Rick Paulas | Longreads | June 2018 | 24 minutes (6,543 words)
Lauren couldn’t afford any more canceled dates.
A “combination of beauty and brains, exclusively available for adventures,” according to her website, she’d spent untold time and energy building her brand on the back of a modeling résumé that included portraiture in Penthouse. She’d spent thousands on website maintenance and professional photos, and another $250 to $800 a month on ads on the Eros Guide. And she’d worked damn hard for those glowing reviews — over 70 in all — posted by clients online at the Erotic Review (TER).
It allowed Lauren to charge “discerning and professional gentlemen” $500 for an hour of her time, $750 for 90 minutes of it, or $5,000 for an overnight. But like roughly half of the United States, Lauren was still living paycheck to paycheck.
There was the high cost of living in New York City, a necessary expenditure that came with the gig; unlike cam girls, she had to physically be with clients. The more pressing hit to her pocketbook, however, was the result of a serious autoimmune illness that necessitated eight surgeries over a six-year period, an out-of-pocket cost of $240,000. It was this enormous bill that had shifted her career from modeling into sex work in the first place.
“All the money I ever made [modeling] is gone,” Lauren says. “All I want to do is buy a home in the country where I don’t fucking see people. Just me and my dog.”
A stream of last-minute cancellations and no-shows, then, was extremely troubling. Not only did they leave her without the income she was expecting, but also hours she could’ve used to earn money were stolen from her. “I didn’t know why people were booking and not showing up,” she says. But a quick Google search of her name revealed the reason: a negative review posted on Ripoff Report.
“When you look up [my name], it’s the first thing that comes up,” she says.
A privately owned, for-profit website, Ripoff Report publishes anonymous complaints about products, businesses, and individuals, from multinational corporations like Walmart to self-employed freelancers like Lauren. “The evening was unpleasent [sic] to say the least,” the pseudonymous reviewer wrote. “She tried upselling me the entire evening offering a wide range of unsafe activities. I ended up cutting the date short and let her keep the 2k.” (Companies and individuals can rebut accusations — Lauren did — but the original complaint remains. “We DO NOT remove any reports,” a spokesperson for the site wrote me in an email.)
“I couldn’t tell you how much business I’ve lost due to this,” Lauren says.
Lauren deduced the reviewer’s identity almost immediately; the former client gave himself away with the same dialectical misspellings that littered previous negative reviews on other review websites. He was an hour-long date she’d had the previous year in Houston. “These hour motherfuckers can go one of two ways,” she says. “And when it goes bad, it goes really bad.”
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According to Lauren, the man paid for an hour of her time, but stayed for an hour-and-a-half, during which he “had his dinner and had it twice.” He left without giving her a tip. Three months later, he contacted Lauren to get her to “verify” him on Preferred411 (P411), a website used by sex workers and clients to “connect with others in a safe and secure way.” (On P411, clients pay $99 for a “basic” six-month membership, which can be upgraded to “basic plus” with an OK from a worker; essentially a way for workers to know the client is legit.) She said yes, and since everything in the industry is an exchange of money for time, she asked for something in return: a 10/10 review on the Erotic Review. He agreed.
She saw that while he gave her the agreed-upon 10 in the “performance” category, he’d only given her a seven in “looks.” She contacted him about the betrayal.
“I said, ‘Why would you do that?’” she says. “And he lost his fucking mind.”
The man told her she was lucky he gave her a score that high, then threatened to write another TER review about “how fucking ugly” she was. He soon made good on that threat, falsely claiming that he’d gone on another date with Lauren, giving her a 3 for “looks” and a 4 for “performance.” Lauren contacted TER with screenshots of their electronic exchanges, and they took down the new review. But the time it took for TER to process her complaint was costly; she’d lost $1,000 that night from someone who read the review and canceled. (The client’s 7/10 review, meanwhile, remained up.)
Still, it didn’t sink her business. That 7 for “looks” dragged down her average, but she’d banked enough 10/10 scores over the years that this outlier didn’t tank her score. For the next year, everything went smoothly until the “hour motherfucker” resurfaced with the aforementioned negative review on Ripoff Report and the great cancellation of dates began anew.
