to that of Hamed. That is likely why other pages have emerged with names such as “Fighting Charge Thieves” or “Introducing Charge-Stealing Prostitutes.” Some pages or profiles use phrases like “Real Sex Without Charge” to advertise themselves, like one page that has 14,000 followers.
The page’s administrator explains that the page is not a charge thief and lists certain rules. “This page has become like a zoo,” reads the admin’s latest post. “I have said a hundred times that if you want sex, send us a message with your phone number + the name of the person you want + your town. We do not verify numbers posted in our comments section, so you might get swindled. To have your turn you must get the account number of the person you want by phone and deposit 100 thousand tomans [around $37] into the account.”
The admin has said similar things in previous posts, but this time, in a more patient tone, he points out the difference between a ‘real prostitute’ and a charge thief. “A real prostitute is so busy that she has no time to answer your message, but a charge thief answers you immediately because she wants your payment.”
Despite the admin’s admonishments they are many phone numbers included in the comments which follow. I begin dialling them one by one. The first number I dial does not answer, and I scan through comments on various pages and dial numerous numbers. Most do not answer or do not ring at all. At last a young man picks up. He is 25-years-old, from Varamin, a city near Tehran and knows nothing at all about the page on which his number has appeared. When I explain he laughs aloud and says, “I have never visited such a page. They are pulling my leg. I mean my friends. Please, please give me the page address. I want to visit it and see what they have written about me.”
Among the comments there is one from someone who calls herself Annaz. “I don’t want credit or money before sex,” she writes. “I just want good sex.” I call the number and after a few rings a man with a deep voice and a Kurdish accent picks up the phone:
– Sorry to bother you, but I would like to speak to Annaz.
– That’s me.
– You’re Annaz?
– Lady, a bastard has published my number on the Internet under the name of Annaz. I have been going crazy. I have no idea what they have written, but every day seven or eight people call and ask how much for Annaz. As God is my witness, I don’t know any Annaz.
The next person who answers is Parsa, who talks without embarrassment. “I left my number and two days later Auntie called me,” he says, “But I found the price too high…I had to deposit the money upfront. I didn’t go for it. When they get the money they disappear.” Parsa is 21, knows all the pages, and says that his friend has been swindled. The friend deposited the money but was not contacted afterwards. Parsa says he too has been duped like this. “One time I bought credit and the guy turned out to be a thief,” says he. “Now I am not fooled so easily.”
Once he managed to find a woman through the pages. I asked him whether he found her picture attractive. “No way. I think these pictures are all fake. I just posted a comment below the picture. Then a man who had seen the comment sent me a private message with the number of a woman. He wrote that she does her job well and she is not very expensive. I was with her a few times, she charges 30 thousand tomans. If you don’t have a place of your own you can go to her place for 40 thousand tomans. It has become a little repetitive, that’s why I left a new message.”
I ask Parsa for the number of the now repetitive woman, who checks with her first and later tells me that she is expecting my call. Her name is Mahnaz and Parsa says that she is around 40, but when she picks up her voice is thin and she doesn’t sound that old. I ask her whether she has seen the Facebook pages. “No, I have not!” she answers immediately. “But I’ve heard about them.”
I don’t ask anything else, there is a pause of a few seconds. “I’ve heard that they put up pictures,” she says, finally. “You can be sure that someone in this job would never publish her picture or her number. And they would not take money upfront. The money has to be counted before your own eyes and be left where you can see it. When you have done your job then you pick up the money. These people are a bunch of con artists. I don’t know why men are so clueless and fall for it. But of course men deserve what they get.”
She laughs out loud when she finishes her sentence. She had agreed to speak to me on the condition that I did not ask her any personal questions. “I answered the call and talked to you because Parsa is very dear to me. Otherwise I would not answer the phone if I cannot recognize the number.”
I go back to the Facebook pages, and select ten photos from each page to run through Google search. I find most of them on other pages and some have been copied from foreign magazines, though it appears the admin has chosen only those who strongly resemble Iranian women. Only one-page features pictures that I cannot find elsewhere, but here the faces are completely covered, only the bodies show. Each day the admin posts the specifications of the women who are available that day. “For the weekend Nila: 168 height, 59 weight, 85 chest. 250 thousand tomans per hour.” Previous posts explain that the money is paid after sex.
I read the comments below the posting. “Don’t trust this bastard,” writes a user named Hamid. “Yesterday he gave me number to call and make arrangements with a girl called Shadi. I rang. Now the Cyber Police has called and has summoned me to go there on Saturday. Be careful, guys. It is all lies, I swear. I am worried sick until Saturday.”
A few hours later when I revisit the page Hamid’s comment has been deleted.