It’s 6pm on a hot, sticky weekday in east London, and a small selection of sex industry experts – some educators, some workers – are preparing for a panel about life as a sex worker. Tonight’s host is the charismatic Silvia Saige, who balances her work as a porn star with a career in stand-up comedy. She’s on top form; her one-liners come thick and fast (pun intended), as do her questions.
Over the course of 90 minutes, we hear about everything from the reality of porn (“it’s so mechanical: five minutes of anal, five of pussy-licking and then finish with fucking!”) to anecdotes about vibrators breaking mid-wank, but this isn’t what we’re primarily here to talk about. Instead, we’re here to discuss Smooci, a self-described “next-generation escort booking platform” that launched in Thailand back in 2016. After years of tweaks and updates, founder Kal Kingsley is finally ready to launch in the UK.
“Myself and two friends were working on a lot of tech projects in London and Bangkok, where my partner’s parents are from,” he tells me over the phone a week later. “A group of escort agencies asked us to build some kind of management system, because they couldn’t keep track of bookings. So we created this semi-sophisticated system with a dashboard, and it ended up working really well.”
Buoyed by popularity and positive feedback, Kingsley and his team then set about developing the idea and creating an open platform. The core ideas were simple: clients could send bookings directly, and then escorts (called ‘companions’ on the app) had a ten-minute window to decide whether to accept.
An early marketing aspect revolved around GPS tracking, leading tabloids to latch on to the tagline of a sort of "Uber for escorts". Initially, sex workers would be tracked via the app’s location service, and clients would be able to see their exact location – a feature which raised concern amongst sex worker communities and presented obvious security fears. “We got that wrong,” Kal admits. “We never launched in Europe with the tracking, but we did in Asia. We’re removing it there, too. We realise now that it isn’t necessary: the cons outweigh the pros.”
Dangers like this might be easy to miss if you aren’t familiar with the sex work industry. Laws in the UK still marginalise workers, and as a result may are forced to either develop their own safety measures (like extensive screening processes) or risk being criminalised in brothels. As a result, sex worker advocacy groups like the English Collective of Prostitutes and SWARM are fighting for decriminalisation; elsewhere, vital charities like National Ugly Mugs warn sex workers of abusive clients, and offer important advice services.
Unfortunately, these groups say they have yet to have been thoroughly tapped for consultation by Smooci – although Kal does say that he hopes to put together some kind of advisory board in the near future. “We don’t know about [the app] specifically,” a National Ugly Mugs spokesperson tells VICE . “We would hope that they have considered safety as a priority; that they would promote ad posters to register with us for safety tools and information; that they would also support our work in ending violence against sex workers.”
I talk to Kal at length about security, specifically asking what would happen if a ‘companion’ was abused by a client. “Luckily, we haven’t had examples of that situation coming up,” he replies. “We have had reports of clients refusing to pay, and we were able to work with the companion to try and compensate them. But if something serious happens, we don’t have a set answer – but common sense would prevail, and we would be happy to give over details in that case to try and help the investigation.”
Naturally, questions like these are at the forefront of escorts’ minds. Jason, a male escort with years of experience, raises a number of concerns in an email to VICE: how will sex workers’ data be protected? Is there risk of this data being claimed by the government? What is there to say that app stores won’t cite vague fears around trafficking and censorship to pressure Smooci into withdrawing from the market? “Apps like this are a great idea, but anonymity is getting rarer and rarer,” he explains. “I don’t trust any group other than National Ugly Mugs to grapple with that connection of risk between sex workers and digital safety.”
In terms of data collection, Kal tells me that Smooci keeps it to a minimum – for clients, at least. The app requires little data from them (name, hotel, phone number – for an SMS confirmation, only for free users) but usually requires ID from escorts. “It works differently between regions,” he explains, saying this is based on different legal models worldwide. In Germany, where sex work is legalised, escorts must register to work – but Smooci doesn’t need proof of that certification. He clarifies: “We’re aware that we need to work with escorts to give them protection, rather than force them into giving us ID.”
At the minute, Smooci’s screening process more or less consists of escorts being able to see clients’ star ratings and verify whether or not they’ve booked in the past. “We’re getting ready to launch reviews, but we’ve been nervous because we’re getting negative feedback from clients about escorts being able to leave reviews. We’re definitely going to do it, but it’s about working out the most tactful way to do it.”
But according to former escort Daina, sex work apps shouldn’t focus on dispelling clients’ fears or keeping them comfortable. “Client confidentiality in this line of work is paramount,” she tells VICE , “but when it comes to digitising sex work, I fully believe there should be identification required on both sides. If the promise of anonymity and discretion is so sincere, then customers should be screened in the same way.”
Daina also says she would be reluctant to trust any companies without sex workers at the helm, and expresses fear that apps like these could disproportionately focus on client anonymity. “Prioritising clients’ over sex workers’ safety,” she explains, “breeds the perfect environment for sexual violence.”
These are all valid concerns for sex workers, who face a combination of stigma, unsafe working practices and, in some cases, criminalisation. Still, Smooci is undeniably making some strides: its mantra is #ITakeWhatIMake, meaning that the app doesn’t take a cut of escorts’ earnings. However, the free service only allows escorts to make three bookings – after that, it locks them out for 72 hours unless they pay a $50/month membership fee. Clients, on the other hand, have more or less full free access but can unlock extra features through a subscription fee – which Kal likens to dating apps’ premium services.
None of this changes the fact that the app’s developers are admittedly learning on the job. “We didn’t know how to contact people in the sex industry,” Kal explains. “We had really just been building software for pizza companies.” They have since made steps forward and teamed up with a PR agency “on the fringes of the adult industry,” but it’s clear there’s still work to be done. For example, when I ask about specific protections for trans escorts, who face statistically higher risks of hate crime and are currently cresting a wave of violent transphobia in the UK, Kal replies: “We launched in Thailand, where trans escorts are very popular. There aren’t many hate crimes out there, [so] we haven’t experienced that world yet.”
This ‘learn as we go’ approach is worrying in the context of marginalised workers, who are essentially putting their trust in the app. Clear policies need to be outlined; escorts aren’t collateral damage. Still, it’s obvious that Kal and the team behind Smooci are well-intentioned; that they genuinely want to make positive change in an industry fraught with obstacles; that they appear to at least be listening to feedback from their own escorts actively listening to escorts’ feedback and working to change. But to do so without engaging with the wider sex worker community is an enormous mistake. To quote a sex worker activist in New York: “Listen to sex workers. Nothing about us without us.”