“Your reputation can be ruined in a heartbeat,” says Lauren, who’s since added a range of cancellation fees to her listing. “These reviews could ruin your entire business.”
* * *
Maxine Doogan remembers getting the call that revealed the future.
It was in ’98, or maybe ’99, and it came in on her landline, or maybe her cell. It was from her friend Melanie, a fellow sex worker with 25 years of experience in the field.
Melanie told Maxine to go to her computer and visit SFRedBook.com. She warned Maxine, “This is what’s coming.”
“I got on there and said, ‘Oh my fucking god, this is going to be a disaster,’” says Doogan, a Bay Area–based sex worker, activist, and founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union. “And I was right.”
RedBook was launched in 1999 by Mountain View programmer Eric “Red” Omuro. Similar to Craigslist, it was a bare-bones website composed of classified ads, but RedBook focused primarily on rating sex work. These posts, written by customers, were intended to mitigate some of the risks associated with the lack of legal protections in these business transactions. “There are women that make ads, make appointments, walk in, take the money, and walk out,” says Doogan. “And clients have no recourse.”
These rip-offs frustrated workers like Doogan, because their negative effects cultivated a general atmosphere of distrust, which then rippled into her own workplace. “Clients were treating us with suspicion, asking a lot of questions, and wanting [illegal] verbal commitments,” she says. “It made for a very difficult customer base.”
But beyond the growing concern of client rip-offs in this uncharted virtual world, Doogan saw that sex workers faced a new vulnerability. Previously, in the the street or massage parlor, workers could get a visceral sense of a potential client before choosing how to proceed. In fact, before industry norms shifted to faceless online greets before private meets, workers had ways to sleuth whether the client was on the level, a cop, or just plain bad news.
“Remember the old Thomas Guide maps?” asks Doogan. “You could use those to see if the house was their real address. And when AT&T came out with Caller ID, that helped a whole lot.”
The rise of the free online classifieds — where “everybody and her mother, aunt, brother, and grandma could put up an ad,” says Doogan, “and with no experience!” — also changed how workers spent money. Initially, this meant withdrawing the cash spent on ads in local newspapers and alt-weeklies, a shift exacerbated by some publishers’ own newfound ethical codes which led them to refuse accepting ads from sex workers. “That’s what happens when you start being the tool of moral enforcement in advertising,” says Doogan. “You lose your ass.”
That’s what happens when you start being the tool of moral enforcement in advertising,” says Doogan. “You lose your ass.
New laws targeting sex workers also aided the pull away from print as an advertising expenditure. “We all used to have ads in the Yellow Pages. They were making thousands of dollars off us,” says Doogan. “But police threatened [Yellow Pages publishers] PacBell or U.S. West with felonies, and that prompted the change.”
One way around these laws was the “personal escort” loophole, where workers sold “time” and avoided terms like “sex” in ads. It allowed Yellow Pages to continue listing escort agencies, a move that prompted independent workers to license themselves as official agencies, sometimes more than one when they could afford it. “We’d have multiple mobile phones with multiple names, so we could get listings through the alphabet,” says Doogan. “Something that began with an A, something in the middle like an M, something at the bottom.”
As print avenues dried up through stricter laws and as publishers went bankrupt, digital options filled the empty space. Eliminating physical distances and national boundaries, they offered a perceived freedom and a potential reach that print never could. But there was a catch with this new frontier. Rather than a competitive marketplace, the sites that invested in offshore servers to avoid the law’s arm and, more importantly, hired the right programmers to win the search engine optimization game, developed a near-monopoly in short order.
“Fucking Google,” says Doogan. “They’ve cut the ability to search by our name, phone number, or geographical location. It’s given Eros a lot of power.”
The Eros Guide is a classic “ad mall,” that is, simply a place to post ads. The site was founded in Oakland, California, in 2000 by Byron Mayo as a relatively obvious way to capture profits in an as-yet-unregulated market. “[The internet now] makes it possible to economically present far more information in a much more accessible fashion than ever existed before,” Mayo told the Jamaica Observer in 2001.
