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Surveillance Sorority

Alex looked about 20. She had short blond hair and wore white shorts and a spaghetti-strap top over a slim, tan body. She was sprawled on a couch and smoking a long cigarette. As she got up and glided out of range, a cam caught her bare back. When she moved into the next room, it followed, closing in on her hazel eyes.

This is life at voyeurdorm.com, the latest "reality based" Web site to push the envelope of cyber surveillance. Ever since a 23-year-old named Jenni taught the world about the eroticism of watching ordinary people live their humdrum lives, netizens have been paying for the privilege of spying. In addition to amateurs doing everything from giving birth to petting their dogs, there are thousands of XXX sites featuring pros caught in "private" places, such as toilets and gynecologists' stirrups. But what makes voyeurdorm unique is that it's located in the middle ground between in-your-face fetishism and utter domesticity. What better stage for this synthesis than a girl's dorm?

Voyeurdorm's closest rival was set in a fake New York University dorm. Paying viewers were promised "uncensored action" from young women "romping" in NYU tank tops. The university won an injunction against the site last year. Voyeurdorm solves the infringement problem by keeping all school insignias out of sight.

Here, six "students" live in a house with nothing to keep them company but 40 webcams. For $34 a month, you can peek in on this surveillance sorority. The fee makes it an adult business, according to the local zoning board, which wants to close voyeurdorm down. But no law applies to places like this, where sex doesn't take place and the nudity doesn't involve "foot traffic" on a physical premises. If the courts rule that voyeurdorm is a business rather than a residence, a lot of e-commerce will feel the heat. Ten percent of all Internet revenue comes from adult enterprises.

That is of little concern to Alex, wriggling off her straps and tugging her shorts down an inch, so 6000 subscribers can watch her fill the screen with a body part that stays covered at the beach (even in France). There are no tan lines down there. Strippers never have them, but this woman isn't supposed to be a stripper. She's supposed to be a wholesome college girl.

Is that a tip-off that voyeurdorm is another fake? Only an on-site investigation could solve the mystery.

The "dorm" is a house in Tampa that looks like every other blue-collar Florida home: beige stucco with brown shutters and ratty little palms in front. As classy as a donut.

The auteur who runs the place is a guy called Hammil (he goes by one name). At 34, he has no hair and under his no hair are eyes that say nothing.

"Come on in," Hammil says. "This is the front room; it's the only dead zone in the house." Behind him looms the stuff of cyber dreams: a chat nook, a tanning parlor, several bedrooms, and a Sears Roebuck living room where Tamara, Alex, J.J., Amber, Robyn, and Milla lounge on couches under bright track lights. As in a casino, the room is lit up 24 hours a day.

Hammil lays out the house rules: no sex, but masturbation is okay; no drugs, but booze is allowed; absolutely no moving the cameras away from you; no skipping out on the daily chat sessions; no boyfriends after 11 p.m.; and most important, no leaving the house without his consent, except for the two nights a week each resident has off.

Spending a day and a night at voyeurdorm is as eventful as being stuck in suspend mode. The women get undressed to shower, get dressed to watch TV, put on makeup, take off makeup, parade around in towels and teddies. Thousands of eyes are watching everything, which accounts for the frequent bathing. Other than that, there is sitting by the shallow pool, lying on the tanning bed (equipped with a crotch cam), and chatting with the virtual gentlemen callers, a major extracurricular activity.

Today, J.J. is in the chat room. A hundred and forty-two guys scope her every move. If she stretches, they think it's the prelude to a striptease and beg her to go on. If she laughs at a joke, they think it's theirs. No one can hear what J.J. is actually saying because there's no audio in this deal, leaving more to the imagination. But without sound, the chat room is as far from reality as the gulf between watching a movie and being part of the cast.

No doubt these guys think this is a documentary, but it's more like a strip club from an alternate universe. Instead of brazen nudity and acrobatic moves, there's an endless vista of furniture punctuated by the occasional boob. But the camera treats both with the same pornographic intensity. The undiscriminating lens creates an illusion that this is no performance but a truly interactive event in which the viewer prompts a response by flirting. As in this recent chat room come-on: "You're so beautiful. I would really appreciate it if you could show me your tits."

In reality, the women are reading by rote and responding by routine, almost as if the importuning men aren't there. Yet, like so much else about this place, what's detached in the flesh looks intimate online. The sheer indifference of this daily drill is lost in the illusion of intruding into real life. In the future, perhaps, all porn will look like this: a performance of the mundane.

It's no surprise that the closest these women are to attending college is taking singing lessons, pilot lessons, and acting classes, though Amber does plan to attend the University of South Florida in the fall. Hammil says he will pay for her tuition, not to mention the free room and board and a stipend of $500 a week each of these residents already receives. ("I don't want them worrying about their bills," he says expansively.) That's not bad pay for a 40-hour gig. But when you think about it, this job involves being on camera for every trip to the fridge and every moment on the can. That's more like 120 hours at less than $4.20 per, about a buck under the minimum wage.

"The bathroom you want is this one here," Hammil says, pointing. "You are safe up to three feet in front of the toilet. So stand close if you have to piss." The shower and the mirror are both under surveillance. Covering the camera is not a privilege the women enjoy.

But there is no shortage of ingenues willing to act in Hammil's show. His dream, he confides, is "one channel with hundreds of voyeur sites. I have immediate plans for a house in L.A., followed by one in Russia. There's gonna be an all-guys dorm, a coed dorm, an Asian girls dorm, a dorm for everybody." Lots of people get rich off worse ideas. But what about the talent?

"I do think this is going to make me famous," says Alex. In the meantime, there's the adulation of chat room fans—women as well as men—and the mountains of e-mail she receives every day. When she goes out to local clubs, Alex is recognized. But there's a downside to being a surveillance star. The chronic lack of privacy makes for a certain listlessness, evident at 3 p.m., when everyone is still asleep or, like Alex, passing the time with crayons and a coloring book.

On this Friday afternoon, Amber is lying in bed, her head in the pillow. "Sorry about my panties on the floor," she says. But why apologize when a thousand guys have already seen the panties on the floor? Maybe f2f makes for modesty. Maybe she sleeps late to avoid the cameras. Maybe there are a lot of ways in which the image is different in the flesh.

Amber yawns and asks what day it is. It's a funny and sad thing to say, and she knows it. "It's hard to remember the days in here," she repeats to the floor. Hammil tells her it's Friday and she shrugs at her own confusion, has a cigarette for breakfast, then sinks into the chat chair.

For the guys on the other side, it's more like a sexy interlude than a blue moment. That's the illusion of the voyeur cam. You never have to face the fact that Amber would rather be sleeping than chatting with you.


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