Trick or tweet - How the NZ sex industry is embracing hi-tech

In a world where you ain’t anyone unless you have an online presence, the sex industry has also embraced fast-changing technology, with many independent workers becoming savvy digital players.

Mistress Sophia is a dominatrix. As befits her profession, she’s forthright, honest and unabashed in proclaiming what she does. But you won’t hear about her services from a flyer on K Road or Vivian Street.

Instead, using the handle @QueenMistress, Sophia has more than 16,000 followers on Twitter, where she actively promotes herself as a sought-after commodity. Her Instagram account (link NSFW), though it has only a fraction of her Twitter followers, also acts as a virtual introduction to her world of ropes, whips and leather lingerie.

Sophia uses social media as an entrée, where the end-goal is to direct potential clients to her website (link NSFW), then more private email conversations and eventually her Auckland studio. 

She is part of a new breed of independent entrepreneurs in the sex industry, taking advantage of the rapid shift in disruptive technology changing the oldest profession in the world. Like Uber in the taxi trade and Airbnb in accommodation, specialist websites and apps are making it more convenient – and more private – for workers and clients to contact each other, without going through a middleman. 

The directory website madam.co.nz (link NSFW), for example, launched at the end of 2014, uses geo-location to connect client and sex worker. Like searching for a destination on Google maps, users key in their whereabouts, and a list of available girls pop up, ordered by how many minutes they are from you. 

The list can be refined based on “skill sets”, hair colour, body shape and price. And Madam’s not unique – at least four other popular directories are active.

The newzealandgirls.co.nz directory (link NSFW) also has a forum, allowing clients to give feedback about their experiences. And just like any other forum, there are sections for romantic advice, fitness and nutrition, relationships, and even tech support. It’s a good starting point for first-timers, both worker and punter.

Overseas, prostitutes are also cottoning on to dating apps like Tinder, which allows you to log in with your Facebook account, and make a split-second decision on whether you like someone or not, by swiping right to “like” or left to “dislike”. 

Although an estimated 5% of New Zealanders have a Tinder account, Catherine Healy, national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), does not believe sex workers here are using the app.

In addition, she says, prostitutes who have tried to use other Kiwi dating sites have been asked to stop. 

What about the numbers?

One of the big unknowns is the impact the internet has had on the number of sex workers. In an industry where only 60 people declared themselves as “sex worker or escort” in the last census, numbers are notoriously hard to come by. 

But AUT psychology senior lecturer Dr Panteá Farvid says anecdotal evidence suggests there are a lot more independent sex workers out there, attracted by relatively good money (from around $150 an hour for a romp in a student flat to $1200 for a luxury liaison in a penthouse hotel suite) and the ease of opening their own business.

The same anecdotal evidence suggests the internet may be threatening the business of brothels. Although it’s hard to gauge the impact in New Zealand, an Australian brothel owner recently told Melbourne’s Age newspaper that business was down 18% on 2013 levels, and Australian Adult Entertainment Industry spokesman William Albon said some brothels are experiencing a 30%-40% dip in profits.

One of the big unknowns is the impact the internet has had on the number of sex workers. In an industry where only 60 people declared themselves as “sex worker or escort” in the last census, numbers are notoriously hard to come by. 

Dutch research, quoted in the Economist, suggests in the decade to 2010, the number of licensed sex clubs in the Netherlands fell by more than 50%.

In New Zealand, figures indicate the number of brothel licence applications has been falling – from 326 in 2004 (just after prostitution was legalised in 2003) to 72 in 2011. There were also only 54 renewals granted in 2011. 

Part of the answer could be the rise of independent sex workers, although the NZPC suggests this assumption is speculative and numbers are uncertain. The Collective believes prostitute numbers in its organisation have remained relatively stable since legalisation in 2003, from around 2300 to 5000 workers.

What is more certain is that there are more online ads than ever before, and punters are flocking to directory websites. HypeStat, a free online statistics and analytics service, estimates newzealandgirls.co.nz receives 151,260 monthly unique visitors.

It’s also hard to gauge the size of the industry, as the tax department doesn’t separate out sex workers from the overall entertainment sector. However, extrapolating from UK figures suggests New Zealand’s sex industry might produce the GDP equivalent of the entire clothing, footwear and textiles sector. That’s roughly $800 million.

A grey area

Back in 2010, the NZPC said there were about 400 street-based sex workers nationwide, though the numbers were sketchy due to the often temporary and sporadic nature of the work. Five years on, it seems online advertisements have made kerb-crawling a harder business model to follow.

At 11.30 on a Friday night, it’s thin pickings for anyone looking for a paid quickie in central Auckland. Once hunting grounds for girls either looking to make quick buck or even settling in for the long-term, the pavements around K Road and Eden Terrace are more or less deserted. 

A little more than a decade since the Prostitution Reform Act made sex work legal, it seems workers have found an easier alternative to standing for hours under street lamps.