Doogan had one of the early ads on the site, first for free, then for “30 to 40 dollars a month.” Now, due to its paramount nature in the market, Eros makes millions of dollars a year; in 2010, Washington, D.C.–based dominatrix Jenny DeMilo estimated that the website brings in somewhere between 8 and 10 million a year. “They’re number one, so they can command what they can command,” says one sex worker, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from Eros. “[To them], one thousand a month [for a single ad] isn’t unreasonable.”
From a worker’s perspective, it’s hard to say that money used on Eros isn’t spent well. Google “escort” plus wherever you live, and odds are good you’ll see an Eros listing. (Anecdotally, every worker I interviewed for this piece said that most of the traffic to their personal websites came from Eros.) This dominance over a worker’s ability to find clients has given Eros unchecked power over the industry; they decide who can use them and who can be banned without warning or explanation.
“They can’t give us an explanation, because it would implicate them,” says the anonymous worker. “Imagine you’re trying to work at a company, and there’s a bunch of rules in a book that you’re not allowed to see.”
Imagine you’re trying to work at a company, and there’s a bunch of rules in a book that you’re not allowed to see.
With that power comes editorial control. Unlike during the print era, when workers chose what to put in their ads, the information that workers can present is restricted by Eros’s’ legal team, limiting how they can distinguish themselves from one another. “You can’t use certain words. You have to put in your height, your weight, your hair color,” says Doogan. “They’re like, ‘The customers want to see that.’ The customers aren’t paying you! I’m paying you! I’m your customer, dumb bitch!”
In November 2017, the Department of Homeland Security raided Eros’s North Carolina call center. The raid sent a shock wave through the community after DHS obtained access to their personal information, but Eros remains active.
This creeping power of a lone, dominant ad mall wasn’t what was on Maxine Doogan’s mind when she received that phone call about RedBook back in the late ’90s. And the harrowing “disaster” on the horizon wasn’t necessarily the free-for-all ads or the rip-off-exposing message boards either. It was RedBook’s most innovative feature: the reviews section.
As described in a 2015 Wired feature about the site:
You could pay $13 a month for access to the section, where VIP customers shared detailed write-ups of their experiences with escorts, BDSM providers, and erotic masseuses. As part of their reviews, users listed the services they received, as well as details about the provider’s physical attributes.
On RedBook, clients rated workers on a scale of 1 to 10 in services, body, and face categories. Reviews was the most popular section of RedBook, and to Doogan, it represented an epochal industry shift that tilted power from workers to customers.
“Men had custody of the internet by the time Prostitution Nation got there. We were already on the internet, but we didn’t know we were on the internet,” says Doogan. “The domination of the customer over the business started on the internet.”
* * *
“I was getting ripped off,” David Elms, a frequent sex work “hobbyist” told MSNBC in 2006. “There was no way to hold people accountable.”
Elms’s solution to the claim that he was being ripped off — which could mean that a worker took his money and left without providing any services, or that they didn’t look exactly like their photographs, or that they weren’t willing to consent to every type of sexual request — was, in 1999, to develop The Erotic Review, a website where clients review their dates with sex workers. “Our reviews serve as powerful barometers that keep an otherwise illegal business honest,” reads its general FAQ section. It was RedBook’s review section hopped up on a cocktail of amphetamines and Viagra.
“Outside of America, people don’t really use it,” says Scarlett St. Clair, a sex worker based in New York and London. “But in America, they are the biggest, and they wield unfortunately a huge amount of influence.”
That “unfortunately” from the worker’s mindset makes sense. Elms’s own personal experiences, whatever they were, steered the site into a “customer is always right” ideology that persists. It’s a questionable viewpoint in an industry where, according to Sex Workers Outreach Project, its workers are 400 times more likely to be murdered on their job than workers in any other career. (To further illustrate the point, note Elms’s own record following TER’s creation: After a slew of accusations about him using his position of power to extort sex from workers, he was arrested in 2009 on several charges, including an attempt to hire a hitman to kill a sex worker; Elms and TER reportedly cut ties after the arrest.)
