Candy from Strangers
One of the favorite gifts that Charisma, 17, has gotten from a fan of her Web site was a "Fantasia" DVD trilogy. It was just what she wanted, because she'd asked for it on her Amazon.com wish list.
But that's nothing compared to the loot that a fellow "cam girl" friend has raked in off of hers: "Somebody bought her a really nice digital camera, a graphing calculator and a $100 gift certificate," Charisma says. Sheila, 18, got a new $129 webcam, while "Katneko," 19, raked in teen reading classics like "Catcher in the Rye," "Of Mice and Men," "To Kill a Mockingbird," plus a Depeche Mode CD, a scanner and a $250 gift certificate to the site Fetish Factory.
The gifts came from total strangers and online friends alike, people the girls had gotten to know through their Web sites. Katneko's younger sister, 15-year-old Brandi, was so impressed by all of the goodies arriving at their home from people the girls had never met in person that Brandi set up a personal page on her big sis's site so she could beg for her own loot. Brandi's pages bear this label: "underaged piece of ass." (Her sister quickly points out that this is a joke.) Among Brandi's heart's desires on her wish list: four Sailor Moon dolls.
Teen webcams have met the e-commerce version of the wedding registry -- the wish list. And the result of this virtual marriage is an online beg-fest that makes it easy to take candy from strangers on the Internet. Kids as young as 15 are getting into the act of asking for handouts online -- toy and books and CDs and, of course, webcams -- so their online fans can get an even better look at them.
"I don't think that it's weird that people I don't know buy things for me," writes the 17-year-old who calls herself "Perfekt" on her Web site. "They're gifts, and like all good things, acceptable. ;-)" Even so, Perfekt got so much booty from her fans that she has since taken down her wish list: "A lot of people were very generous -- too generous in my opinion -- around the holidays and the guilt was too much for me to swallow."
Cam sites range from simple photo galleries to elaborate diaries and art projects; some have live cameras and others just feature stills captured from video cameras. They're as diverse as the girls who create them -- and, in the grand tradition of their ancestor, Jennicam, they offer a strange mixture of distance and intimacy. There are cam boys too, but -- chalk it up to hetero-horndogging -- it's girls who rule in the popularity game of the cam portals, gathering fan clubs and shaking down gifts.
The wish list is the perfect tool for cam kids because it allows them to ask for exactly what they want and have it sent to their house without ever revealing a home address -- the e-commerce vendor, whether it's Abercrombie & Fitch or Amazon, doesn't reveal the "wisher's" location. So the relationship between the online pen pal or fan can remain entirely virtual, yet still produce the goods.
The Internet may not be, as it is so often caricatured, one big cesspool of pedophiles and pervs searching for unsuspecting and underage kids to prey upon. But the spectacle of teenagers displaying themselves online in exchange for material favors is something that could make anyone a little queasy. Still, in the search for online sugar daddies, young or old, it's the kids who understand what power they have -- through what they choose to reveal and what they conceal -- to titillate and suggest, with just a smile, or a bit of a tummy, or more.
The cam universe is "basically like high school blown up exponentially," says Marissa, 24 (old, by the standards of this world). "It's a huge popularity contest. Popularity rules." Some of the better-known cam girls have fan clubs with hundreds of members who swap photos and exchange e-mail with their idols. Earlier this year, the cam world even had its own version of the reality TV show "Survivor" -- called Survivorcam -- where 16 cam kids competed for $300 by completing various silly, bawdy and outrageous immunity challenges in front of their cams, some claiming to be as young as 14. The Survivorcam motto: "Outpose. Outshine. Outwhore." Marissa won the contest, but was accused by other contestants of showing too much skin to do it.
Like everything else in the insular webcam community, the meaning and morality of the wish lists is hotly debated by the cam kids themselves. Are you a "cam whore" if you put up a wish list? If you don't show your tits, does that mean you're not "whoring for hits"? What if you put up a wish list, but don't show skin?
Katneko's site Linuxkitty self-consciously mocks some of the seductive come-ons of the cam world. Her cam and diary entries have won her 500 members in her fan club, along with those copies of "Catcher in the Rye" and other teen classics, but, she says, "The Internet community views me as untouchable because I won't get naked on my cam." She recently mused on her site: "Some people show tits, and some people don't. I wonder what it is I'm whoring to get presents exactly, since I'm not the showy-fleshy type of girl."
Other girls don't see wish lists that way. "To me, it's the newest form of prostitution," says Camilla, 19, from Trondheim, Norway, who has had her own site -- now at Wallflower.nu -- since she was 15. She doesn't have a wish list on her site because she sees such blatant solicitation as a quid pro quo transaction, where fans who give gifts expect something, like a topless or suggestive photo via e-mail, in return. None of the cam girls interviewed for this story copped to any such payoff.
Charisma says: "I never promise to do anything in return for the gifts other than to say thank you or send a thank you card. I'm not tricking people into sending me things. I think strangers on the Internet like to send things to other people because they're lonely, and they try to find their happiness in our surprise and thankfulness of their gifts. Sure, you could possibly argue that we're 'taking advantage' of these depressed people, but, if they aren't sending us gifts, they'd probably be doing something just as useless with their money."
Marissa, who in her offline life is a junior lobbyist in Washington, mocks the wish list phenomenon on her site. Her wish list parody begins: "If you love me, you'll buy me things." She says, "I'm boldly mocking the people who are buying people stuff, just totally mocking the prostitution angle of wish lists." Needless to say, no one has bought her anything.
