Since Amnesty International proposed the decriminalization of sex work, a global debate has ignited around regulation of the industry. The recent closure of Rentboy.com, which billed itself as the world's biggest male escort website, was seen by many as a blow to sex workers rights in America. In permissive and liberal Berlin, things look very different.
In August, WIRED, Techcrunch and pretty much every tech news outlet reported on the city-wide launch of Ohlala, an app that allows women to go on paid dates. While its founder Pia Poppenreiter doesn't mention the word 'prostitution', the 'Uber for escorts' comparison rose immediately. "
"The dates can be about just having dinner with someone," she told Broadly. "We don't know what actually happens once arrangements have been made either—both parties involved are expected to clear that up themselves."
A few months after its launch, the company boasts several thousands of members in Berlin alone and is planning to start operating in Munich and Frankfurt later this month. Besides its sleek design and Airbnb-like corporate identity, Poppenreiter claims her platform is one step ahead of its competitors, such as escorting websites like Mysugardaddy.
What sets Ohlala apart is its focus on anonymity. Unlike other similar platforms like Peppr—which was Poppenreiter's first venture—profiles cannot be accessed publicly. Poppenreiter's debut start-up was an online escorting service that allows sex workers to find gigs, providing clients with several filters to help them find the person that best fits their criteria.
On Ohlala, men need to register and place a date request first. After selecting their minimum hourly rate, women can browse through these dates, view men's profiles, and accept a booking. Both parties must mutually consent before initiating a chat, Tinder-style. For now, the app is strongly marketed towards men looking for female dates, but male escorts—straight or gay—will be able to register in the future.
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"A nice dinner, great wine and some music," a male user requests modestly. "A funny evening or wild sex," writes another. Although paying for sex is not supposed to be the only point of using Ohlala, most date descriptions include that word. One user description simply states, "Sex, sex, sex, sex."
Ohlala is not currently available as an app per se but rather as a mobile-friendly website. Poppenreiter says that she wants to establish the service in Germany before expanding internationally, though an English language version is in the works.
Obviously, safety is also a huge concern for the app. Currently, women are able to report suspicious users; Ohlala then notifies all women who have been in touch with them. Poppenreiter says she is planning on rolling out several additional features to improve the safety of women even more.
In Germany, sex workers have the option of suing their client if things go wrong. This is the result of the 2002 legislative reform, which legalized prostitution and allowed sex workers to obtain regular work contracts. Therefore, using Ohlala doesn't feel less safe than finding work another way. At least, that's what Sarah, a sex worker who uses the app and was a former Peppr user, told me. "I found out about Peppr by seeing a TV commercial, actually! When I heard that Pia was launching Ohlala, I signed up immediately."
"My first Ohlala date was actually incredible," she added. "The client should be the role model of anyone who is considering paying for sex. He sent me several pictures of himself and even one of his driver's license. He told me he was off to the ATM before we met and sent me a picture of the money on his coffee table. These are things I always have to request or argue about with other clients and this man took all the right initiatives. I was so happy!"
When she finally secured her very first date, the man in question did not manage to have an erection.
Traditional escort agencies may appear to offer better guarantees when it comes their employees' safety, but Sarah—like many German sex workers—would rather remain independent. Signing up to an app like Ohlala is an integral part of that. "I would never work with an agency," Sarah told me. "Actually, if I had to hand over part of what I earn to an agency, the whole thing wouldn't really feel self-determined anymore."
Hydra, the largest sex workers' union in Berlin, is unconvinced that Ohlala will shake up the industry. "All we can say is that most women are working very independently," a spokesperson said. "We don't really know what Ohlala changes for them."
So far, women who use Ohlala can be placed in two categories. The first one comprises of women like Sarah who are using Ohlala as a new or additional channel to find work. Then there are those who were not sex workers prior to registering on the app: Women like my friend, Emma.
For her, the app is a chance to make some extra cash and experience new thrills. Emma says that she read a lot about escorts as a teenager and a young adult, and she always kept the idea that she might give it a try one day in the back of her mind.
The massive media coverage of Ohlala's launch made the 20-something-year-old university graduate take the leap. "I work full time but still have a student loan to pay off," she said of signing up. "I have issues making ends meet most months and Ohlala seemed like a good option to make easy money."
When women sign up, their profiles are only activated after a member of the Ohlala team speaks to them on the phone. During that call, they are asked if they are aware that the dates might involve having sex for money. This is also users' chance to ask any question they might have, which helps make the service more trustworthy and personal; another feature Pia Poppenreiter sees as a major asset.
I kind of set myself a goal of earning as much money as I can this weekend.
In Emma's case, not much was asked: "They basically asked whether I knew what the service was about and whether I had any question. I said no, and that was it. They activated my profile right afterwards."
When she registered, Emma was determined to have several dates over a short period of time. "I kind of set myself a goal of earning as much money as I can this weekend," she told me after signing up. But she hadn't reckoned with the fact that many male users were also doing this for the first time and began having second thoughts once things were becoming more concrete. While the clients of escort agencies may lean towards business executives in their fifties, Ohlala's clients skew much younger.
When I browsed through the date requests, I was surprised to find out that the majority of men were actually between 23 and 33 years old. It seems like this app and its successful marketing have managed to make de-stigmatize the idea of paying for sex. For women, the downside of this is that a significant amount of time is wasted.
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One of the men tried to talk Emma into "having a relationship in which he doesn't pay me but we rock each other's worlds." Another one cancelled last minute when he realized he didn't have the guts to pull it off. Then there was this guy who said he "needed to go have a drink or two and work out how he felt about paying for sex." When she finally secured her very first date, the man in question did not manage to have an erection.
In a way, some of the features of Ohlala are reminiscent of regular dating apps. As a result, it lacks some of the efficiency of its competition. Relying on an escort agency rather than Ohlala is just like hiring a marriage agency versus trawling through OKCupid: The former makes sure your date is secure, while the latter is way less reliable.
In that light, Ohlala is unlikely to shake up the sex industry for established professionals. But it may well help to remove the barriers for entry for those who are considering giving sex work a go—and it may reduce the stigma of paying for sex, just like dating apps took away the shame associated with online romance. Now all it needs to do is weed out the timewasters. Just like Tinder.