And yet sex workers, particularly new ones, feel compelled to use TER’s system.
“It gave me a kind of legitimacy,” says St. Clair, who joined in mid-2016. “It signaled to others that I am who I say I am and good at what I do.”
The signals of integrity, credibility, and trustworthiness are broadcast because the reviews aren’t contained in a closed, private network that only an exclusive few can examine. The low cost of entry and accessibility make TER similar to Yelp, but one where the worker-customer interaction takes place behind closed doors. “The guys who post on TER and the guys who lurk on TER are not the same set of people,” says Missy Mariposa, a worker at a legal brothel in Nevada.
TER users have two choices on the site. Basic Membership is free and allows users access to the worker’s contact information, appearance characteristics, and broad details of their reviews. A VIP Account, available for $30 a month — or free for clients who write the equivalent of one review every 15 days — gives users access to every review, a list of services offered, and more. There are forums too, where one can “hang with your favorite Hobbyists and catch up on the latest news,” but like RedBook, the reviews are the draw.
Also like RedBook, reviews use 10-point rating scales, but only for two categories. There’s “Looks,” ranging from “she was one in a million” to “I was really scared,” and there’s “Performance,” which can be rated from “it was one in a million” to “a total rip-off.” Reviews must describe encounters within the past three months and must offer “juicy” details.
As described on the site:
The Juicy Details section should be used to describe the provider, the experience, and whether or not you enjoyed the session in graphic emotional and sexual terms. Don’t make this space a recap of the General section. Instead, go for a blow-by-blow tell-all of your session with the provider from your own unique point of view.
These “Juicy Details” are a key aspect of the site used to justify the cost of a VIP membership, and thus, the site’s revenue stream. In fact, according to multiple interviews with sex workers who have used TER, reviews are often rejected by editors for not being salacious or detailed enough. As you’d expect, this focus on “blow-by-blow tell-all” leads to heavily embellished tales.
Mariposa recalls a date with a client who’d recently hurt his back. Despite being barely able to move, he wanted to keep his appointment, and so after Mariposa slowly brought him over to the bed, they had a very gentle session. “You can’t be bouncing up and down with your back broken,” she says. But when she read the date review, she couldn’t stop laughing.
“He didn’t write about how we had a lovely, intimate time,” she says. “It had to be, ‘I had her bent over. My balls were slapping everything.’ What do they call it, locker-room talk?”
TER’s FAQ section maintains that reviews are verified for authenticity, where the reviewer bears “the burden of proof.” Based on interviews with nearly a dozen workers, system checks are lax enough that a sub-industry of fake reviews has sprouted. For a fee, workers can purchase 10/10 ratings for themselves, or more insidiously, pay to take down their competitors. “You can go to a review-writing service and say, ‘I want to buy three negative reviews for so-and-so,’” says Mariposa. “You think they’re going to turn down your $175? What do they care?”
More commonly, according to workers, clients are too busy or uninterested to write reviews, so they let workers write their own. This is positive for workers; they can control how they’re perceived, but there’s an opportunity cost to spending unpaid hours writing copy hoping it will attract future clients.
There are other, more dangerous ramifications for workers reviewed on websites like TER. Whereas negative Yelp reviews may get a restaurant worker a stern talking-to from their boss, a sex worker has no real advocate other than themselves. Workers can contact TER about reviews and theoretically have them removed, but according to workers, such complaints are rarely heard or acted upon. “This company does not care about what happens to [workers],” says St. Clair. This has given TER’s reviewers — that is, the customer class — overwhelming power over the industry.
“TER’s purpose was always to push the standards of what the industry should be,” says Mariposa.
One shift in standards has reviewers dictating rates for services. This can work through a kind of rumor-based osmosis (St. Clair offers the example of a reviewer falsely claiming to have paid $150 for a service that a worker actually charges $200 for, then another worker, lurking on TER, reacting to that falsified price by adjusting their own), or it can be through a concerted effort by organized reviewers to fix prices. “There’s talk on the forums about trying to enforce lower prices by refusing to see certain women,” says St. Clair, “or by trying to make women feel guilty or bad by charging as much as they do.”
