Surveillance Sorority

Behind the cams at Voyeur Dorm

Art by Bob AulAlex 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, zooming in on her hazel eyes.

This is life at Voyeur Dorm (www.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 Voyeur Dorm 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?

Voyeur Dorm'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. Voyeur Dorm 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 per month, you can peek in on the sorority. The fee makes it an adult business, according to the local zoning board, which wants to close Voyeur Dorm down. But no law applies to places like this, where sex doesn't take place and the nudity doesn't involve foot traffic on physical premises. If the courts rule that Voyeur Dorm is a business rather than a residence, a lot of e-commerce will feel the heat: 10 percent of all Internet revenue comes from adult enterprises.

That is of little concern to Alex, who is wriggling off her straps and tugging her shorts down an inch, so 6,000 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 Voyeur Dorm is another fake?

Only an on-site investigation could solve the mystery.

The "dorm" is a house in Tampa, Florida, that looks like every other blue-collar home in the area: beige stucco with brown shutters and ratty little palms in front. It's as classy as a doughnut. The auteur who runs the place is a guy called Hammil. At 34, he has no hair, and under his bald dome 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 in which 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 per week each resident has off.

Spending a day and a night at Voyeur Dorm is as eventful as being stuck in pause mode. The women get undressed to shower, get dressed to watch TV, put on makeup, take off makeup, and 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. Scoping her every move are 142 guys. 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, 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 would 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.

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