The inception of the internet was a self-employment and consumer triumph and nowhere more than in the sex industry. Prior to the internet, sex workers labored under the (oftentimes) controlling influence of managers/owners. But now, sex workers could advertise their services directly to consumers. Self-employment empowered sex workers to work from home, be their own boss, and choose their rates/time schedule – all without sharing their income with a middleman.
There were also advantages for clients. Prior to the internet, clients visited sex workers via massage parlors, street sex workers, or escort agencies. Because massage parlors were storefront businesses, many clients found them indiscreet. The public nature of street sex work carried the risk of arrest and/or stigma. Although escort agencies were more discreet, sometimes, the sex worker sent over was not as advertised.
With the adoption of escort review boards, the sex industry transformed. At first, review boards had many advantages. They created an industry community which bridged the stigma and isolation of being a client or a sex worker. For sex workers, not only could they advertise on review boards, but there were also private forums on some boards where they could share bad date information. For clients, researching the reviews of a sex worker allowed them to partake in the industry free from the threat of being ripped off and/or a victim of theft/violence. At first, online information sharing bestowed choice and accountability which set the sex industry on a course towards legitimization as a real profession.
In the online sex industry, a sex worker’s reviews were her advertising cornerstone. Because they were written by other clients, they were trusted sources. A positive review increased a sex worker’s business whereas a negative review resulted in a fiscal setback. However, over time, what began as a forum for consumer feedback soon became a forum for consumer expectations. Seeing themselves as “authorities” on sex workers, some clients pressured for specific services to be included in order for a sex worker to secure a positive review. Many clients demanded more intimacy which became known in the industry as the girlfriend experience. Although clients stated that the girlfriend experience was about a natural relationship with sex workers, its main definition became the expectation of higher risk services.
With the proliferation of the internet, it became easier for sex workers to enter the marketplace. An influx of independent sex workers made the industry more competitive such that there was pressing need to stand out. Following the expectations of clients on review boards, some sex workers began offering the girlfriend experience. As sex workers who offered the girlfriend experience were praised in their reviews, it influenced other sex workers to also offer it. Some review boards, most notably The Erotic Review, rigged the sex industry in clients’ favor by stipulating that higher risk services be included in an engagement in order for a sex worker to achieve a high ratings score. Within a short period of time, the girlfriend experience became the norm in the sex industry.
At the same time, as independent sex workers became more common in the industry, the setting of the engagement shifted to a private home. This more natural setting lent a veneer of authenticity to the encounter which further blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. When clients expressed a preference for “real” engagements, sex workers responded by promoting their services as real, intimate experiences. They advertised that they, too, were seeking a genuine connection with 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, being a sex worker had to be a lifelong passion.
As the years went on, there were increased expectations for higher risk services. In the contemporary industry, bareback blowjobs have now become a “deal breaker” for many clients, regardless of the fact that it puts sex workers at increased health risk. And, for many clients, this is not enough. Now, many clients expect sex workers to swallow cum and offer anal sex in their engagements. Recently, The Erotic Review re-jigged its ratings structure to coerce sex workers to offer anal sex, lest they suffer the consequences of a less than stellar review. These demands for higher risk services, supported by the unrelenting threat of a negative review, have pressured many sex workers to engage in activities which are outside their comfort level.
Yet, all the while, clients believe 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 they are passionate about sex work and that their job is empowering. But, this is not the full story of the sex industry, and sex workers know it, too. Because sex workers’ incomes are tied to their image, they are compelled to keep up appearances by presenting a positive image of the sex industry 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, they have made it difficult to speak truth to power and discuss the real health issues facing contemporary sex workers. This has led to a culture of silence within the sex industry wherein many sex workers project the image of empowerment at the same time that their labor rights are being taken away by a segment of their own clients.
Although the internet allowed for accountability, consumer choice, and self-employment opportunities; it also brought many disadvantages.
The rise of review boards has 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 and consent within the consensual sex industry.