The Internet Has Already Revolutionized Prostitution. But Could Better Apps Make It Truly Safe?

Sure, condoms make sex work safer. But how about criminal background checks and STD testing, too?

These days, prostitution is very much an online enterprise. Escorts advertise on personal websites and email with clients before meeting up. Johns, meanwhile, post reviews on the Internet much the same way they’d rate a restaurant on Yelp. All of this, according to Scott Peppet, has made the black market safer and somewhat more lucrative for sex workers, at least compared with the days when they could mostly walk the streets looking to pick up men. But the University of Colorado Law School professor believes that technology could make prostitution even safer, if only we’d let it.

In his 2013 Iowa Law Review article “Prostitution 3.0?,” Peppet argued that state laws banning the “promotion” or “advancement” of prostitution have stopped entrepreneurs and nonprofits from creating apps or sites that could tell sex workers whether their clients have a criminal background or sexually transmitted disease, or that could assure clients that a sex worker isn’t the victim of human trafficking. Of course, if you’re of the opinion that prostitution should be banned as a matter of principle, then such government restriction makes good sense. But Peppet makes a fascinating point: Many people oppose prostitution not because they’re against selling sex, but because of the problems associated with it, like disease and trafficking. At the same time, states have stopped companies from offering products that might make the market safer and less objectionable. If they didn’t—if we could have prostitution without risks to health and safety—maybe voters would feel comfortable decriminalizing it. In any event, prostitution isn’t going to disappear. Technology could at least make it a little less hazardous.  

In a blog post this week, Modeled Behavior’s Adam Ozimek cheekily referred to Peppet’s idea as “Uber for Prostitutes.” To learn a bit more, I called the professor up to discuss the online evolution of the world’s oldest profession, and how he thinks his ideas could clean it up further. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: Your paper discusses how the Internet has already transformed prostitution in many ways. What does the business look like in 2015?

Peppet: It’s useful to think about different types of prostitution. What I call prostitution 1.0 is traditional street prostitution. The basic problems with street prostitution are that neither side knows much about the other. It’s very hard for them to know about criminal background, STDs, about trafficking. The buyer [the John] has no idea if the seller [the prostitute] has been coerced or is healthy. And vice versa. The seller has very little idea if the buyer is a decent person or violent. It’s a pretty dismal market, prostitution 1.0.

Prostitution 2.0—and I didn’t coin that term—describes what’s happening today. In the United States, at least, and in most places it seems, the vast majority of prostitution is taking place off the streets. Prostitutes and buyers are finding each other online, and finding each other because prostitutes have websites where they advertise. There are sites where buyers review prostitutes, and in some cases where prostitutes review buyers. They can say, “Hey, this person wasn’t very nice” or “this person didn’t pay.” And so there are all sorts of technologies that are changing prostitution—at least, high-end prostitution. They are allowing prostitutes to screen out clients a little better. Prostitutes can email with a client in advance and can say, “Hey, I need to know where you work and I need to know your name.” They can Google that person. They can do a little bit of research to make sure that person is acceptable. Prostitutes can contact each other about a potential client and say, “Hey did you have any problems with this person?”

And likewise, clients can look at reviews of prostitutes and decide what to pay.

At least the early empirical evidence suggests that this has allowed prostitutes to stay physically safer and that there are fewer pimps in that market. There may be less disease transmission—and there are higher prices. Prostitution 2.0 seems to be better than prostitution 1.0. The question is “how much better?”

Out of curiosity, why doesn’t law enforcement shut down more of these websites, or go after them? I know Craigslist was basically pressured into closing its adult-services section.

That’s a good question. Some of them are housed offshore. And in many, many countries where prostitution is now legal—countries like Germany, Canada, and Great Britain—those problems aren’t there.

The other thing is that a lot of these sites post various kinds of warnings at the beginning saying this is all fiction or this is just for adult connection, it’s really not for prostitution. Of course, everyone knows that this is fiction. I really think, to some extent, some of these sites existed because regulators and/or police authorities just haven’t gotten after them yet. And like you said, they have certainly begun to go after them and shut many or some of them down.

