September 08, 2001 07:25pm
Double Lives of the Internet 'Camgirls'
by: Michael Holden
(LONDON) -- Crystal Cotrone leads a double life. By day she works at one of the biggest U.S. banks; by night she lures strangers into her virtual bedroom in exchange for attention and gifts.
Yet Crystal is no prostitute or porn dealer. Instead she is one of a growing army of women around the globe who open up their private lives to the world via Internet webcams.
``I like being on camera. I like being watched. I like letting people peek into my life,'' she told Reuters in an e-mail exchange.
``I do it more for the fun of it than anything else. It's a perpetual ego-stroking to sit at my desk and have someone message me, out of the blue, to tell me that they visit my site all the time or that they watched me sleep,'' she said.
The 24-year-old technical support specialist from Rhode Island first began appearing on the web in 1999. She now gets about 1,000 hits a day on her site, mainly from regular voyeurs.
``Most of them are nice,'' she said. ``I do get quite a few who are still under the impression that the word ``webcam site'' is synonymous with 'free porn'.''
Porn it is not, but there is an exchange going on as visitors anonymously send the women gifts, via secure technology offered by companies such as Amazon.com, and PayPal.com, which allows visitors to send cash over the web.
The practice has become so common that some women now include a ``wishlist'' of items they would like sent, ranging from videos to electrical goods such as Sony PlayStations.
``I received a few nice birthday presents and when I managed to get myself an $800 phone bill, a few people sent me money through PayPal.com,'' Crystal said.
``My most loyal viewer, a guy who's been watching me since I first got my cam, has sent me gifts.''
BLAME REALITY TV
The presents are not, however, the main reason why the women -- some in their teens -- expose themselves, even if they stop short of full nudity.
Blame the global rise of reality TV shows such as ''Survivor'' and ``Big Brother,'' combined with the thrill of being looked at, said Dr. Terri Apter, social psychologist at Britain's Cambridge University.
``It's an outgrowth of the idea that somehow it's exciting to be on camera, that our lives become interesting and more real when they're on camera,'' she told Reuters.
The desire for attention is not new -- just the technology.
``Women tend to be more aware of themselves as being observed and relating to other people through the way they are observed. They think that people will get to know them by looking at them whereas a guy is less likely to think that.''
The sites also provide an element of competitiveness. Topgirlscams.com lets viewers vote for their favorite camgirl and ranks them accordingly.
So the women pose seductively, although they are quick to stress that their sites stop short of nudity or pornography.
``I'm not a whore,'' says Rhiannon, a 20-year-old student from Brisbane, whose site bears the title 'Livian, Australian for whore', a play on ``Foster's -- Australian for Beer,'' a well-known advertising slogan for lager.
``Pleeeease don't message me saying 'show me naked pics because you are a whore' -- I'm not,'' she says. ``I'm a regular girl who has a webcam.''
NOT INNOCENT FUN
Is it all innocent fun?
``I do know of some people who have had unwanted attention before, but it doesn't worry me too much,'' said Crystal, who added that she too had received threats by email.
Ruth Dixon, deputy chief executive of the British-based Internet Watch Foundation, said the voyeurs who sent gifts probably expected something in return.
``It may not be necessarily an expectation of sexual favors, but on the whole you never send a gift to someone you never intend to contact again,'' she told Reuters.
``People perhaps think 'I'm in the safety of my own home, it's only a little camera, and I'm still safe because I've got the door locked.'''
The popularity of the webcams troubles police too.
``There are inherent dangers here,'' said Detective Inspector Hamish Brown, of Scotland Yard's serious crime group.
Brown, whose advice booklet for police investigating stalking has attracted worldwide interest, said giving out so much information over the net exposed women to unknown risks.
``You have no idea who you are dealing with. It could be some pedophile or it could be some rapist,'' he told Reuters. ``I urge those who create these Web sites to think through the possible consequences.''