Escort review boards are a contentious issue in the sex industry. Some sex workers find them a useful marketing tool whereas others find them an annoyance; sometimes, even controlling. Regardless of how individual sex workers feel about review boards, we can agree that if reviews are to be written then they must uphold the dignity of sex workers.
Personally, I have never been a fan of reviews, even reviews which are positive in nature, because they take something which is special between two people and diminish it through indiscriminate public consumption. Furthermore, I must ask: is it possible to review a human being without objectification? Perhaps, perhaps not. When sex workers are reviewed like commodities, there is the potential that some clients will internalize this construct and begin viewing sex workers as commodities, thus making the personal now impersonal. If this depersonalization becomes normalized, it can affect the behaviour of clients and, consequently, the experiences of sex workers.
In truth, review boards began with positive intentions. They aspired to improve the industry by promoting quality sex workers and exposing sex workers who treated clients with disrespect. They established a community wherein gentlemen could partake in the industry free from the threat of being ripped off or, in the worst case scenario, being a victim of theft and/or violence. Yet, what began as information sharing soon became, for some clients, a slippery slope. There was a segment of clients whose motivation for writing reviews became less about participation in the community and were, instead, more self-serving. Some clients began to like the attention garnered from their reviews, the ego rush of praise, and the notoriety of distinguishing themselves as connoisseurs. This segment of clients often self-identify under the term “hobbyist.”
Although some might argue that the term hobbyist is innocuous, I disagree. The term implies that experiences with sex workers are things to collect, thus reinforcing a power imbalance in which clients are specialists and sex workers are commodities. Furthermore, in human society, nomenclature matters. How someone labels something also affects how they treat something. For example, clients would not visit sex workers who refer to their clients as “tricks” because they understand that sex workers who incorporate disparaging labels would not treat them with the dignity they deserve. In sum, language informs behaviour. In my opinion, the term hobbyist is problematic because it reinforces a gamelike atmosphere in the sex industry. And, when some clients speak about the sex industry as though it is a game, then there is the potential that some clients will also treat it like a game.
Some clients crave attention in the online world. As they generate more and more reviews, there is pressing need to stand-out, to have more eyeballs on their reviews, and more comments from their peers. As such, the behaviour of some clients becomes more provocative. For example, some clients become crasser in their sexual descriptions; some clients incorporate disparaging humour towards sex workers; some clients establish outlandish goals to be noticed, i.e. desiring to review fifty girls within a short period of time; and, sadly, some clients make a literal game of their engagements with sex workers, i.e. having an Elimidate game night in which sex workers compete against one another to win an all-night session with a client. It would seem that, for some hobbyists, the attention garnered from a virtual review has become more satisfying than the human experience. This obsession for virtual praise, not only commodifies sex workers but it also reduces their dignity.
Now, I am sure that many clients would counter that hobbyists are not representative of the majority. Although that is true, their influence on the industry has been insurmountable. Review boards are public social entities, which have the power to influence client behaviour. Because of the culture of free expression on the internet, provocative actions by hobbyists often go unchallenged, thus shifting the limits of “acceptable” behaviour in the sex industry. Although these shifts begin slowly, over time, the jokes, the disrespectful tone, and inappropriate comments by a few hobbyists, embolden other clients to follow suit. Just as language informs behaviour so, too, does the culture of review boards. The jokes become edgier, the tone becomes more negative, and respect decreases. As the commodifying tone perpetuates, it has the potential to influence how some clients treat sex workers during their engagements. Again, it bears repeating: talk about something like a game, then there is the potential that some will treat it like a game.
But, in truth, it would be unfair to solely criticize hobbyists. Their actions do not occur within a bubble; instead, they are within the public realm. As such, they are potentially influenced, nurtured, and enabled by the actions of other clients. In the online world, whenever you click something, “like” something on Facebook, or retweet something on Twitter, you are associating yourself with the message and contributing to the culture. Review boards are no different. As clients click and comment on provocative and/or disrespectful reviews, they normalize them, further enabling some clients to treat the sex industry as though it is a game. Because the impersonal medium of the internet distances clients from the consequences of their actions, it is sex workers who bear the brunt of this often gamelike atmosphere. Sex workers who are working to feed their children or to pay their way through school. Sex workers who are real people and deserve respect. To them, the sex industry is not fun and games. It is their economic livelihood.
And then, of course, there are issues of deliberate malice: fake comments and/or fake reviews. Negative comments, whether true or untrue, affect the perceptions of other clients and negatively impact the income of sex workers. Now, some clients might argue that they can see beyond the negativity of a casual comment, but I disagree. Although we assume, as independent thinkers, that we are above being socially influenced, we are not. Everyone is influenced by information in the public realm, which is why, for example, negative political advertising works so well. Furthermore, there have been sociological studies regarding the effects of online negative comments, for example in online newspapers. According to studies, people who read the negative comments in online articles have a lower quality perception of an article than those who do not read the comments. In sum, negative criticism, more often than not, shapes people’s perceptions in a negative fashion. It is the same on escort review boards. And, the sad part about it is that, oftentimes, these negative comments are not even true. As such, the trauma and fiscal consequences upon individual sex workers affected by cyberbullying cannot be understated. In fact, as an industry, we do not speak up enough on this issue enough. This needs to change.
Furthermore, I would be remiss if I did not mention the potential coerciveness of review boards. Over my years in the industry, I have witnessed the direct relationship between the rise of review boards and the obsolescence of safer sexual practices. In many reviews, sex workers who do not offer an extensive menu are often labeled as “restrictive.” More often than not, this label prompts online criticism such that a sex worker may feel compelled to shift his or her restrictions to avoid online censure. On some review boards, most notably The Erotic Review, the pressure to engage in higher-risk services are written into the board’s ratings structure such that a sex worker can only be given a basic rating unless he or she offers higher-risk services. In practical terms, this makes engaging in safer sexual services a demerit. Because many clients rely on a high ratings score when selecting a sex worker, there is the potential that some sex workers will offer services which are outside their comfort level. In truth, I know many sex workers who engage in higher-risk services, such as bareback blowjobs, because they fear the fiscal repercussions of a negative review. For them, it is not a choice.
Lastly, it is important to remember that review boards are within the public realm. They can be seen by anyone and everyone. This is crucial to consider because, in recent years, the sex industry has received renewed focus from sex industry advocates pressing for decriminalization of the industry, and anti-sex work groups pressing for criminalization. In 2014, when Canada held parliamentary committee hearings regarding sex work laws, anti-sex work groups read aloud commentary from real clients on review boards to demonstrate how disparagingly some clients viewed sex workers. Not surprisingly, the commentary was from disrespectful hobbyists and confirmed the worst stereotypes in the industry. The moment the commentary was read, the committee room was aghast. Instantly, the words of disrespectful clients dismantled years of hard work by sex work advocates to shift societal perceptions.
Clients often state that they do not wish to be painted with the same negative brush as hobbyists; yet, they rarely stand up to them online. Some clients ignore the negativity of hobbyists whereas others leave review boards completely. In truth, neither of these actions advance improvement of the sex industry. With little opposition, hobbyists become further emboldened, which negatively impacts the experiences of sex workers. Moreover, by not standing up to disrespectful clients, they allow the disparaging voices of hobbyists to be the public face of clients at a time when anti-sex work groups are seeking to use our words against us.
Because review boards affect both the private interactions between clients and sex workers as well as the public perception of the sex industry, mutual respect is essential. Oftentimes this is not the case. Oftentimes we allow the industry to be controlled and defined by hobbyists.
As such, we allow the stereotypes of the sex industry to persist.