Other cam kids abhor the begging and commercialism. "I don't have [a wish list] because I don't want strangers buying me stuff. My site isn't out there to make money for me, it's just for my pleasure only," says Ashley, 17, a self-described vegetarian Virgo with three pets -- "two dogs and a 13-year-old brother." Ashley gets so many e-mails from drooling fans begging for naked pictures of her that she offers this chilly FAQ on her site to fend them off. "I get annoyed by people asking about my appearance, and the same 20 questions repeatedly," she explains. This is from the same girl who has her fans show her the love by sending her digital images of themselves with the words "fuck frosty" in the picture, which she posts on her site. Go figure.
Actually, racier versions of such photos are the transgressive currency of the webcam world; fans take photos of their naked body parts, often with the name of the site written on their cleavage or naked butt, which the cam kids then proudly display on their sites. Galleries of such devotion can be found on sites like Infinity Decay, State of Confusion and Xeres.com.
All this butt-flashing and begging for goodies from strangers may seem tawdry or crass, but Lynn Ponton, M.D., author of "The Sex Lives of Teenagers," cautions against jumping to conclusions. Psychologists have found that offline diaries of teenage girls are filled with lists of things that they'd like friends and parents to buy for them; the online wish lists just represent the next step -- showing their desires to the world. "There's always a thought that someone like Santa Claus is going to come along and take care of you and not expect anything," Ponton says. "Kids still believe that they're going to get all these free gifts in life." For Ponton, the cam sites represent the kind of risk-taking kids engage in to form their identity -- and which can go too far.
What do the parents make of all this? Several kids said their parents wouldn't even know how to find their Web sites if they gave them the URLs, much less what their children do online. Others say their parents use the diaries on their sites to keep up with what's going on in their lives.
And Mom can be a big fan: "My mom loves the site," brags Katneko. "She thinks that I'm beyond hilarious, because I talk about everything from guys having dinky winkies to guides on butt sex." Other parents hope that all this monkeying around online could be the ticket to a hot career. Brittany, 19, says: "My dad thinks I should apply my skills to getting a computer-related job, and that's pretty much the only thing he says about it."
Brad Danielson, 35, a Maine Web designer, is one older guy who has seen a lot of cams. He's one of the creators of Eyefever.com -- one of the many cam portals from the tame to the explicit and smutty (like Stile Project, Superhyperdemonchild and Sinnocence) that cam kids submit to in hopes of getting listed and ranked by popularity.
"At 14, 15, 16, I also think that girls are really starting to come into their sense of what their sexuality can do," says Danielson. "I think that some really enjoy that attention for whatever reason." After all, isn't it potentially safer to show a little skin on a webcam than pretty much anywhere else? "They're pushing their sexuality out into the world a bit, pushing it out to the public to see what kind of response they get, while still in a safe environment," says Danielson. "It's even safer than if some young gal decided to wear something revealing on a beach or on a street -- you're not going to get whistled at or approached."
Of course, as Ponton points out, there may well be risks for young women in revealing themselves to strangers online, too -- just different kinds. And even Danielson admits a certain unease about the cam sites: "I don't know if I'd want my 14-year-old daughter doing that, if I had a daughter."
"I think that these girls are just now discovering that they can make men do things, buy them things, and especially say things just because the men think that they are desirable," says Bridget Therease Guildner, an 18-year-old from Corvallis, Ore., who posts her online diary, writing and photography on the Web, but no voyeuristic webcam. "However, I think that the reason why we don't see many 25-year-olds running cam girl sites is that with experience comes the realization that being used is unpleasant, even if you are using the person back."
In the do-it-yourself world of the cam sites, the girls choose exactly how much they want to reveal or conceal. "Some of the young girls really aren't showing that much skin to be worried about it," says Marissa. "They're showing enough to have that Lolita-esque hint of desire. It teases vulnerable men -- 'Maybe if I buy her stuff, she'll show me more.'"
But the Web has a way of making even the most straightforward picture of a 14-year-old caught on her webcam into a pornographic image. "Everything can be sexualized online because it all lies in your imagination," says Marissa. Some cam portal sites create databases of hundreds of images lifted without always asking permission of the girls in the images. The sites mix nude images with photos of ordinary girls that are hardly suggestive at all.
It's the mixing of soft-core porn with lifted photos that raises the ire of the cam community. Daign of Daign.com, who specializes in writing bitchy reviews of cam sites on his lunch hour at work, recently posted a call-to-arms to send hate e-mail to an especially egregious site: "Did you know that our friends over at the pedophile site ... are back up? So nice that a bunch of 40 year olds are jackin it to your daughter's webcam."
"I think that these databases take undue advantage of the girls. The line for me is drawn when they are divorced from their personalities and become literal objects," says Bridget Guildner.
It's the occupational hazard of being a cam girl to have your image stolen without your permission and put into a vast database of cam images without even your name on it. That's the contradiction of the cam girl world -- the technology that gives the girls a place to be themselves and show off is the technology that can strip them of their identity and reduce them to a nameless database of images.
For the girls themselves, running cam sites is about a lot more than scattering their image across the Web or nabbing wish-list booty. Brittany says that running her site since she was 17 has made her better able to deal with the scrutiny of others: "It's helped me be more open and accepting of myself. I used to be terribly shy. Now, I'm more comfortable with people passing judgment on me. That used to be one of my biggest fears, people judging me without knowing me. Now, I couldn't care less."
The girls also learn about the demands of a public life. Perfekt, who has had a site since she was 13 and is now 18, says, "Some days, I want to break my camera. I hate feeling obligated to take pictures, and yet, if you don't update your cam, it's like you're not in circulation."