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Is The Internet a Boon to Sex Workers?

March 21, 2008

Pros and Cons of How the Internet Has Changed Prostitution

This is a speech I gave at the 2007 Desiree Alliance convention.

The Internet has undoubtedly changed the commercial landscape forever. It has given power to the everyday person, connected from home, whether consumer or business owner. Small businesses have flourished with the Internet, often becoming large volume/low overhead companies with few employees.

And, as many hand-wringers have noted, the adult industry has flocked to the Internet. But the adult industry is a sprawling, fragmented mess, especially on the Internet. This presentation focuses only on escorts/callgirls/prostitutes – referred to generically as providers.

The Internet Itself Can Be a Problem

Jumping online isn’t always as easy as it looks. There are real, physical barriers to getting online. One needs a computer, an Internet connection and a way of paying for that connection. Free public services often aren’t the answer because they may block adult sites or may not be secure enough to check personal e-mail.

All providers also need to be aware that their IP address will be logged everywhere they go. This can be a problem if it’s traceable to their home address.

But assuming that a provider gets online, how has the Internet changed the business?

It’s Made Things Safer

The Internet has provided a large margin of safety for providers that didn’t easily exist before.

Every provider online is autonomous and runs her business exactly as she pleases (for better or worse). Her business is extraordinarily discreet. The general public does not know what she does. Nor do her neighbors (if she doesn’t see clients in her home). Many providers live double-lives made easier by the Internet.

The remove of online interactions makes providers are far safer when interacting with clients (especially if she takes Internet-security precautions). This greatly enhances her safety because if she says no, the client can do nothing to her; she cannot be touched through cyberspace. The disgruntled client can only go away and try their luck elsewhere.

Providers see clients only when they’re comfortable with them, usually after a combination of e-mails and phone calls. Many providers love e-mail so much they don’t even list phone numbers.

This isn’t a pretty point to make, but there have been far less murders of online providers than those working offline. The time-delay and physical remove of online interaction decreases the opportunity for deadly violence, especially impulsive violence. Certainly other factors affect the murder rate, but the remove of the Internet has made things safer for all types of sex workers.

When a provider meets with clients, it’s usually far away from her computer and their correspondence. Some providers require 100% prepayment (through mail, wire transfer or online payment processor), which lessens the chance of robbery.

The Internet allows for quick and thorough screening if the proper information is collected from the client. Providers can cross-check a client like never before: Google, Zabasearch, PublicData, county tax records, discussion boards and more.

Even better, bad-client lists and escort discussion boards are springing up, which allow for industry-specific cross-checking of clients. A provider with a fast Internet connection and the right information can thoroughly vett a client in less than 30 minutes if she needs to. This increases her money-making potential – she can take appointments on short notice if she needs to – while keeping her safer than traditional face-to-face interactions.

Better Clients can be Found Online

The point is debatable, but generally higher income/better-educated clients can be found online.

Clients with high disposable income are searching online for companions worth the money. They aren’t trolling the back alleys of their city. This has given rise to a whole new level of high-end escort; and plenty of mid-range escorts for the middle-class man.

The safety and discretion of the Internet work both ways and clients have quickly recognized the benefits and lower personal risks of online interaction. A big benefit is ease in scheduling appointments – which is a boon for those who travel a lot, are disabled or married.

Even better…

The Internet Increases Compatibility

Both clients and providers have discovered the freedom of online self-expression via personal Web sites, photos, discussion boards, chat rooms and blogs.

Corresponding through e-mail/phone calls allows both parties to get familiar with each other before meeting, but being able to leisurely peruse various facets of their personalities online makes life even easier. Clients often research providers to decide who to contact first, much like dating. And providers can do a “jerk-check” once a client has contacted her.

The benefit for both parties in knowing the other’s personality is they’re more likely to be compatible when they meet because each party wants someone they’re going to like spending time with. This doesn’t matter so much for a $20 blowjob, but it matters a great deal when a client is spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on his companion and she’s spending hours with him.

Getting to know their client before meeting helps reduce the mental/emotional risk for escorts. It gives them plenty of time to asses if this client should be seen or not, based on the provider’s personal criteria. This compatibility check is an important, though subjective, part of the screening process.

And it helps her business. All this “getting to know you” stuff increases the chance that clients will enjoy their chosen companion and become repeat clients.

Problems of Easy Entry

The Internet makes it enormously easy for providers to start their business online. This is a problem because the easy entry belies the very real issues – mental, emotional, and physical – that every sex worker has to face on their job.

I’ve personally witnessed the quick entry and dismal exit of providers who were not suited for sex work, yet never knew it because no one told them anything other than “post an ad on this board and makes lots of money.”

Many providers also suffer an unexpected technological learning curve to the Internet, from simple things like using bookmarks, answering e-mails and navigating discussion forums, to more complex things like blogging.

Reviews – the Negative Side

Providers were probably some of the first businesses to be reviewed online.

An intelligent person can understand the drawbacks of reviewing a business online, more so when it’s an intimate personal service business that is highly subjective: personality clashes get ugly fast.

Reviews are also beginning to be used as evidence to build a case for arrest. Nothing like an online record of activity to make things easy for the police!

