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Why There's No Uber for Sex Work

I talked to sex workers and advocates about why an app is not the solution to their problems.
Photo via Flickr user Ant Jackson

"Why isn't there an Uber for prostitution?" some men have asked on blogs lately, quoting other men.

The reason is simple, and too short to justify an entire article's worth of opinion on the internet (another service for which we don't yet have an Uber): because prostitution is—as of this writing, anyway—outlawed.

There's more to it than that. For one, none of these opinion-havers (at Forbes, Slate, and Reason, for instance) offer any indication they've asked the people who would power such apps why they don't yet exist.


Still, these writers are compelled by the allure of "Prostitution 3.0," a paradise of technologically sophisticated and legally regulated sex work proposed in a 2013 Iowa Law Review article by University of Colorado law professor Scott Peppet.

He wrote:

Empirical evidence from the economics and sociology of sex work shows that new, Internet-enabled, indoor forms of prostitution may be healthier, less violent, and more rewarding than traditional street prostitution. This Article argues that these existing "Prostitution 2.0" innovations have not yet improved sex markets sufficiently to warrant legalization. It suggests that creating a new "Prostitution 3.0" that solves the remaining problems of disease, violence, and coercion in prostitution markets is possible, but would require removing legal barriers to ongoing technological innovation in this context, such as state laws criminalizing technologies that "advance prostitution."

Peppet believes the problem with prostitution is that it's just not yet sufficiently disrupted by "innovation." Prostitution 3.0 is sold to readers as a seamless commercial sexual encounter made possible by advances in technology, but advances still limited by our messy reality, where the leading minds driving this change can barely even perceive the demands of the people who sell sex.

Prostitution 3.0 falls flat because the criminalization of sex workers is (still) primarily to blame for the poor conditions they may face. Study after study (including a new one released this past week in the UK) point to the harms inflicted on sex workers by laws that inhibit their ability to screen customers, work together, openly discuss their services, and prevent HIV exposure.


What harms Prostitution 3.0 invokes—"disease" and "trafficking"—aren't bugs in our present legal regime regulating commercial sex. They are its primary features.

Prostitution 3.0 is about customer service—not the lives of sex workers. This may also be why the man who proposed it and those who have written it up have declined to note that sex workers have also been calling for police to get out of the prostitution business, and have been demanding this for the past 40 years.

As bandied about on the blogs, then, Prostitution 3.0 is just another male fantasy. It hardly engages with current global debates around prostitution policy, or the realities of criminalization, or the notion that sex workers may also have demands. But that's not why it's a hot topic: That's because someone at Forbes tacked the word "Uber" onto the story.

"In any case, while legalizing prostitution may be a long way off for the US, allowing technology that makes it safer and less intertwined with criminal world seems would seem like a positive step forward" is a sentence that Forbes blogger Adam Ozimek wrote, without acknowledging that the more direct way to dissociate a behavior from criminal activity is to no longer outlaw that behavior.

Given the weakness of the legal rationale here, it should be no surprise that the concept of Prostitution 3.0 also ignores (as most app developers already do) what people who actually are involved in selling sexual entertainment and services might desire.


But last spring, I had the privilege of posing that very question to a panel of sex workers and advocates, convened at the conference Theorizing the Web. Better connecting with customers ranked low, if it ranked at all, in the panelists' priorities. Instead, they named the many ways existing online services discriminate against sex workers, censor their content, and contribute to their surveillance by law enforcement.

I checked back in with my panelists to see what they think about the idea of an Uber for sex work. Emma Caterine, advocate and co-author of the study "Criminal, Victim, or Worker?" tells me the real issue is access and police profiling.

"Most of the folks I work with are very low-income, and while most of them have smart phones—since that's disproportionately how people of color and poor people get internet access—they are generally much more cautious since it is usually them who get targeted for arrest," she says. Even if prostitution were to be decriminalized, police might still target these communities for surveillance and arrest. Mobile phones may be necessary for work, but they also bring risks apps can't solve so easily.

"They either know or have known people who have been arrested and in the processing had their phones searched, both legally and illegally," Caterine explains. "So a lot of them don't even like texting clients, let alone having an app that implicates them."


In addition to avoiding police surveillance, sex workers face interference that other people don't in putting apps to work—interference from tech companies themselves. One of my other panelists, Hawk Kinkaid, COO of and president of the nonprofit program HOOK for men in the sex industry, put it this way: "Apple has been a conservatively vigilant company making the very notion of an app serving responsible adults working as male (and female, trans, etc.) escorts in the business difficult to envision."

Even if selling sex were no longer criminalized, how are you going to get past an App Store that won't currently accept legal sexually explicit content? "This stigmatization inhibits possible app products that could communicate safety and education content," Kinkaid adds, "as well as other effective resources which explicitly serve adult industry workers."

Along with cops and corporations, sex workers also face discriminatory service from banks. Online payment processors charge much higher fees for accounts they deem "adult." Services that rely on payment processors—anyone who processes a credit card for you online—in turn refuse service to "adult" users, even those conducting legal business that is not the target of anti-prostitution policing. This discrimination is directed not just at commercial sex but at anything a sex worker might do online.

When I asked the CEO of WePay why his company shut down a porn performer's fundraiser for urgent medical needs, he blamed policies set by banks. If sex workers are going to rely on apps to obtain payment, those apps may just go the route of WePay and refuse their business. (On Tumblr, lists of such businesses circulate, along with the experiences of cam girls, porn performers, and other sex workers who have had their accounts shut down.)


Prostitution 3.0 doesn't account for this kind of discrimination by online banking services and social media—institutions on which sex workers increasingly rely.

One of the few groups not led by sex workers to raise these concerns is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Its guide for sex workers, authored by Nadia Kayyali, should sound familiar bells for anyone who works with human rights advocates. There is no magic app or perfect tool, only a set of practices sex workers can adopt to minimize harm and exposure. (These principles are also familiar to sex workers, who are among the early adopters of harm reduction—safer sex for safer sex work—as an occupational safety strategy.)

These tools and strategies don't take powers normally reserved for police and instead enshrine them in a piece of software. They put power directly in sex workers' hands.

Caterine did have a suggestion for such an app that could be of use in her community.

"Something like Zerobin: basically, a highly encrypted text communication version of Snapchat where messages automatically expire or saved info automatically deletes under certain conditions, i.e., typing in the wrong password, etc." Even with this app, clients could take advantage of the lack of a digital record, increasing some risks of coercion, but as Caterine points out, "That's certainly always going to be an issue in a system where people in the sex trades are too scared of getting arrested to report crimes or file lawsuits."

Of course, this sudden interest in decriminalization as a means by which to better erect technology in service of prostitution could end up putting developers in a mutually beneficial relationship with sex workers. But it likely won't. Not when the guy making the arguments—Professor Peppet—offers proposals like, "We could argue about the exact language that a state would use. But all you would be doing is saying: 'Look, if you're a pimp manipulating street walkers, we're still going to criminalize that behavior while allowing the technology company or a startup, who was creating a Web app, to do something without being prosecuted.'"

All this sounds like is the creation of a more on-brand brothel cleaned up for the data age, run for the benefit of men who would previously never associate with such a business.

Which is what "Prostitution 3.0" is really about, the most perennially " disruptive" thing of our era: a man selling his idea. It's a business, after all, just one that provides more value for him than it does to sex workers.

Follow Melissa Gira Grant on Twitter.