How hookup apps and the internet are changing sex work
The internet and social media are changing the adult entertainment industry but whether it's for the better or the worse depends on who you speak to.
It's 11pm on a Friday night outside one of South Melbourne's glitziest brothels. The streets are fairly quiet but car parking is at a premium. A burly security guard is patrolling streets in the vicinity, where several brothels are concentrated.
Two men saunter into reception, wearing shirts and jeans, and are greeted by a receptionist. The decor sparkles with bling, while the women – beautiful and scantily clad – mingle in the lounge with men who are paying about $350 an hour for their services.
This lounge, with the atmosphere of a nightclub (minus the alcohol, which is prohibited in Victorian brothels), is the warm-up arena. The serious business goes on behind the closed doors of the six rooms the brothel is licensed to operate. T
he owner of this brothel (who does not want his name used) says business is suffering. It's dropped 18 per cent over the past year, he says, while Victorian brothel licence fees increased by 34 per cent on July 1. Like many others, he partly blames the rise of the internet because it provides independent workers with an easy method of promoting themselves.
He has recently launched a complementary escort service, marketed online, to try to stem the tide of falling revenueAssociation of Adult Entertainment Industries spokesman William Albon says some brothels are experiencing a 30-40 per cent dip in profits. Earlier this year, Alan Whitley, an adult industry consultant, told Fairfax Media that the internet was threatening the business of brothels.But Scarlet Alliance chief executive Janelle Fawkes, who represents sex workers, says some brothel owners have always seen private escorts as competition. "Even when sex workers had newspapers as the only advertising option we heard that kind of rhetoric," she says. She says the internet provides a new platform for sex workers to be heard, unlike the old days "when only brothel owners got to have their say".Down the road at the Pink Palace brothel, manager Robyn Smith bucks the trend. She says business is booming. The Pink Palace is one of the only legal Melbourne brothels run by a woman. She argues that this leads to a happier work environment for the sex workers, which buoys business, despite digital technology's encroachment into the commercial sex world.The sex-work industry is a complex, multi-headed beast. Experiences vary greatly in Victoria between street sex workers (all illegal), brothel and escort agency workers (both legal and illegal) and private sex workers (both legal and illegal). Added to that, there are characteristics specific to each of the heterosexual, gay and transgender sex work communities. And then there are the state and territory variations – Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, the Northern Territory and the ACT have legal sex work industries but they differ greatly in what they allow. In WA and Tasmania, brothels are outlawed but sole sex workers are legal.
Now the internet, social media, video streaming and hook-up apps such as Tinder and Grindr add a whole new layer of complexity.Whether digital technology has been a blessing or a curse for the industry depends on who you speak to. Andrew McLean, who completed a PhD on male sex workers and the internet at RMIT last year, outlines some of the benefits to sole workers. Increased independence, autonomy, anonymity, ease and convenience are among them. "It also gives (sex workers) the power to screen clients on the Internet, awarding them greater levels of perceived safety and financial security compared with that of street, brothel or agency workers," he says.
One such tool, the Ugly Mugs program, was started in Victoria by sex industry welfare organisation Rhed. It has now been adopted by sex-work industries all over the world. An information service circulated among sex workers, it provides details of clients who have been violent, abusive, refused to pay or caused other difficulties. And there are now many members-only social media forums where sex workers can discreetly share information about their industry.
In Victoria, brothels must pay an initial licence application fee to the Business Licensing Authority (which works closely with Consumer Affairs Victoria) to start their businesses. They then pay an annual licence fee. There are89 licensed brothels operating in Victoria. Private sex workers must get a free registration number from the authority, which allows them to operate alone. There are more than 600 of these owner-operated businesses registered at present.
The financial gains for private escorts can be substantial. After paying tax, they take home 100 per cent of their earnings, compared to an average of 50 per cent in a brothel. Melbourne private escort Savannah Stone is charging $600 an hour for her services.
But brothel owners argue that the risks of working alone outweigh the financial benefits. Eve, an escort who works at the Pink Palace, says she chose a brothel over private work because of the safety aspect. In her mid-20s, she is studying law full time at university and did her research on the industry before entering it about six months ago. "You get less income working for a brothel than independently but you get that extra security and I value that very highly," Eve says.
And Robyn Smith says some sex workers have arrived at the Pink Palace after frightening experiences. "Some have been stalked or have had to take out restraining orders, some have been attacked or raped while running their own businesses and then they say, 'never again'. Here, in the 15 years I've been here there's never been any incidents."Of course, it is in the brothels' interests to highlight the risks of working alone. Many of those operating privately say the threat of violence and abuse are blown way out of proportion.
Cameron, a male-to-male escort based in New South Wales, says in 30 years he has never been a victim of violence. "We have to dispel a myth that sex work is unsafe. If I wanted to go into an unsafe profession I would become a nurse or a taxi driver." He says sex workers take precautions (the nature of which they don't publicise) to ensure they stay safe.Some brothel owners also fear the impact of hook-up apps on their businesses. While apps such as Tinder and Grindr were originally conceived to facilitate casual dating/casual sex, anecdotes abound about sex for cash. This month, a Huffington Post journalist wrote that he signed up for Tinder looking for dates and instead was offered 15 minutes of webcam footage of a woman performing sex acts if he paid $US75.
