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URL Girls

Christine Haberstock

Not long ago, 'online' sex seemed like a pipe dream of the hip, electronic elite. Today, images of live, naked women are as close as the nearest modem, raising more questions than laws can answer.

By Rafer Guzmán

JUST A few months after the passage of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which bans the transmission of "indecent" material over the Internet, I had my first cybersexual experience. I owe the favor to a woman named Roxanne, and to her employer, San Ramon-based marketing company The Entertainment Network. Their new Web site, Fantasy Girls, promises "a revolutionary new viewing software that allows computer users to view naked women over the Internet."

The Internet is already full of images of naked women. According to your taste, you can check out everything from Playboy's relatively wholesome home page to The Fun Palace's eye-watering close-ups of anal penetration. Services like Fantasy Girls, however, do not offer mere pictures. Variously called "teleconferencing" or "video links," these sites connect visitors with real live women who will obey commands typed or spoken into the computer.

Video links are such a new phenomenon that few of the vice cops, pornographers, anti-pornographers and sex workers I contacted had even heard of them. Yet a spokesperson for Playboy claims that video links have "proliferated like crazy" within the last few months, a number which can only grow as cable companies and telcos bring video-capable cable line into homes everywhere.

Recently, the idea of "virtual sex" seemed little more than a chimera for the Wired set. Today, it's as close as the nearest modem, raising questions that can't be answered by clicking on a pair of juicy-looking lips or answering the phrase, "Do you like chocolate?"

Like most video-link services, Fantasy Girls actually connects the viewer and viewee not over the Internet, but directly via modem. Visitors to the site download the "iView" software, dismount from the Web and then enter the newly installed "Worldgroup Manager," which establishes a modem connection. This allows for a speedier response time and a clearer image.

FIRST, HOWEVER, there's the little matter of money. Visitors must surrender a credit card number and expiration date to a program called "Visaman." One has to wonder: What kind of man is a Visaman?
Is he a distinguished business mogul in a double-breasted suit who dines out and leaves large tips, or a pimply-faced 15-year-old hormonally emboldened enough to snag his father's credit card?

As I purchased a block of online time at a cool $100, I felt very much like a Visaman. I perused the menu: a one-on-one viewing session, a girl-on-girl encounter, a peep show, a strip-club tour, and a private chat room. Perhaps typically, I went directly for the girl-on-girl option, but it was "not on line at this time." I resorted instead to a one-on-one session.

Now there was a choice to made: between Sumy, described as a "hot Latin lover" with brown hair and brown eyes, and Roxanne, a petite blue-eyed blonde. I wanted a girl from the heartland, one of those corn-fed, prairie-raised types you always see galloping through Aerosmith videos. I selected Roxanne.

A medium-sized window opened to reveal a plain room furnished only with a black divan. Nothing happened for a few seconds, and I began to worry that my minutes were ticking away during someone's cigarette break. But soon, Roxanne's face appeared. Her blue eyes stared straight into mine from the center of my monitor. She wore a friendly smile, and greeted me by typing: "Hi."

This moment of recognition seems to occur only in the world of illicit sex; anyone who has traveled there, even briefly, knows what it feels like. It is the moment when you enter a bar in Tijuana and feel strange fingers fiddling with your fly, or when the dancer in the North Beach peep show looks down at your face while providing a view of womanhood normally reserved for OB-GYNs. This moment can now happen in cyberspace, a strangely dislocated location, with women who are in front of you, but not really present. Yet the moment is no less real, and no less unsettling.

"Hi, Roxanne, nice to see you," I typed. "You too, honey," she replied. I was momentarily horrified: Could she see me? She couldn't, of course--there were no video cameras pointed at me. Her comment merely added to the fantasy that she and I were alone in a private room. Which, in our separate ways, we were.

Roxanne wriggled out of her red negligee, pausing only to lean over her keyboard and peck out, "God, I am sooooo horny ..." Because my modem runs at a sluggish 14-4 baud rate Roxanne's burlesque resembled something like a slowly thumbed flip-book. In a way, Roxanne's grainy, pixilated image seemed almost old-fashioned, like the bawdy movieolas in the penny arcades of yesteryear. Yet this was a truly modern service. Fantasy Girls had delivered a live, nude girl straight to my house in minutes. It was as convenient as ordering a cheese pizza--and much faster.

MARK SABATINI, promotions director for The Entertainment Network, resides at an 800 number which he never answers. He prefers to be the caller, rather than the called. Friendly, talkative and plain-spoken, Sabatini nevertheless shields his company from inspection, declining to disclose its location or its owners. He regards Fantasy Girls as he would any of his other projects, which include a bulk email program and a line of instructional videos for software applications. "We're pretty well-diversified," he says. "But this one with the women is the biggest moneymaker."

