This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
"Got $40 quickies with this one, I just bent it over and pounded it."
In his critique of her services on the Montreal Escort Review Community board, a client known as "Jerking" says that while sex worker Anny* is "not a hottie," she is a "good price" and a "good fuck."
Welcome to the world of sex worker review boards, online forums that allow people to discuss and rate the appearance and skills of sex industry service providers. The general tone is a combination of blatant objectification of women ("it"?) and Yelp-style commentary (you can pretty much substitute "pussy" for "steak dinner" in the last sentence of the above screencap).
But as in other service industries, these often-slimy online critiques can have a very real impact on business.
VICE reached out to sex trade workers and clients alike to find out just how influential these forums can be and why they are dripping with this macho, misogynistic language.
Interestingly, the sex workers themselves were not so quick to condemn the forums and generally say there are many positive aspects to consider.
"They're a place where workers can seek economical empowerment, where they're able to share resources with other sex workers in terms of safety," says Audrey Garcia*, a former sex worker and community organizer at Montreal outreach group Stella. "They're very important tools."
Related: The New Era of Canadian Sex Work
She says that for sex workers, (also referred to as "providers" or "service providers"), the review boards provide a useful platforms on which they can communicate with each other to discuss clients and share tips and concerns.
There's also a financial advantage: "For some sex workers, that's the only place they advertise, because advertising can be expensive," she says.
However, Garcia says Canada's prohibitive new prostitution laws, which criminalize the advertising of sexual services as well as the purchase of sex (among myriad other aspects of sex work), have reduced the sites' reach and purpose and limited the kind of conversations users can have. And while a number of review boards are now hosted outside the country, operating in a sort of legislative gray zone, she says many users have simply been scared away.
While the language tends to be vulgar and chauvinistic, it's a tendency Garcia chalks up to the anonymity of reviewers. "Like any other online forum, people speak in a way they would never use around real people. They use language they would never use, take liberties they would never take."
Garcia says that relative to the industry's context, the comments are no worse that review sites devoted to other topics or professions. "Students all across country leave reviews about teachers, saying things about the way the teacher looks, dresses," she says. "They're extremely objectifying comments, but that doesn't mean that the sex industry review sites are more objectifying."
On the client side, workers say the sites can play the role of consumer watchdog. "I have heard many stories from clients where they hired someone and the person stole their money or just was not what they were expected," explains Chicago-based sex workers' rights advocate Serpent Libertine.
But the women agree there is an insidious side to the review system. "One of the issues is that if a client felt they were slighted for some reason, they would write a bad review and it would be detrimental to a girl's business," Libertine explains, adding that some reviews—which sometimes include the workers' names and contact info—are completely made up.
According to Libertine, the fear of negative reviews that can push women to eschew safety measures or to perform acts they're not comfortable doing."It really encourages people to take more risks, because these clients are now communicating with each other about who does what," she says. For instance, she says some men take to the boards to complain about women who use condoms. "You can't get a ten unless you provide BBBJ (the industry acronym for unprotected blowjob), anal, or if you're really bi."
The women say this situation is made worse by the fact that many board administrators offer clients financial incentives to make reviews as explicit as possible, rewarding popular contributors with free membership and even rejecting posts deemed too reasonable.
Libertine says this has spawned a new and polarizing type of client, commonly referred to as a "hobbyist," who gets a kick out of constantly "trying out" and reviewing new girls. "That term did not come around until these message boards came around," Libertine says. "These guys, it's kind of like a flavor of the month thing, they see who is getting a lot of reviews, who's new."
These hobbyists then write up their own assessments, which, according to the women, tend to be the most sensationalist types of reviews—something that many sex workers don't appreciate.
VICE contacted several of these self-proclaimed hobbyists, many of whom use the forums on a near-daily basis, to find out what drives this occupation. Only one agreed to an email interview.
Brian Jackson*, a sixtyish IT professional who lives in the Montreal area, says he has been regularly hiring sex workers for more than 30 years. He claims to have spent about a quarter of a million dollars on his hobby, and his profile on Montreal's Escort Review Community shows that he's contributed to the forum's discussions nearly 2,000 times.
"For most veteran hobbyists, screwing lots of women is a normal activity, not different than going to the gym," Jackson says. "Like almost all hobbyists I like them young, say between 19 and 23, and new to the trade. Girl-next-door types are the most popular, the ones who don't look like escorts."
Read our full interview with the hobbyist.
He says that while his habit—and the concept of hobbyists—predates review sites, the forums have "wildly exacerbated" the situation. "I used to have to take a day off every week, sometimes two, just to track down one decent new young girl," he says. "Now the hobbyist has dozens of new young girls available at his fingertips at almost all times."
From his standpoint, Jackson says the boards offer no benefits for sex workers. "The critics are simply brutal, and if a girl has one bad date, they will fry her.
"All of the posts are derogatory, but this is a rough business. It brings out the worst in everyone," Jackson concedes.
Still, Garcia says not all hobbyists make for bad clients. "It really depends on what worker you speak to", she says. "You're not going to get the same response." Jackson says he's heard positive feedback from women. "The workers I meet all tell me that the clients they meet on the boards are pretty good, compared to what you would meet advertising online, in a bar, or in a strip joint."
All in all, Garcia believes criticism of review boards has more to do with the way people use the internet than with the way clients treat sex workers.
"I think what's really tricky about (review boards) is that the content is taken out of context," Garcia says. "The way most people understand the sex industry is that women are victims, that they're being exploited. and when you read these reviews, it's easy to support that hypothesis.
"Of course they read in a certain way. People don't like to read about other people being judged for their sexuality."
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