Over the summer, Homeland Security agents raided the offices of gay escort site Rentboy.com, charging, among other things, that the site promoted prostitution, serving as an “internet brothel.” Rentboy defenders took umbrage at this designation. As Melissa Gira Grant noted, “it is not possible to conduct prostitution on the internet; there's no such thing as an ‘internet brothel.’”
Semantic arguments aside, the statement gestures towards a deeper truth about modern sex work: sites like Rentboy are not “brothels” largely because, in combination with other forms of technology, they’ve managed to supplant the services that once made brothels an essential resource for many sex workers, creating a new model of sex work where practitioners need not rely on agencies or pimps to provide clients and ensure their safety.
The marketing and client acquisition services that have been provided by defunct sites like Rentboy, Backpage, and MyRedBook (as well as other sites that still remain active) is obviously an essential component of the business, as without people who are willing to pay for their services, there’s little work for sex workers to do. But finding clients is just one small part of what technology can do for sex workers. Equally, if not more, important is the way sex workers use apps and websites—often ordinary, everyday ones used by many outside the sex industry—to mitigate the risk that comes with their working environment.
"Clients are all surprised that they don't need to make a Square Cash account in order to send me money"
One of the most basic elements of sex worker safety is client screening. It’s essential to make sure that anyone you agree to see is actually the person they claim to be, and that you’re not endangering your health and safety merely by being in the same hotel room with them. Though some escorts rely on sex work-specific sites that maintain “bad date” lists of potentially dangerous clients, others make use of more mainstream sources to gather information about and verify the identities of potential johns.
B, a long time sex worker who is very selective about her clientele, sometimes uses Pipl.com to verify information provided by a client. Google search and sites like Facebook also help her get a general sense of who she’s about to see. “I have fake accounts on most social media sites so that if I'm researching someone, I don't somehow get picked up in their [friend recommendations],” she says.
Another way sex workers maintain that essential boundary between their work and their personal lives? Google Voice. An easier solution than burner phones—which, you know, require having a whole other phone—or limiting contact exclusively to email, Google’s VoIP app allows escorts to call clients and receive text messages from the same phone they use in civilian life, while still maintaining a firm barrier between work and home (and, essentially, without compromising their privacy).
B likes to use the service with new clients, since “until I have a rapport with someone, it's good to have technological distance between us.” For others, Google Voice is the only way they interact with clients, period. P, a librarian who turned to escorting after getting laid off, exclusively relies on Google Voice for client contacts “because used correctly, it's untraceable to my true identity and easily dumped if necessary.
"I've considered using a separate burner phone for business, to more completely isolate contacts ... and avoid any human error that might result in crossover, but thus far have found it unnecessary," P continued.
And then there are the sex work tech hacks that affect how escorts handle their money. For obvious reasons, sex work has long been a cash-based business, but carrying large sums of cash can heighten the risk faced by already vulnerable workers. Navigating the landscape of digital payments can be tricky for a sex worker. Square, PayPal, and Google Wallet are risky choices because their terms of service explicitly prohibit sex-related goods and services.
As Helena A shares, “Since I started my adult work a year and a half ago, it has been widely known to never use PayPal because you can be banned for life if they find out you're a sex worker”—and, in addition to that lifetime ban, the services often prevent you from accessing any cash still in your account (a pretty hefty penalty if you’re dealing in thousands of dollars at a time).
But some sex workers have found workarounds. Paxum and Payoneer are known to be friendly to sex workers, though their onerous onboarding process can make it unappealing for many clients. More popular is Square Cash, which has a more lenient TOS that doesn’t explicitly ban sex, and a direct-to-bank account deposit and withdrawal system, which minimizes the risk of the service seizing a sex worker’s funds.
P has used Square Cash to process cancellation fees, deposits for long term bookings, and travel expenses associated with work; Helena A often uses it with her trusted regulars. Though using the service is not without risk (at any time, Square Cash could change its policies to be more like PayPal or Google), the current convenience makes it incredibly appealing. “[Clients] are all surprised that they don't need to make a Square Cash [account] in order to send me money. They just enter their credit or debit info and the amount they want to send,” says Helena.
And yes, some sex workers have been paid in bitcoin, but it’s hard to see that becoming the de facto currency of escorting any time soon (sorry, cryptocurrency true believers). Though the lack of paper trail holds some appeal, the hassle of making bitcoin transactions is a significant deterrent—especially given that many of those with the time and inclination to partake in an escort’s services aren’t extremely likely to be avid bitcoin miners (or particularly interested in tracking down a bitcoin ATM purely to fund their pursuit of escorts).
But while technology has done a great deal to improve sex worker safety, it’s important to remember that even the best tech solution can only solve so much. So long as sex work remains illegal, its practitioners will always remain at elevated risk of assault, theft, and rape (sometimes even from the very people who claim to protect against those crimes). No tech hack will ever do as much for sex worker safety as full decriminalization—though with stigma against sex work continuing to decrease, hopefully decriminalization, and the increased safety that comes with it, isn’t too far away.