The rules of the Safe Sex Club were simple: Everything happens behind closed doors. Anything goes. Don't let your parents find out.
For at least the past two years, police say, a group of teenagers in Hamilton were caught up in an unusual extracurricular activity. The teens set up a virtual sex network from their bedrooms, using instant messaging chat programs and cameras that broadcast video from one computer to another using the Internet.
They dubbed this intersection of new Web technology and old-fashioned teenage hormones the Safe Sex Club.
"What happens is you go home, you log on to your instant messaging, and then you just do whatever you're going to do," said Detective Constable Douglas Rees of the Hamilton police's child pornography unit. "She'll come on, you'll come on, and the next thing you know, you're into the full act of masturbation, and pleasing each other, all on the webcam.
"You finish, you turn your cameras off, and carry on with your daily routine."
Police say the group has been meeting on-line for at least two years. While in Grade 9, the members of the Safe Sex Club attended the same school, but they have since gone their separate ways -- at least by day.
After school, the teens, now in Grades 11 and 12, continued to use their webcams to have virtual sex, with sessions between a variety of partners continuing until January. "It just kept going," Det. Constable Rees said.
That month, the group's activities were exposed when Hamilton police began an investigation into the case of a 16-year-old boy -- a member of the Safe Sex Club -- who is alleged to have distributed a recording of his former girlfriend, also 16, engaging in sexual acts. The Ancaster, Ont., youth faces charges of possession and distribution of child pornography.
No other charges have been filed, but police have searched five houses and seized three computers with sex videos on their hard drives. They are still investigating the Safe Sex Club.
Both police and sex researchers say they have not run across such a situation before. A recent study of children from the age of 10 to 17 who use the Internet, indicated that just 2 per cent engaged in any sort of on-line romance, said Robin Milhausen, the host of S ex, Toys & Chocolate on the Life Network who is also conducting post-doctoral research on teen sexuality. Of those, only a small proportion would be having virtual sex, she said.
The behaviour of the teens in the Safe Sex Club runs against the typical pattern of on-line sexual activity, Ms. Milhausen said, which usually escalates from casual comments in a Web forum to a real-life meeting.
The age of sexual consent is 14, so simply masturbating on-line in front of another under-18 teenager is not a crime. However, that is not the case if an adult is involved, if the broadcast involves three or more parties, or if a recorded broadcast is distributed, Det. Constable Rees said. (Legal experts have said the simple recording of such a broadcast may not be illegal, as long as the act it depicts is legal and it is not distributed.)
Police do not yet know how many teens were in the Hamilton group, despite questioning eight youths. Recordings of four girls were found on the three computers, and police have identified two of those among the eight teens interviewed.
She said some teens would be drawn to something like the Safe Sex Club because it offers an immediate outlet for sexual urges. "It's titillating and it's easy," she said.
Det. Constable Rees said one of his most burning questions for the members of the Safe Sex Club was: why?
One answer, he said, was obvious from the group's name -- the participants didn't need to worry about sexually transmitted diseases -- but the detective admits he was a bit surprised by the answer from one male teen. "The reply I got was, 'I don't have to worry about getting to her house, she doesn't have to worry about getting to my house. I don't have to walk, I don't have to try and get a ride.' "