Instead, a short search and a couple of mouse clicks are all you need. The internet can and will provide. Some prefer meeting at a hotel, others offer their own home. Some cater to specific fetishes, others don’t. As with business as a whole, the internet allows potential customers to choose exactly what they want – and for sex workers to market to a preferred niche.

Healy says going digital means sex workers can manage their own services.

A little more than a decade since the Prostitution Reform Act made sex work legal, it seems workers have found an easier alternative to standing for hours under street lamps.

“It’s a worldwide trend [that] girls are working for themselves now,” Healy says. “Forty percent [of prostitutes] are now managing their own business, where 40 years ago they would have been in a brothel.”

Still, competition on the internet is fierce. Multiple directories are available, which means sex workers often have to list in several places – and that can be costly. They may also list themselves as several different people (although sites such as NZGirls try to avoid this with a verified photo seal of approval). 

The internet is also making it easier for people looking for sex to find it – for free. Apps such as Tinder or Grindr (for the gay scene) bring people together. Websites such as Ashley Madison help married people find extra-marital partners, while NZDating, FindSomeone and OkCupid also compete in the market. What’s the point of paying for sex when you can easily get it for free?

Still, the internet is allowing entrepreneurs like Mistress Sophia to create a profitable business. According to Farvid, “independents could earn as much as 40%-50% more than in an agency”.

Mistress Sophia will see you now

The entrance to Sophia’s boudoir is a literal hole in the wall. A single door from the outside leads down a long corridor, then through another two sets of locked doors. At the very back of the building, Sophia’s “office” looks more like a dance studio than a sex dungeon.

Full-length mirrors cover one wall, while the other three are adorned with black drapes. Metallic frames and hooks hang from the ceiling. It’s sparsely populated, minimalist even, with a heavy table sitting at the back behind opened partitions, covered with various instruments.

You’d never find her den from the street, but with the internet, physical presence doesn’t matter as much. The web has been critical to building her business – from providing how-to guides on painting and decorating, to YouTube “dominatrix-for-dummies” videos. 

Sophia started as an independent and wasn’t mentored by another mistress, she had to effectively train herself. 

“You have to know your shit when it comes to not hurting people,” she says, referring to the skills she’s picked up from a variety of online sources along the way. 

Then, of course, there are all the tips on how to run a business: from search engine optimisation to managing her social media followers. Sophia’s even learnt how to code her own website.

“I do it all myself. It is time. It is sheer tenacity, and the balls to learn how to do that.”

Still, as with any previously offline business, the rise of the internet has caused problems for less tech-savvy workers. 

That might be as mundane as having to go online every hour or two to maintain a social media presence, or pay more for online advertising than print ads. 

But it can be worse. Prostitutes without a certain amount of technical knowledge can find themselves at the mercy of their webmasters or service providers when it comes to adding or changing content.

This may seem innocuous to the average small business owner, used to employing someone to manage their website, but prostitutes see any loss of control as a risk. 

It’s particularly concerning, because webmasters can become cyber-abuse facilitators, says NZPC Wellington coordinator Calum Bennachie.

Prostitutes without a certain amount of technical knowledge can find themselves at the mercy of their webmasters or service providers when it comes to adding or changing content.

This happens, for example, when prostitutes list on a directory website and “webmasters request videos or other things that prostitutes don’t want to [share]”, he says. They may also force prostitutes to pay for advanced functions or “VIP sections”, and ban anyone listing on their site from being on a competitive site.

But when a particular directory is a market leader, sometimes there just simply isn’t that much choice, he says.

The webmaster has now become the quintessential abusive pimp.

Farvid agrees that being an independent doesn’t work for everyone, which is why brothels and agencies still have a part to play. 

“You can just go in, do your eight hours, leave, and everything is taken care of,” she says.

“Being an independent means you have to manage security, maybe a different apartment for work, clients that are no-show and a lot of admin stuff that you’re not getting paid for.”

Yet using the web as a business and professional tool means Sophia has been able to retain complete control of her brand and the image she wants presented, which isn’t limited to just the New Zealand public.

Part of the allure of having a prolific social media presence is the ability to compete on the world stage. Last year Mistress Sophia went on tour, visiting other international cities, in much the same way as a rock band might. Announcing the cities she was going to visit via social media meant she had sessions booked even before leaving New Zealand.

One positive for sex workers – from porn stars to prostitutes – is the internet gives them the option to present a human, as well as a business profile. They can be stories, not just brands. They are just as likely to post photos of them posing with fluffy animals, or status updates on what they had for lunch, as images of them in their birthday suit. 

As Farvid says: “The internet has allowed sex workers more visibility in a mundane way.”

Healy says personal blogs mean the general public, who may be curious about the trade, can relate and understand sex workers, and start to treat them as individual humans instead of just as pieces of meat. It can help break through stereotypes and misunderstandings that people may carry towards the workers, and let people become less squeamish when approaching the topic of sex. 

