In the photograph, the model is shown rising out of a bubble bath, suds dripping from her body. Her tight panties and skimpy top are soaked and revealing. She gazes at the viewer, her face showing a wisp of a smile that seems to have been coaxed from off-camera.
In just over seven months, the model has become an online phenomenon. She has thousands of fans from around the world, membership lists show, who pay as much as $30 a month to see images of her. According to the posted schedule, new photographs of her—many clearly intended to be erotic, all supposedly taken that week—are posted online every Friday for her growing legions of admirers.
The model's online name is Sparkle. She is—at most —9 years old.
Sparkle is one of hundreds of children being photographed by adults, part of what appears to be the latest trend in online child exploitation: Web sites for pedophiles offering explicit, sexualized images of children who are covered by bits of clothing — all in the questionable hope of allowing producers, distributors and customers to avoid child pornography charges.
In recent months, an array of investigations of the child pornography business— by the Justice Department, state and local law enforcement and Congress —have contributed to wholesale shutdowns of some of the most sexually explicit Internet sites trafficking in child images. But they have been rapidly replaced by a growing number of these so-called model sites, Internet locations that offer scores of original photographs of scantily clad under-age children like Sparkle, often posed in ways requested by subscribers.
More than 200 of the sites have been found by The New York Times through online advertising aimed at pedophiles, and a vast majority focus mostly on one child. Almost all the children appear to be between the ages of 2 and 12.
Based on descriptions in online customer forums and in Web pages showing image samples, the children are photographed by people who have frequent access to them. The sites often include images of "guests": children who are described as a friend of the featured child, but who appear for only a day. The sites say the children come from different parts of the world, including the United States.
Based on the images and wording from online advertisements, the sites show toddlers wearing tight thongs, and slightly older children posing evocatively while wearing makeup and feather boas. There is even a site that offers images of girls and boys who appear to be 5 or 6 years old, wearing just diapers.
In online conversations observed by The Times over four months, pedophiles portrayed model sites as the last of a shrinking number of Internet locations for sexual images of minors.
"I considered the authors of those sites as leaders of a rebellion movement for child porn," a man calling himself Heartfallen wrote in an online site for pedophiles, discussing the decline in the number of sites featuring images of naked minors. "They've vanished. There is much less freedom on the Internet now. We still have a rebellion made up of nonnude child modeling sites. But are they going to suffer the same fate as their predecessors?"