Even worse is review coercion. This is when a reviewer (with an inflated sense of power) threatens a provider with a bad review – thus ruining her business – unless she does what he wants. This happens a lot, unfortunately.

Providers need to realize the idea of reviews (giving power back to the clients, not keeping it in the hands of the providers) have caught on. Even if the provider is strictly offline, she may still be reviewed on online review boards specifically for offline providers. Ironic, isn’t it?

Discussion Boards/Communities

The Internet forever changed sex work by giving providers and clients social interaction with each other. This may not seem like a big deal to most of you, but there is little historical precedent for this. We’re talking entire social lives built around the client/provider relationship. It’s a paradigm shift.

The appeal of discussion boards is obvious. It’s fun to spend time socializing with others who share your “secret.” For providers who live double-lives, it’s one place where they can really be honest and let their hair down. It’s a relief.

Unfortunately, most discussion boards are like high school: lots of childish political games, ever-changing cliques and name-calling. Many seem to leave their manners at the door because sex work is an “underground” activity. They feel there’s no need to be nice.

Worse, in my opinion, discussion board “authorities” propagate a lot of misinformation concerning legal and medical issues. Too many clients and providers rely on this disinformation instead of seeking professional advice from outside, disinterested parties who are not part of the “community.”

Hobbyists

Discussion boards spawned hobbyists. These are men who spend way too much time obsessing over the client/provider relationship and trying to get it for free.

And from hobbyists we get hobby-pimps. These men try directly to influence providers’ rates/services. Even though not all hobby-pimps engage in review coercion they tread the line. (Those who do engage in review coercion always identify as hobbyists.)

Hobbyists tend to take care of their own. They have a much stronger sense of solidarity than providers do. This is unfortunate. I knew of a rapist sheltered in the hobbyist community. The providers were persuaded not to go the police (not that it took much persuading) and the man was never tossed out of the community. This is not a benefit of the Internet. Nor is it a benefit of being part of the “community” for providers

Being “Discovered”

The Internet makes getting discovered easier, which is bad news for providers who wish to keep their work separate from the rest of their lives.

Google and other search engines are indexing and archiving more and more of the Internet. While it’s easy to keep them off your own site, you cannot keep them from archiving public discussion boards, public blogs or free advertising sites. Words or phrases are easily searchable and any identifying information could be pulled up by anyone who is looking.

Many providers choose to hide their faces online, yet still end up being figured out. They’ll often change names – affecting their business – but this doesn’t stop the truly dedicated harasser from finding them again.

If a provider is going to put herself online in any way, it should be done with the understanding that she will not be completely hidden for all time. It could happen, but the likelihood is that the Internet will give away her secret.

Others can and will steal provider’s photos/text. This is annoying but it is copyright violation. It’s solved by reporting the theft to their Web hosts.

People surfing the Net can download photos/text, storing them on their own computer for their own use. Who knows what happens to them then? Providers need to ensure they never post anything online that will haunt them years later.

Although this has to do more with security than work/personal separation, more and more e-mail hosts are saving and indexing e-mails, i.e., making them easily searchable. There is a pending law that would require all ISPs to save all e-mails but they’ve been doing that for a long time.

I know from personal experience that Hotmail saves e-mails that have been deleted. Eighty e-mails deleted two years prior showed up in my inbox one day. Apparently, they’d backed up their database or restored from tape. And there were the e-mails that I thought were long gone. This happened in 2005.

Trying to Conduct Business Online

The downside of trying to conduct business over the Internet is no one knows you’re a dog. What that means for providers is no matter how well they’ve screened a client or how well they know him, there’s no real way to actually know he gave the correct screening information until they’ve met.

Clients have a similar fear, magnified by 100. They worry that every provider online is an undercover cop or a hideously ugly woman who posts pictures of models on her ads.

Providers who need business services, like Web design, have to carefully navigate through hordes of incompetent, over-priced “professionals” who see providers as a dumb yet lucrative market; or as a way to get sex in trade. There are these types of vultures in every industry (except maybe for the sex-trading thing), but they particularly enjoy preying on providers.

On the plus side, many small business owners, like Web designers, have taken their business online – providing more choice for providers who need them.

Wrapping it up

This is a cautionary view of the Internet. As with most things in life, everyone decides what is right for them. The Internet has dramatically changed sex work. Whether that change is good or bad depends on the individual and their goals.

The Internet offers the freedom to get as involved as anyone could want, but sometimes providers get involved even if they don’t want to. Even though there are huge numbers of clients/providers online, for providers trying to conduct their business online it’s not as simple as it seems on the surface.

For example: a provider could decide not to allow reviews, but lose business from wary clients. She could have reviews, but a bad review could hurt her business. By allowing reviews, she opens herself up to review coercion. She could get more business from her reviews, but her reviews could also be used as evidence against her.

Not everyone is online. Many providers prefer to keep themselves completely offline, as do many clients. Depending on your preferred type of sex work, you may spend your time more wisely offline.

Even though mainstream society believes the number of sex workers flocking online means it’s a free-for-all, is it really?

Handout with the presentation

4 Important Rules to Remember About the Internet

  1. Nothing is 100% secure.
  2. Assume everyone can find everything you post online.
  3. Assume whatever you post online lasts forever.
  4. Assume all e-mails are not only saved but that they’ll be read in court or printed in a newspaper article.
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