But you suggest governments should do the opposite, and make legal room for what you call prostitution 3.0. Tell me more about that.

I conclude that prostitution 2.0 is better than traditional street walking, but it’s certainly not perfect. It’s maybe not that much better, because of a couple of continuing core problems. One of them is the risk of violence. The prostitute continues to know relatively little of the client and the client’s criminal history. Two is the problem of STDs and disease. Prostitutes and clients know next to nothing about each other’s health status. And three is the very serious problem of trafficking. Prostitution 2.0—technology-enabled indoor prostitution—in some ways is being used to put sort of a gloss of legitimacy around trafficking. Anti-trafficking advocates are concerned that these websites and all of this online technology are actually allowing trafficking to occur or enable trafficking, because it’s easy to pass off traffic prostitutes as more legitimate than they really are.

So, these are serious problems. The question I ask is: “OK, could technology adjust any of these problems and how?” And my answer is: Yes, It probably could. For example, if you had an Internet intermediary that could verify any criminal history, STDs, status, anti-trafficking credentials—basically your identity so that they could be pretty clear that this person hasn’t been trafficked, because they have a U.S. ID and they have an educational history, and we can basically figure out who they are. If the intermediary is able to do that work and then confirm for both the buyer and the seller that both parties were of good standing, that would clean up the market even more than prostitution 2.0 has cleaned it up already. It would potentially deal with the anti-trafficking concern in the way prostitution 2.0 really hasn’t addressed anti-trafficking at all.

I think particularly in countries that are legalizing prostitution, it’s really worth thinking about technology and policy as part of prostitution-reform debates. They’re really inseparable at this point.

If you were to compare these imaginary sites to a real company, which would it be?

Sure. There are lots of intermediaries in normal markets that serve to verify one or both sides of the transaction—and serve to verify quality, for example. Everything from an art auction house to a car dealership to financial intermediaries. The reason they’re able to charge a small fee, as an intermediary, is because they are serving to verify the identity or quality of the goods or person on either side of the transaction. That’s a really common function as an intermediary. Think about eBay with its reputational scores—what is eBay doing? In some ways, eBay is connecting buyers and sellers. It’s able, with its reputation scores, to reassure buyers and sellers that they’re not going to get ripped off. And that’s a very similar function to what we’re talking about here and we’re just talking about a slightly higher level of verification of things like criminal history or health status.

In your paper, you say that the main thing stopping those kinds of services are laws that ban aiding or promoting prostitution. Would we have to eliminate those laws to make the innovations you’re imagining possible?

The answer wouldn’t be to eliminate them, but to modify them. A state could say: “Aiding and abetting prostitution might still be problematic in the interim, but if you’re developing technologies that significantly improve the lives of participants or the community, that has a safe harbor.” So, you just carve out an exception. We could argue about the exact language that a state would use. But all you would be doing is saying: “Look, if you’re a pimp manipulating street walkers, we’re still going to criminalize that behavior while allowing the technology company or a startup, who was creating a Web app, to do something without being prosecuted.”

We’re creating a chicken-and-the-egg problem. We dislike the market as it currently is, and we use it to justify prohibiting these kinds of exchanges. It’s conceivable innovation could remedy these problems, except you can’t do that. Innovation itself is illegal, because the market has been criminalized. The only way out of that chicken-and-the-egg problem is to allow innovation that has a potential for an individual or social good, and see if you can improve the market efficiently so that the justification for criminalization falls away.

So let’s say a site like this existed. What would stop a prosecutor or the FBI from just asking for data on its users?

One of the things I talk about in the paper is, if you were going to do this, ideally you would have confidentiality protection and some sort of qualified immunity—data couldn’t be subpoenaed and used in that way. In addition to writing about market technology, I write about privacy. Yes, creating a database like this is scary—and it serves as the potential for abuse either by whoever has created it or if the state tried to get its hands on it. But again, those are legal problems. Those aren’t technological problems. Those are largely legal problems of “OK, how can we protect this sensitive information if we want to try to improve this market?” Because there are real social and individual costs of the problems remaining in prostitution markets. That, for me, is the motivating reason to think about this. You know, people suffer.