Don’t Be Evil: Why It’s Time To Do Something About Online Prostitution

Just like dating, sex work has gone online. Shunted into dark corners of the web, the world’s most desperate profession has only gotten more dangerous. One Colorado law professor argues that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Don’t Be Evil: Why It’s Time To Do Something About Online Prostitution

Dating these days is like shopping on Amazon. You go online and check out profiles on OKCupid, Grindr, Blendr, or Tinder, you look at pictures, you read a description and click a button. If the persona on the other end reciprocates, you meet in real life and take it from there. Romantic? Perhaps not. But it sure is efficient.


Then there’s the other online sex market: The one you pay for. Sites like The Erotic Review may look like dating sites, but they’re designed for a seedier kind of online flirt. Eighty percent of prostitution today starts online, and their systems are hauntingly similar to “unpaid” dating sites: Listing preferences and interests, the Review lets clients rate escorts on 50 attributes, from breast size to number of tattoos to, ahem, technique.

These services make it more convenient than ever for men to buy sex, but they leave the women in as much danger as before–if not more, because malicious johns are harder to track online. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

All The Online Risks, None Of The Benefits

If adapted to sex work, dating technologies could make prostitution healthier for everyone involved. And it works both ways: Privacy safeguards developed for the prostitution business could protect online daters as well. The problem: No one wants to tacitly endorse the world’s oldest (and perhaps most taboo) profession.

“The law has been fucking [over] prostitutes for a long time,” says Scott Peppet, a law professor at the University of Colorado. He’s working on a plan to expand dating safety technologies to prostitution. “We arrest them, we let them go. We never arrest the johns, almost ever… The public has known for decades that prostitutes are in danger and that the law isn’t helping them at all.”

In this legal vacuum, women are dying. Lots of them. As you read this, the Long Island serial killer, murderer of 14 sex workers and the subject of New York Magazine writer Robert Kolker’s new book Lost Girls, remains at large. For almost as long as sites like Craigslist and BackPage have posted erotic listings, some johns, like Boston University medical student Phillip Markoff, have used them to kill.


“We know that the women live in this horrible black market where they can’t avail themselves of the police, they can’t enforce contracts, they can’t go after the johns,” Peppet says. “We’ve known that forever. Society basically says, ‘So what? These are prostitutes, what do we care?'”

The great power of the Internet is democratization and empowerment, and these murder victims are among society’s most vulnerable and voiceless. Many are born into poverty and broken homes. Many were abused as children. Few graduated high school. Others were addicts, and plenty were single mothers, as Kolker’s reporting has shown. The Internet has made it easier than ever to turn to prostitution, and it’s made the process of selling sex more efficient: No need for a pimp or a brothel, just an Internet connection and a sex worker can be in business. But because these women go it alone online, often without a community or enforcer, it can also make the process more dangerous.

In the world of dating, this kind of disintermediation has also made dating safer. The QPid app lets sex partners share their latest STD test records, and social network searches (plus public criminal databases) allow for some light background checking before dates. None of those benefits carry over to prostitution.

Prudish Lawmakers Need To Think Different

Our laws aren’t ready for this discussion. The U.S. has taken a tact that is different from social democracies in Europe in terms of its sex work policies. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and decriminalized in many Western countries, including Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and France. These laws make paying for sex in these countries legal, while keeping pimping, advertising, solicitation, and procuring criminal. Where sex work is legal, the theory goes, it can be regulated just like drugs.

Where it’s regulated, prostitution has proven to be safer for the women who put their lives at risk to feed men’s lust. (That said–anyone who’s walked around the red light district in Amsterdam or Antwerp will tell you that it’s no more uplifting than street corners in downtown Brooklyn.)


The “retrograde nature” of today’s prostitution markets perpetuates the stigma and discrimination against women, Peppet writes in his paper on the subject. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Innovation in tech and legal reform for sex work could help wear down stigma and make the business of sex more legitimate and humane. Peppet calls it Prostitution 3.0. But what would it look like if tech companies were allowed to innovate in the sex market? Do we actually want to find out?