NZPC national coordinator Catherine Healy

Yana the Russian

Yana has been a sex worker for more than two decades. She started out as a 17-year-old in Russia, where her stories of stretch limos and palatial encounters seem like something from a James Bond film.

She’s now based in Auckland and specialises in what’s called a “girlfriend experience” – conversation, companionship and a lot of non-sexual touching and cuddling. Sporting an Ed Hardy T-shirt and half-dyed green hair, Yana is razor sharp with a heavy dose of wit. Holding a master’s degree in psychology, there’s a scientific approach to her business.

Twenty years ago, prostitution, in Russia anyway, was all about knowing someone who knew someone. It was all very hush-hush. But today, things have changed. Instead of physical fixers and go-betweens, the internet is an integral part of Yana’s business.

“In this day and age, every working girl needs their own website,” she says.

Although she calls herself a technophobe and is highly critical of some forums and review websites, Yana writes her own blog and uses the internet for market research to improve her trade. Trawling through the experiences of other sex workers gives her an insight into what some clients like or dislike. It’s all about improving customer service, she says.

“It is a business. If you plan to do this long term, you must approach it as a business.”

Yana’s attitude towards forums is a reaction to punters who don’t know the limits. Reviews often end up revealing private information that was shared between the provider and the client. Even though something like doctor-patient confidentiality doesn’t exist in the sex industry, there’s an unspoken rule at play, and clients are expected to respect the privacy of a sex worker.

Farvid says there’s the risk that a “bad” client will use the review to settle personal scores. A client kicked out by a girl for being drunk or violent may post an unfair review.

“They’ll write something negative, and the [sex workers] don’t have any way of rebuttal,” Farvid says. That’s even despite a blacklist for girls who don’t want to be reviewed. “Some of these [forums], where it’s men only, become very crass.”

The impact of the internet on safety in the sex industry is another contentious issue. Brothels argue the risks of working independently outweigh the financial benefits for girls of cutting out the middleman. And agencies, whether physical brothels or online intermediaries, tend to have screening in place to weed out unsavoury clients. 

Overseas, an online programme known as Ugly Mugs allows for the identification of dangerous or dodgy clients. It used to exist in New Zealand, organised by the Prostitutes Collective, but it was abandoned after one punter began a legal challenge to its existence. 

Healy says now the only preventative measure left to sex workers is in the form of gossip about good and bad clients. 

Healy says while most brothels are fairly safe, there are always bad apples. In 2014, the Human Rights Commission awarded $25,000 in damages against a brothel owner who frightened one of the prostitutes working for him. Safety within brothels depends on how much governance sex workers have over their own services, Healy says.

Meanwhile, Yana is not a fan of online agencies where, she says, safety for the girls comes second to securing business. 

Young, naive newcomers are marketed by agencies as “new-to-business”, she says, and as such are at risk from potentially abusive clients. Even though agencies’ screening policies attempt to weed them out, the ones that slip through the cracks are worrisome.

At the same time, prostitutes argue that by attaching price tags to physical statistics and services they are willing to provide, they are reduced to mere packages. 

Sex workers who run their own private websites can not only be more selective in their clientele, but also showcase their personality and individualism, Yana says.

NZPC Wellington Coordinator Calum Bennachie

Tinder me, Grindr you

As the sex trade moves into the digital space, the increasing number of options available to clients would suggest a race to the bottom in terms of price and quality. However, Healy says this is not the case.

While the predominant complaint the NZPC hears all the time is “I’d like to be busier” or “there are just not enough clients”, the average hourly rate has actually increased, Healy says. Studies quoted in the Economist indicate classic busty blonde beauties charge the highest rates, and anyone offering additional services can command significant premiums.

New Zealand sex workers have also benefited from a buoyant economy, Healy says. More people have money to spend on sex here than in other post-GFC countries. 

Bennachie at the Prostitutes Collective says the internet has been of particular benefit to the male prostitution industry, which has not traditionally had the support of either brothels or agencies. 

When Grindr came along, it was seen more as a blessing than a curse.

Male sex workers find it useful to operate through these sort of applications, Bennachie says, as they can advertise their services on their profile. Online communities also allow individual recognition and group support among the gay community. 

Healy says the bottom line for many clients, as they weigh the pros and cons of dating websites and apps against paying for a prostitute, comes down to time and efficiency versus cost. Clients also are weighing up which option is likely to provide sex – and with a disease-free, well- groomed partner.

“Wanting sex versus actually getting sex are very different things,” Farvid says. There’s also the added factor of media representation. There may not be as much of a stigma attached to buying sex as there used to be, she says, but it’s still frowned upon.

The NZPC says it would like to see the next five years offer more options for sex workers to operate as independents. Healy says some clients will always prefer to go to a brothel but at the same time, she would like to see a more flexible environment for prostitutes both online and offline.

For the time being, the internet is making sweeping changes to the landscape, and it’s one both the public and those working in the industry have to adapt to. In the words of Mistress Sophia: “I’m a child of the internet.” And it’s there where she thrives.