CamGirls

Mark Frauenfelder

Like many 17-year-olds, Millie* has her own Web site, where she keeps an online diary and scrapbook. There’s an artistic photo of ice-covered trees she shot after a snowstorm hit her Mississippi town in February, there’s a section dedicated to the band ’N Sync, and, of course, there’s the obligatory list of her favorite links (backstreetboys.com, nellyfurtado.com, rickymartin.com). She says she built the site in part to show off her Web-designing skills, which are pretty good. But that doesn’t explain why she gets about 6,000 hits a month. That popularity makes more sense once you follow the link to her fan club on Yahoo!, where some 1,000 registered members log on to gawk at the photographs she’s taken of herself.

They don’t just look, they also post their deep opinions: “MILLIE IS A HONEY AND DAMN SEXXIE.” “You’re really pretty, Millie. Ever thought about being a model?” “Has anyone ever told u u kinda look like leelee sobieski?” Apparently someone has.

Most of Millie’s gallery photos are tame by anyone’s standards. Unless you happen to stumble upon the shots in the folder labeled “Sexy.” You don’t have to be a prude to notice that the images of Millie with her pants hiked dangerously low, or the close-up of her thinly clothed torso, are pretty dicey for a minor.

Why would a young girl with so much going for her want to show off her body to the Net’s swarming hordes? Because Millie is what’s known on the Net as a cam girl. That is, she’s a young girl who, with the aid of a Web cam, a computer, and a high-speed connection, beams her (often scantily clad) image out to people (okay, men) around the Net. You can’t exactly call it soft porn, but you can’t exactly call it something else, either. On the one hand, she doesn’t collect money from her “friends.” On the other, the best way to become her friend is to buy her something she wants.

And what does a high school junior in Mississippi want? No need to guess—it’s all there in black and white on her Wish List, the fantasy shopping tool popularized by Amazon and other online retailers. Think of it as a wedding registry, but without the wedding. If you’re kind enough to send her a little something—be it the lip balm, the CD-burning software, or the novel about a stripper who becomes a junkie—she might publish a photo of herself posing with the swag along with a personal thank-you note. In one picture, Millie is holding up a belly dancing video a fan bought her. Across the photo she scribbles, “Now I can be Shakira and Britney Spears. Haha.”

Ahhh, Shakira and Britney. And Christina. And let’s not forget Madonna, the grande dame of the liberation-through-sexy-underwear movement. Are these familiar targets of the Christian Right’s ire also to blame for this latest corruption of our innocent young? Yes and no, at least according to Millie: “I do think pop culture has an effect on teens,” she says in a telephone interview. “Britney and Christina are doing their own thing, and I think that’s great. If they feel the need to show off their body to get somewhere, then so be it.”

“Then so be it” may very well be the mantra of Millie and the growing legion of cam girls. Eighteen-year-old Leslie has a link to a $350 camera and writes on her site: “Who’s going to be my forever sweetheart and get this for me? I need it a lot, I’ll even snail mail you piccies or something lame like that. Come on. PLEASE?!” So far, nobody has taken Leslie up on her offer, but she did get a copy of the Lords of Acid album Farstuckers from a fan. “I love it, thank you so much,” she posts. “You made my day!” She was even happier when another fan sent her a live pet tarantula in the mail.

Who are these “fans,” these patrons of online teen sirens? They’re men who are attracted by the idea that the girls are the real deal—that they can’t fake who they are. The old adage “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” is just dead wrong here. “The Web cam makes me more realistic, I think,” says Pamela, a 17-year-old cam girl. “It’s obvious I’m not some crazy 50-year-old guy getting his jollies off pretending to be a cute little girl.”

For obvious reasons, few men are inclined to chat with a reporter about their gifts to teen girls. So I decided to fulfill a few Wish List requests myself. Posing as a fan, I bought a My Little Pony T-shirt for one cam girl and a video of Big for another. Neither girl replied to my e-mails asking if they liked their gifts, but the Big recipient did post a picture of herself holding up the video. In sum: a nice clean transaction.

