How Will Millennials Pay for Sex?

Will millennials abandon the world’s oldest profession, or is there a way to move escorting into the app-enabled future?

It's no secret that millennials are abandoning the open web, swapping blogs and news sites for Facebook and OkCupid for Tinder. So what's going to happen to escorting, an industry that has thrived on the open web—and can't readily adapt to the walled garden of app stores? Will millennials abandon the world's oldest profession, or is there a way to move escorting into the app-enabled future?

Ohlala, a German app that launched in New York a few months ago, isn't technically an escort service (the front page copy explicitly notes that "escorts are not welcome"). But it is an app that offers "instant paid dating," a buzzwordy way of describing a situation where men can pay money to secure dates with women in their general vicinity—which, let's be real, pretty much amounts to the same thing as sex work, and definitely places the service in the same sort of legal grey area that an escorting app might land in.

According to Engadget, the service facilitated 10,000 dates in its first month, though that was before payment was enabled. But it will likely face an uphill battle as it strives to take off. Will Tinder users really be eager to switch to a transactional system? Will escorts and their clients have any interest in employing the service (which, it should be noted, requires face shots and bans nudity)? Is there some secret market for "paid dating" that exists outside of these known groups?

So far, the answer seems to be "no." When I logged in, I never saw more than one or two date offers at a time, none of which seemed particularly compelling (though this could be because I was checking the app during work hours, which, truth be told, probably isn't the hottest time for paid dating requests).

Simple enough, right? Image: Ohlala

It's not hard to see why this might be. The rationale behind sexless paid dating (namely, that payment reduces flakiness) has always rung false. Whatever issues men have with flakey Tinder dates, it hardly seems like something worth paying several hundred dollars to remedy. As an escorting app, Ohlala falls flat. Beyond geolocation and in-app payment, it doesn't really offer major benefits to service providers, and its shortcomings (inability to properly advertise, insistence on face shots, assumption that sex workers want to be available instantly) are pretty notable.

But the success or failure of Ohlala itself isn't quite the point. Even if the service fails to become the established route for millennials looking to pay for sex (sorry, instant dating), it's still laying important groundwork for what a mobile driven escorting app might look like, and how it might work.

Hookups brings a potential for emotional messiness and mismatched expectations that truly transactional sex work neatly avoids.

Because here's the thing: even with the rise of Tinder, and readily available casual sex, escorting isn't likely to go anywhere. Sex work isn't solely about paying for sexual experiences; it's about paying for a clearly defined relationship where the boundaries and expectations are out on the table.

Articles about the "dating apocalypse" supposedly fueled by Tinder and the like offer an argument for the continued appeal of escorting. Though hookup culture superficially achieves the same goal, at least on the demand side, it brings with it a potential for emotional messiness and mismatched expectations that truly transactional sex work neatly avoids.

So for those looking to follow in Ohlala's footsteps, here are a few notes. One of the key factors that allows for Ohlala's existence? It's a web app, accessible through your phone's browser, and thus a platform that completely bypasses any prudish (or legally cautious) censors in anyone's app store.

Ohlala's not the first XXX app to use this strategy (in fact, it's a reason why mobile browsers are essential for sex tech innovation). But it is one of the few to garner this much press, and it could be a service that helps to legitimize the web app, which, thus far, hasn't had that great a rep.

That said, there's lots of room for improvement. Although the "on demand" aspect might seem like a great idea, it doesn't vibe with how many independent escorts work, especially when they're seeing new clients. The app would also benefit from a feature that enables escorts to verify the identities of their clients. If there's any hope of a literal Uber for escorting, this feature would be a must.

And, of course, actively working for decriminalization would help as well. Because as long as sex work is forced to remain in the dark, technical innovation that enables, improves, and increases safety in the industry is going to be hampered.