Technology and the Sex Industry

The role of technology in the sex industry is ever-growing. The internet is now the predominant source of advertising for sex workers, but it also provides a space for sex workers to share resources, access support, as well as to campaign and lobby on sex worker rights. Teela Sanders reported that 17 of her indoor sex worker sample of 55 used the internet to advertise in her work published in 2005. Nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find an independent indoor sex worker who did not use the internet for some aspect of her work. Advertising sites have thousands of sex workers advertising across the world.

Until recently there has been little research into the role of the internet and the sex industry, although it is difficult to research with sex workers without acknowledging the ways in which the internet is used. Last year I was fortunate to work as a research assistant on a project which looked into the working practices of sex work facilitated by the internet. This was funded by the Wellcome Trust, led by Teela Sanders and with National Ugly Mugs and Laura Connelly, University of Leeds. There is a Guardian article and a findings summary available for more information. As well as exploring the working conditions of internet sex workers the research demonstrated the sheer volume of sex workers using the internet and the centrality of technology in organising the sex industry. Following on from this, a research team, Beyond the Gaze, are now exploring the internet and sex work more broadly, looking at how technology has shaped the industry and how this fits with existing regulation of sex work in the UK. I am really looking forward to the results of this study, which should hopefully be published just as my research draws to a close, to see how closely they fit in with my own findings. By the way, if you want to take part in their research they are still looking for participants.

Until then, I thought I would share a few of my early findings to hopefully spark some discussion. I am still looking for participants and my sample size is intentionally small anyway, so these findings may not be generalised to the entire sex worker population, but I’m happy to hear any feedback whether you agree or disagree in your own experiences. All the participants so far in the research use the internet for their work. This has many functions, which I will outline here.

  • Firstly, the internet is used to advertise. All participants had Adultwork profiles as well as some having profiles on some more specialist sites depending on the service being offered or any specialism. There are some costs associated with advertising on these sites, but generally they are considered cheaper than the maintenance of their own website. Only two participants have their own website but both cite these as secondary to their profiles on other sites for the time being. Online profiles allow sex workers to advertise to a large audience of online users, rather than the old-fashioned method of advertising in the newspaper or using calling cards. One participant still advertises in the newspaper as well.
  • Through online advertising, and perhaps also through changing attitudes towards commercial sex, the participants in this study have also found that a broader range of ‘type’ of client are requesting services. Some of the participants have been able to track the changes in clientele since advertising online, although there is not always agreement in how each participant believes this to be the case. Some have also expressed an opinion on whether they prefer today’s clients to those ‘old-fashioned’ clients. (I am using their words to describe).
  • The internet has also paved the way for sex workers to offer a broader range of services, such as offering webcamming, videos and photos instead of or in addition to direct sex work. One participant started with non-contact services such as these before moving into sex work.
  • By advertising online, most of the participants hope to save time. Online profiles allow users to list the services offered and sex workers insist that clients read the profiles in full before calling. This should, in theory, mean that sex workers do not need to provide details each time a potential client calls.
  • Some participants dislike how they are expected to be available for more hours of the day now that technology allows them to be accessible as such. For example, many keep their phone on at all times in case the opportunity to earn more money arises. They also have their availability on Adultwork always displayed as on for the same reason. Others have said that they are more strict at only work during set times.
  • The sample in my research have indicated how the internet allows a certain level of protection as it enables them to screen clients. Most participants read the reviews a client has previously received before accepting a booking. Further, by asking that clients fully read their advertising profiles, they use their internet profiles as a method of checking that a client is respectful enough to have taken the time to understand the sex worker’s service on offer. By clearly stating what they will and won’t do on the internet, the sex worker is setting clear expectations for the client in order to avoid disappointment and potential trouble later on.
  • However, there are worries of the level of privacy afforded on the internet with many open-access websites. Two participants have had privacy and anonymity issues arise as a result of online advertising. Many of the online profiles I have viewed have cropped photos in order to omit the sex worker’s face or other identifiable characteristics, although it is difficult to protect your anonymity completely. This has implications for those working without family or friends knowing, or those who do not generally want to be publicly ‘out’ as a sex worker.

So there are many implications for all of this. Although my work doesn’t cover it at all, it is really interesting how much identity work goes into maintaining an online profile. There is a need to ‘compete‘ with other profiles to gain business, and this is often done by having more pictures, or more erotic pictures, or more information about yourself, or offering specific services to set yourself out from the other profiles. I use the term ‘compete’ loosely, I know that this isn’t necessarily a conscious effort on many people’s part. In fact, many of the participants in my research stated that it was important to only display the realities of your service and yourself, and what you are comfortable in offering, rather than entering in any direct competition with others. But having pictures, for example, has become an expectation, and this is fairly recent – previous forms of advertising did not require so much information being displayed – and this change is what is interesting in terms of how much information we are all expected  to display on the internet and how much we have become accustomed to this.

The Beyond the Gaze will look more in-depth on issues such as working practices, regulation and safety, and will hopefully pick up on some of this. My research focuses on the aspects concerning time and relationships with clients. In the rest of my interviews I will be looking at these ideas and testing them with future participants, to see whether their experiences differ at all or whether they have any further insights.

In particular, I am interested in how the internet and other communication technologies affect the amount of time sex workers’ have and how sex workers use these technologies to monitor and manage their own time. Also, I find it really interesting how we start to form relationships with clients through the internet and how technology is used to screen.


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