While Playboy and Hustler magazines walk on eggshells in the wake of the Communications Decency Act, Sabatini proudly faxed a blitz of press releases announcing the arrival of Fantasy Girls. It seems never to have occurred to him that this could be interpreted as a political statement, or a single-digit salutation to the Congress that passed the CDA. Though many adult sites are combating the legislation--now awaiting a court ruling over its constitutionality--by decorating their pages with the blue ribbons of the Free Speech Campaign, I had to familiarize Sabatini with the wording of the controversial bill.

"Whoever uses an interactive computer service," I read, abridging, "... to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any communication that depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities ..."

"I think it's vague," he responded. "Defining all of what you just said--that would be a problem. I mean, what's a community standard? Is that a law? I mean, keeping the children away from it, that's what's important. I have a child, and I've never even had him on the Internet."

Sabatini would rather talk business than politics, and changes the subject to tout what he calls the "revolutionary" iView software. "The new version will allow you to zoom in and out on objects," he says. "Let's say you're talking to a girl, and you want to zoom in on her tits. You can't do that right now--but soon." According to Sabatini, "People are going to the site just to log on and check out the technology. They'll say: How can we take this stuff and make it suitable to our business?" Sabatini claims Shell Oil has been considering the software's security applications. "It's definitely got potential to rock & roll," he says.

AFTER A $10 "subscription fee," Fantasy Girls charges $4.99 per minute to watch the women do what Sabatini calls "exercises," at the viewer's command. This is approximately double the average rate for phone sex. The sex workers earn as much as $30 per hour, about three times the wage of the average "phone actress," according to Sabatini. "It costs us more than phone sex," he says. "They have to be attractive."

Like phone sex, video links offer the workers a certain amount of anonymity and safety. "We've got a couple of girls in the East Bay, some are in Los Angeles," Sabatini says. In fact, I spoke with one woman on-line who said she wished she lived in California. "I hate it here," she typed, but would not reveal where "here" was. "That's the beauty of the site," he says. "You can have people somewhere, and nobody knows where they are."

Sabatini arranged for me to interview a Fantasy Girl named "Suzy." Though he would not allow me to speak to her in person--"You can always see her on the Internet," he reminded me--he stayed on the line while we spoke on the phone.

Suzy describes herself as a "woman of color," though she's characterized online by the phrase "Do you like chocolate?" Before joining Fantasy Girls, Suzy says she worked as a "corporate sales executive" until downsizing forced her to look for other work. Now she studies communications and funds her education with Fantasy Girls. She claims never to have worked in the sex industry before, but adds, "I worked for the Playboy corporation, and I was a Playboy bunny at one time, and I've been a waitress, but nothing more than that."

Suzy's work environment sounds not unlike that of the average nine-to-fiver. "It's comfortable, clean, alcohol-free, safe," she says. "Each girl has her own private room with a door, so what you do is between you and the customer. They're actually like separate offices. You have a computer, a camera and a monitor, so you can keep an eye on what you're doing." The girls operate the cameras themselves via remote control. Sabatini explains, "We can't have the cameraman standing there with his hat on, because that kind of takes away from what we're doing. And the girls kind of like being alone. It helps them be more intimate with the paying customer."

When not on camera, Suzy says, she concentrates on her schoolwork. "This isn't like what I've heard about adult entertainment," she gushes. "You know, the girls are in a bar all night, smoking and drinking alcohol, and you come away with no training. Here, I'm getting a lot of training. I've learned about cameras, lighting, video imaging on the computer. I've learned a lot about myself, too--I've learned just how interested I am in computers! It's very apropos to what I'm studying."

The thing Suzy loves most about her job is that "there isn't any contact. I felt a little compromised by doing this, and you lead two lives--some of the girls do, at least--and so you want to be discreet." In fact, Suzy says there's little contact between the girls themselves. "I was invited to a birthday party, once. But when we're working, we don't see too much of each other, because we're in our different stations."

"The big thing, of course, is that it's completely safe," Sabatini says. "Nobody's going to catch any diseases. Plus, we're keeping people at home, right?"

SOMEONE ONCE said that adulthood begins not with your first sexual experience but with your first lie. And in the anonymous world of cybersex, opportunities for this first rite abound. Fantasy Girls greets the viewer with a "warning page," a feature common to most adult sites. "The following pages contain full nudity, sexual references, and explicit language," it reads. "If you are offended by these items, DO NOT CONTINUE!! By continuing, you are acknowledging that you are over the age of 18." At the bottom of the page is the invitation, "Click on my lips to enter," accompanied by a juicy-looking pair of lips.