This pressure can get workers, particularly those new to the industry, to lower their prices enough that the income no longer sustains them. “The new workforce doesn’t know what to charge, so they’re chronically undercharging, and they can’t support themselves with these low rates,” says Doogan. “The turnover is higher than in the past.” But as workers accrue experience, they often learn that pricing is truly their decision.
“There was a point where I wanted to stop offering anal, so I marked it up, and people still absolutely paid,” says Mariposa, who then marked the service up again. “Guess what? They paid.”
The logical question to Mariposa’s price change is, well, if you really wanted to stop offering a service like anal intercourse, why mark it up? Why not simply refuse to offer the service? The answer? Dual pressure from customers.
First is pressure from “hobbyist” reviewers. “There were gangs of customers on RedBook who’d review a girl and falsely say she provided these services for low rates,” says Doogan. “So, the girl’s getting customers expecting these services and putting her in a bad position. That’s customers using technology over a divorced workforce to get them to provide services they don’t provide.” The second level of pressure comes from the system itself.
In December 2016, TER made a seemingly subtle change to its review system. Previously, a reviewer could score a worker anywhere between 1 and 10 in the “Looks” and “Performance” categories. But after the change, workers could only earn up to a 7 out of 10, unless they were “willing to perform one or some of the following during a session.” (With each new offering, the worker’s max score increases by one point.)
“There was no announcement, no one’s opinion was taken into account,” says St. Clair. “It just happened, and we all had to adapt.”
The four situations that allow for additional points: A “bareback blowjob” (that is, oral sex without a condom), kissing with tongue, anal intercourse, and “really bi,” which means having sex with “more than one guy.” Keep in mind, it’s irrelevant if the client wants, requests, or participates in any of these acts. If the worker doesn’t offer these services, during the review approval process, TER can lower the points of, or outright reject, the review.
The implications of the new system are obviously biased against workers. A worker who doesn’t want to participate in anal sex is now compelled to in order to score a better review. Same for a worker who doesn’t feel safe with having sex with two men at once. The change in the system also exacerbates one of the ever-present dangers of the industry: the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
“After the AIDS scare, most people use condoms for everything,” says Mariposa. “But now TER comes around and says, ‘Girls do bareback blowjobs.’ Well, now bareback blowjobs are the new standard.”
But this time, some workers fought back.
* * *
The first time Vanessa read a review of her date with a client, she felt embarrassed and ashamed.
“Not because of what I do, but because of how it’s so public and so graphic,” she says. “It was really an invasion of my privacy.”
But Vanessa, like many other workers, felt it was just part of the business. She played the review game. It was a way to feel legitimate, despite how it eroded her own power in the workplace. “Your typical TER member is like, ‘If you do this for this amount I’ll give you a really good review,’ which is really saying, ‘If you don’t, I’m giving you a shitty review,’” says Vanessa. “Everyone knows how to read between those lines.”
The first time Vanessa read a review of her date with a client, she felt embarrassed and ashamed. “Not because of what I do, but because of how it’s so public and so graphic,” she says. “It was really an invasion of my privacy.
Now and then she’d have bad experiences with TER. Like the U.K. client who gave her a 5-6 review (“5” for Looks, “6” for Performance) and said she was 90 pounds overweight. She fought that one, proving her looks to some faceless TER rep by jumping through their hoops, including taking photos in the same clothes that she donned on her personal site, while holding up hostage-like notes with the date, time, and “TER” scrawled on them. After all that, they took down the review.
Ironically, it was a relatively innocent review — her 36th, she recalls, where she received a 10/9 — that led to her leadership role in a burgeoning movement of sex workers choosing to leave TER for good.
“This guy said we did anal and he came on my face, all this bullshit that didn’t happen,” Vanessa says. “It was a great review, but none of the services I provide.” But the bigger headache was how this fake review caused friction with a longtime regular. He had wanted to book time with her, and she told him, truthfully, that she was out of town and unavailable. However, this false review suggested she was actually in town with another client at the requested time, so her longtime client felt that she was lying to him.