How Safe Online Sex Markets Would Work

In the case of both online dating and online prostitution, one of the most difficult problems in need of solving is how to balance protecting privacy online with being able to verify identity offline. Peppet says that there are four main verification challenges:

  1. The sexual health status of both the customer and the escort.
  2. The criminal history of both parties.
  3. Reviews of the customer and the escort (“reputation”).
  4. The legal status of the prostitute–proof that she hasn’t been trafficked by anyone else.

The first tool a legalized prostitution industry needs is a biometric identifier, like an iris scanner, to vouch for identities on-site. Next, it needs third-party companies to aggregate health data, criminal records, blacklists of violent clients, escort/client ratings, and police records of known human-trafficking victims. The firms would confirm this information for an individual on his or her cellphone, while protecting anonymity. Laws would need to make exceptions in the case of abuse, disease, or fraud, so that anyone who cheats could be exposed. Peppet says laws should grant these firms immunity from court subpoena, while binding them not to sell their clients’ data.

Once established, such “personal data aggregation” firms could provide similar services to people outside the sex industry by protecting personal health and legal information for easy disclosure on a cellphone. If you were pulled over by a cop you could show him a clean criminal record on your phone. And police could access centralized databases of known human trafficking victims on mobile devices.

Buying sex outside of the legal market in Peppet’s system would be outlawed. The Prostitution 3.0 system would crack down, in particular, on customers who buy sex on the black market, and on pimps who sell women illegally, rather than trying to prosecute the prostitutes themselves. The law should punish the predatory men, Peppet and others argue, not the female victims who have historically taken abuse from men at all levels, from pimps to police.


A Grindr-Like App For Google Glass

The truth is that most of the pieces of this system are available to consumers today. They’re just not used by the sex industry, because of laws and stigma. But they could be, which would make dating and prostitution safer, and maybe even more fun.

Imagine “Grindr for Google Glass.” That’s how Peppet describes the technology he envisions for dating and prostitution. Google has said that it will not enable face recognition for its wearable device, citing privacy and security concerns. But as Peppet points out, there may be cases where users want this capability: For example, when two people meet in real life for the first time, they could use to verify each other’s identities and pull up criminal background checks and sexual health reports.

“That’s going to happen,” Peppet insists. “You’re going to walk into a room and your glasses, plus your phone (providing the CPU power) are going to say: That guy over there wants to have sex with you. Google isn’t going to want its glasses to be used for prostitution. But if you could employ the power of something like Google Glass for prostitutes, it would make them safer, it would make them healthier.”

Qpid, the STD test-sharing app mentioned earlier, could also be adapted by prostitutes and clients, Peppet argues, as could mobile dating apps like Grindr. Imagine if an escort could broadcast her whereabouts in public via her phone, without needing to “streetwalk” in the conspicuous traditional sense. The phone, rather than the street, would become the center of commerce for Prostitution 3.0.

We Have A Choice To Make

Market forces will probably create a sex trade regardless of our laws. So according to Peppet, we have a choice: Either accept sex work, but make it regulated, safer and healthier, or hold fast to denial, and condemn sex workers to work in danger. The moral choice is easy, but in America, sex innovation faces steep political walls.


The hypocrisy of U.S. sex-trade laws frustrates Peppet. “We’ve basically let this [online prostitution] stuff happen because ‘gee, it’s not too bad for the guys,'” he says. “But when somebody says, ‘Hey, let’s build this other, fancier [technology] that takes a bit more effort, so we can actually protect the women’? Well, we haven’t been able to pull any of that off yet.”

[Image: Flickr user Lachlan Hardy]

About the author

Taylor Beck writes about brains & the future for Fast Company. In his past jobs he studied memory, dreaming, and Japanese in neuroscience labs from Kyoto to St