This warning recalls the deep-voiced announcements sometimes heard on TV: "Viewer discretion is advised." As a child, I used to stay up late surfing the channels for just such disclaimers. After all, there's nothing to pique a boy's interest like full nudity, sexual references and explicit language. Clicking on those lips could become a rite of manhood for a whole generation. But not if Morality in Media has anything to say about it.

Founded in 1962 by a Jesuit priest, the New York-based MiM has been targeting computer pornography since as early as 1985. Recently, they helped draft the CDA by submitting critiques of the bill to its authors. Robert Peters, a practicing attorney and president of MiM, is said to be "in the forefront of recent attacks on free expression" by Know Your Enemies, a pro-First Amendment Web site. Peters is more level-headed than such a description suggests. He is also unafraid of speaking his mind and handing down harsh judgments.

Children are high on Peters' list of victims of pornography. "Kids get their sex education from it," he complains. "And most pornography doesn't provide wholesome, healthy sex education. You have instances of kids--5- or 6-year-olds--sexually abusing other kids. Penetration and whatnot! They're learning that from somewhere. Little kids are not being stimulated by their hormones."

One way parents can shield their children from online pornography is with programs like SurfWatch. By targeting keywords and referencing a database of adult sites, Los Altos-based SurfWatch helps filter out objectionable material from the results of a Web search.

But Peters wants the adult sites to take responsibility. "Some form of ID ought to be required," he says. "I promise you, if the [CDA] is upheld, they'll set up areas where adults only will have access."

Peters favors the idea of mailing or faxing identification to an adult site, a process which, like the Brady Bill for handguns, would require a waiting period before the viewer could use the site. "If somebody has to wait a day or two to access your gross pictures, then too bad," he says. "We're not talking about Einstein's theory of relativity, we're talking about pornography, stuff that is dirty."

While fuzzy adjectives like "dirty" are exactly what have brought the CDA under fire, Peters has little trouble finding words for live video links. "It's a fine line between an obscene performance and prostitution," Peters says. "I hope some day somebody will have the guts to call it what it is, and put people in jail for it even though no contact is being made. It's personalized sex for a fee. The courts wouldn't buy that, of course, but I think it should be considered prostitution."

Also on Peters' list of victims are men who get addicted to pornography, and the women who become targets of the ensuing fantasies. "The evidence that adult sexual criminals are addicted to pornography is great," he maintains. "If you feed your mind on something over and over again for years, you get to the place where you really want to do it." Porn addicts, Peters says, want to act out their fantasies on their spouses, or with prostitutes. "In my opinion, it's one of the reasons prostitutes have such risky lives," he says. "The women suffer when the guys get into deviant pornography."

Pro-pornography rhetoric does not carry much weight with Peters. "If the argument works that pornography is a safe sex alternative," he says, "then we wouldn't be seeing these reports of young men with AIDS on the rise. These safe-sex strategies will backfire, because people will get sick and tired of it. Straight or gay, you get sick of watching and pretending. You want to touch another human being."

PETERS' CONCERN that on-line pornography leads to sexual contact may help calm frightened Luddites who suspect that humans are being replaced by computers in even the most intimate facets of life. In a world driven by convenience, it's not a wholly irrational fear. After all, why duck into a sleazy dive and risk bumping into other pillars of the community when you can simply boot up, jack in and have at it in the privacy of your living room?

To see if video links were indeed keeping more shoppers at home, I visited San Jose's Y-Not on W Santa Clara Blvd., a hole-in-the-wall sex store surrounded by car dealerships and warehouses. In the front room, a woman of some girth watches over the magazine racks, videotapes, penis pumps, and triple-orificed blow-up dolls. She glares at a middle-aged man cowering behind a copy of Barely Legal. "Fifteen-minute browsing, no reading!" she hollers. Behind her, a young girl stacks videotapes on a shelf.

The back room of the Y-Not harbors 12 plywood booths with the kind of hollow doors usually found in cheap motels. Each booth contains a television set connected to 40 channels of nonstop pornographic movies, and a plastic chair. One dollar buys five minutes of viewing time. During my visit, at one o'clock in the afternoon, all 12 booths are occupied. A portly man in a navy blazer waits his turn, pacing the floor. The room is filled with the dissonant taped moaning of many women, sudden bumps and thuds, and the cute whining sound of mechanized rollers sucking up dollar bills.