Now meet Natalie. Or better yet, don’t meet her, just buy her an RCA CC9370 AutoShot compact digital camcorder ($450). If you do, this 14-year-old girl from a small Kentucky town “will love you forever.” Or so she says on the link from her site to her Amazon Wish List. (Hint: She’d probably settle for the book Girl Director: A How-To Guide for the First-Time, Flat-Broke Film & Video Maker.) But do it quick, because Natalie hasn’t been having the best luck of late, judging from the nasty messages posted to her guestbook: “Did I mention that you’re the 2nd ugliest girl I’ve seen in my life?” and “Your site SUCKS ass because of your f—ing brutal WISH list, you ain’t even good-looking and yet you think people are just going to ship you that stuff?” Natalie isn’t shy about how she feels about these tirades: “WAAAAAAAAAHHH people don’t like me because I’m 14 and I don’t know anything and I’m ugly and I have a huge Wish List and other people are stupid and I’m honest about wanting to whore my site!!! I’m a whore and you’ve hurt my feelings!”

The brutal truth of the attention economy is that it’s one in which only the most beautiful (or outrageous) cam girls can hope to win fans and fill their virtual shopping carts. If they want to have any chance on the cam portals (Web sites that display dozens of live cam girl images simultaneously, ranked by popularity), cam girls need to put on their very best show. One of the most successful cam portals, Cam Whores [camwhores.com], is so swamped with applicants that the site’s owner, Jonathan Biderman, added a “Cam Whores Wannabe” portal. The requirements for being a wannabe are less stringent. To be considered, all you need to do is “weigh under 150 pounds and have breasts that are at least a B cup.” To date, Biderman’s site has 78 Cam Whores and 128 wannabe whores. Access costs $11.95 a month; Biderman would not confirm how many paying customers the site attracts.

Are girls really so desperate for a bar of Burt’s Bees peppermint soap that they’re willing to be pegged Cam Whores? The truth is most cam girls are as interested in garnering attention as they are in gathering Wish List merchandise or PayPal “donations.” Leslie says having fans “makes me feel good about myself. Whether it’s someone who says how pretty they think I am, or even just someone who says, ‘You’re cool, Leslie,’ it means a lot to me.”

Whether these young ladies are online whores, teen hustlers, or savvy young businesswomen remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Natalie, Leslie, Millie, and thousands of other teenage girls are using technology to take girl power to a wild and scary new place. They are arguably the spawn of a Web designer and programmer named Jennifer Ringley, who launched JenniCam [jennicam.com] in 1996 and remains one of the few purely online celebrities. Ringley’s site, which is still running (though she’s reached the positively geriatric age of 25), provides paying viewers an open window into nearly every aspect of her personal life. If Ringley’s technology- fortified exhibitionism was regarded as an aberration when she launched, she’s now considered a pioneer who staked the original claim on the now-teeming cam girl nation. Ringley’s narcissism was accidentally transformed into a combination of performance art and small business. Today’s cam girls are much more deliberate, not to mention up-front, about what they’re after. “Who wouldn’t want people you don’t even know being all nice and treating you like you are something special?” Millie asks. “I remember one girl telling me she looks up to me as a role model. That blew me away.”

The cam girls phenomenon could not have happened before this moment in history. It’s the result of a combination of specific ingredients: inexpensive yet powerful technology to send and receive video images over the Net; a culture that places a higher value on fame than on the skills and talent that make people famous; teen celebrities who happily flaunt their bodies on the covers of national magazines; and the timeless rite of passage that is a teenage girl’s search for identity and blossoming awareness of her own sexual power.

It’s a potent combination. It’s a combination with implications that the girls themselves—and we as a society—almost certainly do not understand fully. But if the cam girl phenomenon sounds uniquely American, think again. Like so many of our most popular trends, this trail was blazed in the youth culture of Japan.