But Cameron says that, although apps such as Grindr are utilised in the gay escort industry, they are not a major player. They are more commonly used by someone offering cash for sex as a one-off, or by someone who works only occasionally, rather than regular sex workers, he says.Some Australian online services directories are incorporating app-like features. Jonslist – launched this year– is run by Jackie Crown, herself a former sex worker. "We're bringing buyers and sellers together in real time," Crown says. "Workers and punters can communicate via a secure web portal and the contents is cleared after three hours of inactivity." This negates the risk of their interaction being discovered by a punter's wife or girlfriend, for instance if they found a message on a mobile phone the next day.Independent sex workers say online advertising and marketing are a positive. Many use a range of marketing tools including their own websites, online directories, Twitter and other social media, and sometimes hook-up apps.The industry is frustrated that the Victorian Sex Work Act has not moved sufficiently into the digital age. Fawkes says Victorian sex workers face prohibitive regulations around advertising, while those in other states don't. In an era when the internet does not adhere to state boundaries, this makes things tricky, and in some cases makes the law look plain stupid."For instance, Victorian sex workers are only allowed to display their head and shoulders in advertising shots," Fawkes says. This is a problem for Victorian escorts who want to protect their privacy and end up displaying a blurred-out face and a set of shoulders. Meanwhile, workers in NSW and Queensland are allowed to display full body pictures.However, as Fairfax Media discovered, Victorian-based escorts can still post full-body nudes online via their Twitter account. This does not flout the law because they are not actually advertising their business on Twitter, they are just using social media. Confused? So are a lot of people.The Eros Foundation, an adult entertainment industry group, also wants change. Its executive officer Fiona Patten is founder of the Australian Sex Party and will contest the upper house Northern Metro region at next month's state election. "Due to the discrimination that (sex) workers regularly suffer, their face is often the last part of their body they want to post online."Victorian workers are also prohibited from listing the specific services they offer, unlike workers in Queensland and New South Wales. So Victorian sex workers often set up websites with a section for Victorian clients that doesn't list services and a section for interstate and international clients that does. But a Victorian punter only has to click on the interstate section to see the services listed.Some change may be on the horizon.A spokeswoman for Victoria's Consumer Affairs Minister, Heidi Victoria, says current regulations, including advertising controls, expire in 2016. A consultation process for new regulations will start next year and stakeholders will include sex workers and brothel licensees.These are all issues for sex workers attempting to stay within the law. But there is another cohort deliberately operating outside the law. Many such examples can be easily found online, much to the disgust of Albon and many brothel owners, who are paying heavy licence fees to adhere to regulations.A couple of clicks through the Melbourne personals section of some online classifieds sites reveal a number of explicit and lurid ads for sex acts in exchange for cash. None of these advertisers display a registration number from the Business Licensing Authority and many promote specific sex acts or mention their ethnic origin, all of which flouts the advertising regulations.There are also many such classifieds advertising massage parlours with "happy endings", in reality illegal brothels offering sex that are masquerading as massage services.However, it seems to be a problem that no-one has the willpower or manpower to deal with.A spokeswoman for Minister for Consumer Affairs Heidi Victoria says the activities of illegal brothels and sex workers are a matter for the Victoria Police. Consumer Affairs Victoria, however, monitors and enforces compliance in relation to online advertising by licensed brothels and legal private workers. CAV "welcomes information about any of those parties ads in breach of regulations," the spokeswoman says, suggesting scrutiny is reactive rather than proactive.A Victoria Police spokeswoman says such issues can only be investigated if an official complaint is made against a specific ad. She was unable to answer questions about monitoring online activity. Albon says: "it's not at all unrealistic to expect Consumer Affairs and Victoria Police to be scouring the internet to see what's happening outside the act. We're paying these massive fees and what services are they providing in return to protect our industry? The answer is near nought."*Some names have been changedTwitter: @rachelekleinmanGOING PRIVATEFemale escort Savannah Stone had her own pre-conceived ideas about the industry before she started sex work four years ago. "I had notions about how dodgy or dangerous it might be [but] I had always been curious," she says.Stone moved here from the US when she was 21 after completing a marketing degree. "I ran my own internet business for about five years and that did really well. Then, when I wanted a change, I decided to look into sex work."She has never worked in a brothel but worked for an escort agency for about eight months before deciding to go private. She has her own professionally designed website, which includes a blog and her own Twitter account. It is listed in several online directories."Embracing social media happened naturally," she says. "There's a fascination with sex workers so, on Twitter, people can interact with me and I like to not take it too seriously. I make jokes, post nudie pictures, talk about the gym. It's nice to show people this is a day in the life of me. It is also a really good way of advocating for sex work."Stone says the internet works well for clients as well as sex workers. "They will often look at every single forum and directory to check you out and make sure you are who you say you are. Most clients do their research." Like most other sex workers operating privately, Stone says fears about workers' safety are overblown. "In four years of working several times a week there was only one time when I think my safety could have been in jeopardy. I looked after myself in a very smart way and I got myself out of that situation in about 20 minutes.""But there are some workers who are more concerned with making money than with what the booking is going to be like. For me, I don't care if I don't work for weeks if I get terrible enquiries or if the people sound suspicious."Stone says the differing advertising laws in each state make things tricky. "New South Wales has probably the best laws – you're allowed to advertise your services, you're allowed to advertise your body. In Victoria, it is head and shoulders only, so for women who do want to cover their face and be discreet, it's very hard to advertise. It's quite pointless really. The internet has changed things – you're advertising globally."