“It sounds immature and silly, but I have special relationships with [clients],” she says. “They want to think I’m not seeing anyone else, and that’s how I communicate with them. It’s part of the fantasy.”
To stem this, Vanessa contacted TER to tell them it was a false review. They contacted the reviewer, who doubled down on his claim that they’d met at a hotel. Vanessa asked TER to have the reviewer send a copy of their email correspondence, or anything else to prove that they’d met. The reviewer refused, citing privacy reasons. TER ultimately decided to keep the review up.
This did not please Vanessa.
“You’re not holding me hostage,” she says she told them. “You’re not my pimp, you’re not my manager!”
Vanessa went to her TER profile, copied the reviews, and pasted them on her own website. She began posting about the incident on her personal Twitter account, along with a call for other workers to copy and paste their own reviews as well. Shortly thereafter, she received a letter from TER’s attorney threatening to sue for copyright infringement. But it was something else in the letter that irked Vanessa.
“That letter was cc’d to my legal name and to an old address I was living at previous,” says Vanessa, who read these actions as threats. “They threatened to expose my legal name on the internet if I didn’t stop talking about them on social media.”
Vanessa questioned the legalities of TER’s business, musing about whether this attorney knew the amount of taxes TER paid, openly suggesting that if he didn’t maybe the IRS might. She followed these inquiries with a request for TER to remove all of her information from their website.
“Everything was gone within 24 hours,” she says.
This was Vanessa’s opening salvo against the web giant. In March 2016, she started the Twitter account @FCK_TER_, which, according to its bio, is “exposing exploitation, cyberpimping, bullying, harassment, & profiteering of sexworkers by the establishment racket known as TER.” The feed is a mix of commentary about the industry, warnings about dangerous clients, mocking quips about disgusting reviewers (known in industry parlance as “slobbyists”), and retweets from workers who are interested in or have removed their listing from TER.
There’s even a hashtag: #delisted.
While the @FCK_TER_ account currently has a relatively modest follower count around 3,600, Vanessa says that, based on her active direct messages, that number is nothing compared to those who read her feed. Often, workers will contact her privately with questions about delisting, mostly asking how to do it. Workers say TER won’t simply remove accounts upon request, using the excuse that published reviews exist for the public good. To counter that argument, Vanessa suggests legally worded threats or posting private client information, actions that seem to get TER to expedite the deletion process.
Vanessa’s DMs aren’t just about logistical concerns, but also jammed by emotional workers worried that delisting will kill their business. “Will this hurt my business? Where else should I advertise? How did you do it without TER?” she says. “It’s a whole slew of things.”
Scarlett St. Clair shared these reservations. “This is my full-time income,” she says. She spent months asking other women for tips on how to leave, trying to estimate how her business would be negatively affected if she decided to go. “There’s a lot of men who want to keep [TER] alive,” says St. Clair. “They say things like, ‘If she doesn’t have reviews she’s not legit, she’s gonna steal your money.’” Ultimately, it was an experience with a prospective client who boasted about being a “Top 50 TER reviewer” that shifted the fuzzy stressors into focus. “I don’t know them, they don’t know me, and they want to control my reputation in this industry?” she says. “I really enjoy my job and look forward to seeing clients, and this was preventing me from doing that.”
She says that she “essentially threatened legal action,” and her TER listing was removed in October 2017. “Provider information is no longer available on TER,” reads the page for her locked account.
“My dream is for TER to disappear and not have them control the careers of young women who are vulnerable,” says St. Clair. “There’s that saying, and I know I’m going to get it wrong: ‘If I see far, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.’ That’s how I feel about the women of Twitter and providers online who have been a huge support.”
In fact, Twitter has become an important resource for workers educating themselves on their industry. @FCK_TER_ is merely one account devoted to recovering worker power. @FCK_ECCIE takes on a similar review forum, while @FCKP411 exposes the “exorbitant ad prices” of Preferred411.com. Laura Cohen (@ProviderSafety), a “retired escort” and “deep background screening specialist,” runs one of dozens of accounts that share tips on how workers can stay safe in this profession. Combined, their retweets, responses, and private back-and-forths compose an expanding network where workers can organize and reclaim power from client-driven websites.
