FOR those seeking commercial sex in Berlin, Peppr, a new app, makes life easy. Type in a location and up pops a list of the nearest prostitutes, along with pictures, prices and physical particulars. Results can be filtered, and users can arrange a session for a €5-10 ($6.50-13) booking fee. It plans to expand to more cities.
Peppr can operate openly since prostitution, and the advertising of prostitution, are both legal in Germany. But even where they are not, the internet is transforming the sex trade. Prostitutes and punters have always struggled to find each other, and to find out what they want to know before pairing off. Phone-box “tart cards” for blonde bombshells and leggy se�tas could only catch so many eyes. Customers knew little about the nature and quality of the services on offer. Personal recommendations, though helpful, were awkward to come by. Sex workers did not know what risks they were taking on with clients.
Now specialist websites and apps are allowing information to flow between buyer and seller, making it easier to strike mutually satisfactory deals. The sex trade is becoming easier to enter and safer to work in: prostitutes can warn each other about violent clients, and do background and health checks before taking a booking. Personal web pages allow them to advertise and arrange meetings online; their clients’ feedback on review sites helps others to proceed with confidence.
Even in places such as America, where prostitution and its facilitation are i*****l everywhere except Nevada, the marketing and arrangement of commercial sex is moving online. To get round the laws, web servers are placed abroad; site-owners and users hide behind pseudonyms; and prominently placed legalese frames the purpose of sites as “entertainment” and their content as “fiction”.
The shift online is casting light on parts of the sex industry that have long lurked in the shadows. Streetwalkers have always attracted the lion’s share of attention from policymakers and researchers because they ply their trade in public places. They are more bothersome for everyone else—and, because they are the most vulnerable, more likely to come to the attention of the police and of social or health workers. But in many rich countries they are a minority of all sex workers; just 10-20% in America, estimates Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University.
The wealth of data available online means it is now possible to analyse this larger and less examined part of the commercial-sex market: prostitution that happens indoors. It turns out to be surprisingly similar to other service industries. Prostitutes’ personal characteristics and the services they offer influence the prices they charge; niche services attract a premium; and the internet is making it easier to work flexible hours and to forgo a middleman.
Websites such as AdultWork allow prostitutes, both those working independently and those who work through agencies and brothels, to create profiles through which customers can contact them. They can upload detailed information about themselves, the range of services they provide, and the rates they charge. Clients can browse by age, bust or dress size, ethnicity, sexual orientation or location.
Other websites garner information from clients, who upload reviews of the prostitutes they have visited with details of the services offered, prices paid and descriptions of the encounters. On PunterNet, a British site, clients describe the premises, the encounter and the sex worker, and choose whether to recommend her. Such write-ups have enabled her to build a personal brand, says one English e****t, Michelle (like many names in this article, a pseudonym), and to attract the clients most likely to appreciate what she offers.
We have analysed 190,000 profiles of sex workers on an international review site. (Since it is active in America, it was not willing to be identified for this article. A disclaimer on the site says the contents are fictional; we make the assumption that they are informative all the same.) Each profile includes customers’ reviews of the worker’s physical characteristics, the services they offer and the price they charge.
The data go back as far as 1999. For each individual we have used the most recent information available, with prices corrected for inflation. Some of those featured may appear under more than one name, or also work through agencies. The data cover 84 cities in 12 countries, with the biggest number of workers being in America and most of the rest in big cities in other rich countries. As this site features only women, our analysis excludes male prostitutes (perhaps a fifth of the commercial-sex workf***e). Almost all of those leaving reviews are men.
The most striking trend our analysis reveals is a drop in the average hourly rate of a prostitute in recent years (see chart 1). One reason is surely the downturn that followed the 2007-08 financial crisis. Even prostitutes working in places that escaped the worst effects have been hit. Vanessa, a part-time e****t in southern England, finds that weeks can go by without her phone ringing. Men see buying sex as a luxury, she says, and with the price of necessities rising it is one they are cutting back on. Even when she offers discounts to whip up interest, clients are scarcer than they were. In places where the job market slumped, the effect is more marked (whether prostitution is legal may affect prices, too, but the wide variation between American cities shows that this is not the only factor). The cost of an hour with an e****t in Cleveland, Ohio, where unemployment peaked at 12.5% in 2010, has tumbled.
Large-scale migration is another reason prices are falling. Big, rich cities are magnets for immigrants of all professions, including sex workers. Nick Mai of London Metropolitan University has studied foreign sex workers in Britain. He has found that as they integrate and get used to the local cost-of-living, their rates tend to rise. But where the inward flow is unceasing, or where the market was previously very closed, immigrants can push prices down.
Since the European Union enlarged to include poorer eastern European countries, workers of every sort have poured into their richer neighbours. By all accounts prices have been dropping in Germany as a result of the arrival of new, poor migrants, says Rebecca Pates of the University of Leipzig. Sally, a semi-retired British e****t who runs a flat in the west of England where a few “mature” women sell sex, says English girls are struggling to find work: there are too many eastern European ones willing to accept less.
Twenty years ago most prostitutes in Norway were locals who all aimed to charge about the same, says May-Len Skilbrei, a sociologist at Oslo University. Today, with growing numbers of sex workers from the Baltic states and central Europe, as well as Nigerians and Thais, such unofficial price controls are harder to sustain.
Inexperience is another reason newcomers to prostitution may underprice themselves, at least at first. Maxine Doogan, an American prostitute and founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union, a lobby group, learnt her trade from a woman who worked for years in a brothel in Nevada, the only American state where prostitution is legal. The older woman taught her what to regard as standard or extra, and how much to charge. When Ms Doogan started out, in 1988, standard services (vaginal sex and fellatio) cost $200 an hour, the equivalent of $395 today. But some of those starting out now still charge $200, she says, or offer extra services, including risky ones such as oral sex without a condom, without charging an appropriate premium.
The shift online has probably boosted supply by drawing more locals into the sex trade, too. More attractive and better-educated women, whose marital and job prospects are therefore better, are more likely to consider sex work if it is arranged online. Indoor sex work is safer than streetwalking, and the risk of arrest is lower. Rented flats or hotel rooms are more discreet than brothels, so f****y and friends are less likely to identify the new source of income. Anonymity becomes a possibility, which lessens the fear of stigma. Creating an online profile separates the decision to take up the work from parading for punters.
Meanwhile, broader social change may be reducing demand—and thus, prices. Free, no-strings-attached sex is far easier to find than in the past. Apps such as Tinder facilitate speedy hookups; websites such as Ashley Madison and Illicit Encounters, adulterous ones. Greater acceptance of premarital intercourse and easier divorce mean fewer frustrated single and married men turning to prostitutes.