The woman behind the counter claims that online pornography hasn't made a dent in her business. "Sales have been the same," she says. "We've been here for 20 years, and we've got a pretty good clientele." The young girl confides, "We get a lot of businessmen in here, you know. They come in during lunch." She speculates that the Y-Not's customers don't have the opportunity to put their computers to any prurient uses. "You know, they go home, and they have a wife and kids. You can't have them watching you." She adds, "Anything you can get on the computer you can get here."

AS EARLY as 1992, the pioneering cyber-porn magazine Future Sex advocated the joys of "virtual sex." One early issue heralded the imminent arrival of "teledildonics"; its cover featured a couple sporting goggles, finger sensors, and matte-black mechanisms attached to their genitals. Co-founder and editor Lisa Palac has since moved on--her Cyborgasm CDs recently created a stir--but Bill Weiss continues to publish the magazine.

"Video links are an idea I pitched to nightclubs two years ago," Weiss scoffs. "When a rock band releases an album, they tour. Porn actresses do the same thing with their movies. This is something Future Sex wanted to do. You could have your porn actress of the month, and have a live video link, and do interviews. But nobody could understand what we were talking about."

A civil-rights lawyer in his early 40s, Weiss is working on an erotic CD-ROM game, a novel which draws from his experiences in the adult business, and what he calls a "Future Sex Cappuccino Bar." "It'll be offshore so you can do commodities trading without getting taxed," he says. "And it'll be topless. It'll be for the big international players."

Nevertheless, Weiss sounds as if his love affair with online porn is nearing its end. "Truly, no one has figured out how to make money on the Web," he says sardonically. "People thought the CD-ROM market was going to explode: 'porno films on CD-ROM!' But the people who were enamored of the technology didn't understand how to market porn."

Weiss quotes Lenin: "Quantity has a quality all its own," he says. "A film might sell 5,000 or 10,000 units--you're not going to come up with a porn blockbuster on the level of E.T. So the idea is, you gotta keep cranking out the product, and do it cheaply."

Pornography is "compulsive," Weiss says. "If you like Asians, you're just going to get Asian magazines or movies. Or black girls, or white guys with two dicks, or whatever. And it's gotta be new. It's a ritual, like S&M. You know, you have to have the little whip, and the little hat."

In any case, Weiss boils the subject of online porn down to two questions. "One: Will people become alienated from sexual relationships because of it? No. There's nothing like the real thing, baby. And two: Why do people do it? Because it's there. You can remain anonymous, it's risk-free, and all that. The quality of a lot of this stuff is dismal. But it's there."

Weiss' disdain for the cybersex industry makes him sound almost traditional. "I get tons of these porno CD-ROMs to review," he says. "Some of it's good, sometimes you can get a pretty decent image, almost TV-quality. But you can rent a video for two or three bucks! Who wants to buy a CD-ROM for 30 or 40 bucks?"

One could also ask: Who wants to blow 100 bucks on Fantasy Girls? But Sabatini claims that within the first two weeks of business, "We had someone call up and spend $3,000. This person was from the Midwest, put it all on a credit card. If someone's spending that kind of money, he's probably got a lot more of it to throw around." He adds, "A lot of people are trying to find ways to make money on the Web. This one with the women is the most natural one."

WATCHING ROXANNE do her "exercises," it's hard to argue with Sabatini. This is, after all, one of the world's oldest professions. One SurfWatch employee calls the program "a technological solution to a sociological problem."

Peters, a member of Morality in Media for 11 years, fumes: "The longer I work here, the angrier I get. The frustrating part of it is all the mainstream people who defend it. In my opinion, pornography is sick, to be blunt."

Weiss insists: "The hysteria over this stuff is just that--hysteria. Sex is a powerful force of life, even though people repress it. Everyone is thinking about it, talking about it, and doing it as much as they can."

The people in this story all have one thing in common: I never once stood in their physical presence. Aside from the folks at the Y-Not, we communicated via phone, fax or, like Roxanne, video link. Watching Roxanne gyrate on my screen, tugging her own nipples and rubbing her thighs, it became important for me to make sure that I was interacting with an actual human being. "Is there anything I can do for you?" Roxanne asked. I thought for a moment.

"Roxanne," I typed, "could you please bend over and spread your cheeks?" She did so. It was an all-too-human moment. Then, as my hundred dollars dwindled to nothing, I thanked Roxanne and logged off Fantasy Girls. I don't know if I felt morally bankrupt--but I was, as they say, spent.

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro

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