“It’s snowballed,” says Vanessa. “Twitter is becoming a huge platform for sex workers.”
Twitter also doubles as a return to the era when workers wrote their own ad copy. The social media platform’s lax content restrictions allow workers the same self-determined censorship they have on their personal websites, while giving potential clients a glimpse at another selling point: their unique personalities. “It’s a wonderful resource to watch conversations, to be kind of a voyeur,” says St. Clair. “To watch these interactions and see if this is someone you want to spend time with.”
But not everyone’s buying Twitter as the savior. For some, it’s another symptom of the tech-driven work-hour creep that’s infected nearly all of employment. “It’s a waste of our unpaid labor,” says Doogan. “There’s the expectation that you have to spend unpaid time talking on Twitter to turn a prospective customer into a paying one.” Similarly the act of delisting from TER isn’t a reality for many workers who are active on the platform. “There’s a level of privilege to talk about [in delisting],” says Mariposa. “A person who gets 100 percent of their business from TER? They can’t afford that.”
Perhaps more blatantly problematic is that relying on Twitter as panacea ignores the lessons from the long history of American law enforcement’s continual and relentless clampdown on sex worker advertising, as proven by recent events.
In April 2018, President Trump signed into law FOSTA/SESTA, a bill that seeks to “clarify” the Communications Act of 1934 in a way that many sex workers believe will have a chilling effect on their ability to communicate with one another about dangerous clients. These worries have proven accurate mere weeks after the law’s passage, with many of the largest tech platforms preemptively shutting down certain elements of their sites, if not their entire operations. Most recently, those signing into Backpage.com, the popular ad-listings website, were met with a notice that the domain “has been seized” by an alphabet soup of government enforcement agencies.
No one knows how far this attempt to blockade sex workers from tech will go. But if workers are ultimately forced off even places like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and yes, Twitter, well, what’s left besides simply going back out onto the streets?
* * *
“This is a very simple concept that requires very little start-up capital, relatively little in the way of operating expenses, and will turn a profit because the concept will be embraced,” reads a boldly worded 2012 blog post by Amanda Brooks, author of The Internet Escort’s Handbook.
The post detailed a simple website that eschews the popular review-based model for one that embraces the basics. “Verification without incrimination,” writes Brooks in the post, before describing simple ways to develop a system that would allow workers to prove who they are without publicly outing themselves, while incentivizing clients to prove they’re not law enforcement, to show up for appointments clean, and to be safe on dates. Meanwhile, the problems that have previously plagued websites would be inoculated its bare-bones construction: no forums, no private messages, no reviews, no membership fees, and no explicit photos or details of the services provided.
Rather than retelling “juicy” details, a date would complete a questionnaire of simple yes-or-no questions, for example, “Did they arrive on time?” and “Would you recommend them to another person?”. A “yes” to all questions by both parties, and they’re both verified. The website would then keep a public running tally of positive and negative verifications, to be viewed by clients and workers before deciding to see someone.
“Can’t wait for someone to run with this idea,” Brooks closed her post.
“I was in my pj’s lounging when I read Amanda’s blog post,” writes Ella, owner of The Verification Guide, to me in a chat message. “I went, ‘Well, that’s fucking brilliant’ and got to work.”
Ella had spent the previous decade as a sex worker based in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. During that time, she listed her services in the usual client-driven alphabet soup that workers are forced onto. “P411, ECCIE, TER, TOB, BestGFE, Slixa, you name it,” she writes. “Oh, TRB before it was raided.”
She remembers the 2009 murder of Julissa Brisman, a 26-year-old model and internet masseuse who answered an ad on Craigslist and was shot dead in a Boston hotel room. Even with all of those systems out there, “we had nothing reliable,” she writes.
But with Brooks’s brainstorm, Ella found a blueprint that she felt could deliver. “I can’t call TVG my idea,” she writes. “We used that framework as a core foundation for our site and branched out from there.”