There’s nothing virtual, or even new, about the teen-girl sex trade in Japan, where a practice known as enjo kosai (roughly translated, “compensated dating”) is growing every year—and nobody knows how to curb it. Tens of thousands of high school girls are involved in enjo kosai. In exchange for escorting wealthy, middle-aged patrons to cafés and restaurants (and often providing them with sexual favors), the girls receive financial compensation, which they use to buy consumer electronics, cosmetics, and clothes.

Many enjo kosai girls come from middle-class families and, aside from dating salarymen for money, they’re not particularly rebellious or delinquent. Nor do they show remorse for what they do. When a Japanese newspaper surveyed junior high school students, 17 percent said enjo kosai was perfectly acceptable behavior; another 13 percent said they wouldn’t be reluctant to participate in an enjo kosai relationship.

Why do they do it? Just as in America, Japanese teens are the targets of massive advertising campaigns that implore them to wear expensive clothes and buy expensive consumer goods. Enjo kosai, like a cam girl’s Wish List, is a way to supplement the insufficient allowance a girl’s financially strapped parents give her. Enjo kosai girls, like cam girls, do what they do for two simple reasons: 1) They don’t see anything wrong with it; 2) Because they can.

In the U.S., the cam girls are playing a similar game. To them, their situation seems ideal: They get convenient, digitally delivered affirmations of their desirability without the strings of a real relationship. Modern technology allows these girls to make their virtual presence available to anyone while remaining physically inaccessible. Transformed into a flurry of electrons, cam girls feel safe in their bedrooms as they flirt at a little camera with a winking LED, then check their e-mail and instant-message windows to gauge the power of their pulchritude. It’s like having a magic mirror on your desk, but instead of an omniscient spirit keeping score, it’s a mob of anonymous voyeurs peering through the other side of the looking glass.

And the mob is where the problem lies. Where an enjo kosai girl can check out her partner and will likely date only a respectable, well-heeled businessman, the cam girls are working the yammering crowd. When the barrier to entry is as low as the price of a CD, the clientele changes drastically. And, as any conventional stripper can tell you, when you get that many horny guys together, it’s a safe bet that one of them is not going to understand the rules. To avoid having stalkers show up on their driveway, the girls’ only hope lies in diligently hiding their identity. This is a skill many have yet to learn.

Some cam girls are very conscientious about keeping their whereabouts a secret (Amazon and other retailers don’t reveal Wish List owners’ addresses), but most simply aren’t savvy enough. “I know there are psychos out there, but as long as I know what I’m doing and I’m careful, everything should be okay,” says Millie. When told that her home address and phone number could be gleaned by anyone who looked up her domain-name registration record, she was stunned and asked how to delete that information. (Answer: Fill out an online form and wait a few weeks.)

This naïveté would not surprise Sharon Lamb, author of The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do—Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt. Lamb, a psychologist and psychology professor at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, says that a large part of the potential danger of being a cam girl stems from not really knowing what’s going on. This is because teenage girls are just leaving a world in which they were able to play out all sorts of fantasies in the protected space of make-believe—“playing fantasy games with friends.” The Internet, Lamb says, “feels to them like a ‘play’ space. They feel it’s safe because, in their minds, it’s just playing around. They can be ‘bad’ while still being ‘good.’ That doesn’t mean it can’t get real—even scary.”

According to Dr. Lynn Ponton, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, showing off is not the problem. The author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do and The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls, Ponton has been studying the cam girl phenomenon closely. “It’s okay for girls to have Web sites and be creative, and to express themselves,” she says. “As girls develop physically, they want to show off the changes in their bodies in a positive way and get attention, and get good feedback. They’re saying, ‘I’m proud of my body and I want others to admire it.’ That’s a healthy aspect.” But Ponton also points out that a Web cam and Wish List could be a signal that a teenage girl isn’t getting enough positive strokes at home, and that is prompting her to turn to cam fans for attention.

