The contemporary sex industry rapidly transformed as a consequence of two technological innovations: the cell phone and the internet. Although the cell phone provided sex workers the opportunity to work independently, it was the inception of the internet which sparked a sharp rise in the number of independent sex workers. Prior to the internet, sex workers who worked independently advertised in newspapers in order to find clients; however, newspaper advertising fees were oftentimes so high that few sex workers could afford them and still maintain a decent profit. With the inception of the internet, advertising became more reasonable and many sex workers began opting to work independently.
Self-employment empowered sex workers to work from home, be their own boss, and choose their own rates/time schedule – all without sharing their income with a middleman. The internet also had advantages for clients. Prior to the internet, clients visited sex workers via massage parlors, street sex workers, and/or escort agencies. Because massage parlors were storefront businesses, many clients found them indiscreet. Visiting a street sex worker was also indiscreet and, oftentimes, carried the risk of arrest and/or stigma. Escort agencies were more discreet, because they sent a sex worker to a hotel or a residence; however, sometimes, the sex worker sent over was not as she had been advertised.
When the sex industry shifted to the online world, new websites appeared which became known as escort review boards. These were consumer-sourced websites wherein clients could review their experiences with sex workers, similar to the review site known as Yelp. At first, review boards had many advantages for sex workers. Not only was there the opportunity to advertise directly to clients but, on some review boards, there were also private forums where sex workers could share bad date information. For clients, escort review boards were an information-sharing database which allowed them to research a sex worker before an engagement, thus reducing the risk of a bad experience. At first, escort review boards bestowed choice and accountability and set the sex industry on a course towards legitimization as a real profession.
In this new milieu, a sex worker’s reviews were her advertising cornerstone. A positive review increased a sex worker’s business whereas a negative review resulted in a fiscal setback. Because reviews were written by previous clients, they were trusted sources which demonstrated what a client could expect during an engagement. As more and more clients relied upon reviews, escort review boards became further entrenched in the sex industry.
Yet, over time, what began as a forum for client endorsements via positive reviews, soon became a forum for client expectations. Seeing themselves as authorities on sex workers, some clients began pressuring for specific services to be included in an engagement in order for a sex worker to secure a positive review. Clients wanted a more real and personable experience, which became known in the industry as the “girlfriend experience.” Although the initial definition of the girlfriend experience was a more natural and intimate atmosphere, it soon became an expectation for higher risk services, oftentimes, without the use of protection.
The first expectation was that sex workers should kiss and offer oral sex without a dental dam. Some clients had even higher service expectations and demanded that a blowjob be performed without a condom. Client demands for higher risk services was bolstered by some review boards who rigged their ratings criteria to coerce sex workers into offering these services. On one well-known escort review board, The Erotic Review, sex workers could only be given a basic rating (7/10) unless she offered higher risk services. The implication was clear: being safe in the sex industry was becoming a demerit.
At the same time, with the proliferation of the internet, there was an influx of independent sex workers which made the industry more competitive. Through advertisements, personal websites, and eventually through social media, sex workers incorporated aspects of their personality in order to stand out from the crowd. Following the expectations of clients on review boards, who wanted real and intimate services, many sex workers began offering some of the higher risk services in the girlfriend experience. At first, this included kissing and uncovered cunnilingus.
When clients on review boards praised sex workers who offered higher risk services, it influenced other sex workers to also offer them. Because many sex workers worked independently, they lost the advantage of having heart-to-heart discussions with long-term sex workers who would have warned nascent sex workers that engaging in higher risk services was a slippery slope: the more services that clients received, the more higher risk services that they would demand in future. But, because nascent sex workers often got their information from online sources such as review boards, which solely favored the perspective of clients, they were socialized into thinking that sex workers should offer these services. As such, within a few years, the higher risk services in the girlfriend experience became the norm in the sex industry.
At the same time, when the setting of the engagement shifted to a sex worker’s home, it lent an authenticity to the engagement which sparked demand that relations between clients and sex workers had to be real. As clients expressed their preference for a “real connection”, sex workers responded by advertising that they, too, were seeking a genuine connection with their clients. No longer could sex work be a service; now, everything in the sex industry had to be real. As such, sex workers were expected to tell clients that they had chosen sex work for reasons other than fiscal expedience. Now, the choice of being a sex worker had to be a lifelong passion.
As the years went on, and review boards became even further entrenched in the industry, there were increased demands from clients. No longer was kissing and uncovered cunnilingus enough for clients; now, they wanted condomless blowjobs to be included in the girlfriend experience. On review boards, many clients stipulated that not offering this service was a “dealbreaker” such that many clients would not consider visiting a sex worker who did not offer condomless blowjobs. At the same time on review boards, sex workers who used dental dams and/or condoms for oral received negative reviews; oftentimes, being berated as “restrictive” and/or “dispassionate about sex work.”
Because review boards empowered clients to critique sex workers who did not act in accordance with their expectations, it influenced the perspectives of other clients as well as sex workers who wished to be successful. As such, condomless blowjobs have now become the norm throughout much of the sex industry. However, for some clients, this is still not enough. Some clients expect that sex workers should swallow cum and some review boards are further rigging their ratings criteria so that sex workers will offer anal sex as part of their service offerings. Recently the review board known as The Erotic Review, changed its review stipulations to state that in order for sex workers to achieve the highest scores, then they must offer a larger service menu which must be offered to the client during the engagement. There is no flexibility for a sex worker to refuse service for a client’s poor hygiene. Instead, the mentality is simply: do all of the services or suffer the repercussions of a negative review.
The contemporary sex industry has now become a milieu of pressuring from a segment of clients for more and more services. This segment of clients exploits the one-sided nature of review boards to compel sex workers to offer higher risk services which favor them. Although some sex workers may enjoy offering higher risk services, many others do not. In truth, I know many sex workers who currently offer higher risk services – not from a sense of choice – but because they feel pressured into it from clients. Remember: if a sex worker offers only safer sexual services, then she runs the risk of being berated online and/or receiving a negative review which will impact her economic livelihood.
And yet, all the while, sex workers state in their advertisements that sex work is a choice. A passion. But, the truth of the sex industry is more nuanced. Sex workers understand that their number one job in securing clients is to assuage their guilt in visiting a sex worker such that they write in their advertisements that the job is empowering. Because sex workers’ incomes are tied to their image, sex workers are compelled to keep up appearances by presenting a positive image of the sex industry in order to generate business. But, just as image defines sex workers, it also controls them by the expectations that their image confers. By projecting the empowering image that clients want to see, sex workers have made it difficult to speak truth to power and discuss the real issues facing the industry. Instead, the contemporary sex industry has become a milieu wherein sex workers are compelled to project the image of empowerment at the same time that their right to a safe work environment has been taken away by a segment of their own clients.
The internet brought many advantages to the sex industry: legitimization, accountability, consumer choice, and self-employment opportunities. But, it also brought many disadvantages. The rise of review boards resulted in the obsolescence of safer sexual practices which has not only put sex workers at increased health risk but it has also diminished choice within the consensual sex industry. And, all the while, sex workers rarely speak about their working conditions.
But, by hiding the truth of the sex industry, sex workers are shielding clients from the true costs of their demands. They are taking upon all of the risk while clients are getting away conscience-free.