Despite the site’s simplistic design, Ella quickly hit a major roadblock. After months of design work, her first developer, a close friend, was struck and seriously injured by a car. “I had to start all over again with someone new, which set me back pretty significantly,” she writes. But finally, after the plodding process of redoing much of the work, the Verification Guide launched in February 2017.
“We are coming up on 1,000 users, and I’m beaming with pride,” she writes.
One worker who bought into the new possibility is Missy Mariposa, whose ads now blanket the site. “I wanted to pay their server bills,” she says. “I love the site. I would love nothing else than for it to get traffic.” For Mariposa, it’s a chance for a website that stabilizes the power dynamic between client and worker.
She walked me through a beta test that Ella conducted to counter one of the most common problems with online verification: the client falsely claiming a date had occurred. After Mariposa and a friend input their information in the system, Ella contacted the “client.” In her review, Ella asked them for a parking receipt, or a receipt for anything purchased on the same block, or an ATM receipt with the private information blurred out — anything at all to verify the story. “Guys who got ripped off wouldn’t have a problem with that,” Mariposa says. “They’d say, ‘Fuck yeah, here’s my receipt.’”
While this level of worker protection seems simple — even obvious — it’s an important ideological shift from the pure market-based approach of Eros and the customer-is-always-right ethos of TER and other review sites. Yet despite that focus, TVG has an uphill battle to relevancy; it will only be as useful as the number of clients and workers that buy into it. Like any industry shift, that necessitates disrupting strongholds that currently control the trade.
All of the above, of course, doesn’t even consider how the passage of FOSTA/SESTA has disrupted how workers communicate with one another and with their clientele.
Since I began reporting this piece, TER has blocked access from U.S. addresses until “such time as the courts have enjoined enforcement of the law, the law has been repealed or amended, or TER has found a way to sufficiently address any legal concerns created by the new law.” The response to this news has been predictably mixed, with the anti-TER contingent full of gloating glee, while those relying on it for business have promoted work-arounds and struggled with what to do next. As Christina Parriera, a sex worker in Nevada, summed up: “No ability to screen = coming into contact with dangerous clients. Predators. = Rape. Assault. Murder.”
Meanwhile, TVG’s site has also been taken down, although Ella assures me they’re “making big changes to protect ourselves as well as our members, but we will not being going anywhere.” She tells me that they’ll be moving to a new site called Have We Met?, which will function in much the same way as the original TVG, but now, because of FOSTA/SESTA, only accessible to those who register. It’s a big change.
“In reality, having aspects of the site public will still put our members at risk of being easily found and having their ads misconstrued by overzealous law enforcement,” Ella writes. “The goal in this situation is to not be the low-hanging fruit.”
Sex workers, as always, move forward into the murky ether of constantly shifting laws, hoping that this time they’ll claim more control than they had before. One new development has been the creation of Switter by a collective of sex workers, which anticipates a crackdown on Twitter by developing a “sex work–friendly alternative to mainstream social media.” To remain active in the United States, they’ve set servers up in Australia, where sex work is legal, and developed their system using “a decentralized, open-source network.” It attracted 20,000 members in less than two weeks of operation.
But even that seems like fighting for scraps against the forever game of U.S. taxpayer–funded whack-a-mole.
With each site’s closure in this latest generation of communication crackdown, sex workers, already unprotected as a workforce, will be left further vulnerable to dangerous clients as they wait for the next online portal to fill the current power vacuum. And if the internet’s long relationship with sex workers is any indication of the future, there’s no reason to expect that the next dominant website, whatever it may be, will have that class’ best interests in mind.
“There would be no market for such a shoddy online platform as Backpage was if sex work wasn’t a crime. No one need defend that,” the journalist, Melissa Gira Grant, wrote in response to Backpage.com’s seizure. “There are no martyrs here, just increasingly poorer sex workers.”
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Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not. He lives in Berkeley, is a White Sox fan, and is working on his second novel. He can be found at rickpaulas.com.
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Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Ethan Chiel
Illustrator: Erin McCluskey
Copy editor: Jacob Gross