“Culturally we’re not finding ways to support girls,” Ponton continues. “They don’t feel good about themselves, and it results in these types of activities.” To make matters worse, advertisers use pictures of teen girls with lean bodies to sell products. The idea that showing skin equals merchandise encourages cam girls to engage in a kind of virtual sex trade. “It’s no longer, ‘Hey, look at my body and click on my site and tell me I look beautiful.’ They’re now asking for gifts and cash. It’s unhealthy risk-taking and not an area we want them to branch into.”

So are the cam and enjo kosai girls manipulators of men? Are they victims of a youth- and sex-obsessed society, or simply time-honored products of it? The answer isn’t so simple. Whenever sex is exchanged for compensation, identifying who is the victim and who is the victimizer is a matter of perspective. That’s a harder argument to make, of course, when one of the parties is underage.

As girls begin to develop into adolescents, says Lamb, they pick up on cultural signals urging them to adopt a male understanding of what it means to be sexual—“and to men being sexual is being sexy. Cam girls are playing at being sexy to men.” Lamb explains that in the culture we live in, only men can confer a “grown-up” status: “Only men can tell a girl that she’s sexy and have her believe it.” Why else, Lamb suggests, would Viagra spokesman Bob Dole be shown leering in approval at Britney Spears in a Pepsi commercial?

Even though most underage cam girl sites are not overtly sexual (cam girls over the age of 18 post quite explicit photographs of themselves, as a quick stop at Cam Whores will prove), the subtext on the sites is often sexually charged. They won’t post nude pictures of themselves, but they’ll gladly put porn ads on their sites and collect the referral revenues. They also ask their fans to vote for them in popularity contests run by porn-laden cam portals. They’ll post lewd pictures sent in by fans. They’ll ask for sexually themed gifts on their Wish Lists, such as 14-year-old Natalie’s request for a copy of the Lily Burana book Strip City: A Stripper’s Farewell Journey Across America.

Natalie may be too young to know who Ms. Burana is, but Lily knows Natalie, or someone a lot like her. Burana edited Future Sex, a seminal magazine of the early ’90s that documented the collision of sex and technology. She also worked for several years as a stripper. These two experiences make her possibly the most qualified person on earth to speak to this issue. “Everyone vies for the attention of teenage girls—from men to marketing departments to entertainment industry tastemakers,” says Burana. “They’re choosy, they’re sophisticated, and they’re cultural arbiters in their own way, and everyone knows it. No one can sell a teenage girl something she doesn’t want, so the fact that a lot of these girls want my book is to me the highest praise.”

Cam girls have no illusions about the sex factor of their sites, but most of them also know to draw the line when it comes to posting pictures of themselves. “I think some skin can be tasteful, but nudity is illegal and wrong,” says Pamela, whose site bears the subtitle “suck it…I’m coming!” I asked Pamela if she would mind if I talked to her parents about their feelings about all this. “My parents don’t know about my site,” she replies, “so I can’t help you with that.”

In fact, I asked the same question of every cam girl I interviewed. Not a single one would allow me to speak to her parents. “Girls who are struggling to gain their independence and chafing against what they perceive as parental intrusion is something I see on my site all the time,” explains Esther Drill, editor of gURL.com, a culture and game site for teen girls. “There’s a whole issue about privacy. But I think they probably understand that there’s something wrong with what they’re doing with this Web cam stuff. So there’s more of a reason to keep it hidden.”

Psychologists who specialize in adolescents say it’s normal for girls to want to hide certain behavior from their parents. But that doesn’t let parents off the hook. “They’d better start to understand what’s going on in their daughter’s room,” says Dr. Gilda Carle, the former host of the Love Doc show on MTV.com and the author of the teen-girl book He’s Not All That! How to Attract the Good Guys. Ponton agrees: “Parents need to be in touch with their kids and understand that this is an aspect of their child’s sexuality. They need to be sharing opinions and having conversations with their kids.” The cam girl phenomenon, she says, “verifies that we are not having those conversations.”

Mark Frauenfelder, a Y-Life contributor, is the author of the forthcoming Mad Professor (Chronicle Books), a science experiment book.

*The names and locations of the girls have been changed.

Copyright © 2002 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Yahoo! Internet Life.