5 ways technology changed the sex trade

(ThinkStock Photos)(ThinkStock Photos)The world's oldest profession has gotten a digital facelift. Just ask Charlie Sheen, whose trail of six-figure sex romps is only a google search away. All it took was a bunch of ones and zeros-that's binary code, not dollars-to retire the old pimp and street walker model. A new survey on Wired.com by Columbia University Sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh adds fuel to this theory. Venkatesh spent years studying the evolving culture of New York City sex workers and found a very different model of prostitution in the digital age. Here's a rundown of his findings:

  1. Blackberries are now status symbols: Venkatesh found that this particular brand of mobile service was the choice for sex workers. 70 percent of those who owned a PDA chose a Blackberry model, compared to 19 percent who owned an iPhone and 11 percent who chose another type of smart phone. The reason, says Venkatesh, is the underground message the device sends. "To clients, [the Blackberry's] symbol of professional suggests the worker is drug-and disease-free," he notes.
  2. The internet has replaced pimps. Of the 11 pimps Venkatesh interviewed in 1999, all were out of work by 2003. Online escort agencies are more appealing for customers because they offer false receipts to help cover their tracks. Access, no doubt, plays a role as well. Booking a prostitute at home feels safer than cruising the streets. Because online escort services take a cut from sex workers, several prostitutes have created their own agency web pages to become self-incorperated web entrepreneurs. Even celebrities allegedly turn to the internet for sex-workers (again, Charlie Sheen). 83 percent of sex workers have a Facebook page, and with good reason: It's where a quarter of their clientele comes from. Venkatesh estimates that by the end 2011, it will be the leading online recruitment space.
  3. The threat of violence is lower. It's still one of the most dangerous jobs in America, but the lack of pimps has lowered the risk of beatings. Social networking has helped too, as workers can screen clients through Internet searches and email communication.
  4. The cost to turn a trick has gone up. Most sex workers carry two cellular devices, according to Venkatesh, because clients often steal their phone to gain control. Because it's their source of employment, it's imperative they carry one at all times. It's also crucial the phone never contains any contact information which could put them or their clients at risk. Replacing phones can get expensive and unlimited mobile service is needed, especially if a sex worker is getting her Johns through the internet. Sex workers who recruit online also invest more in clothing since they don't have to walk the streets. One worker claimed to spend $2,000 a year on shoes because clients like them to wear heels during sex.
  5. So has the income of an online sex worker. Venkatesh found that online escorts make twice as much as street walkers on average, with high-end sex workers making up to $120,000 a year.
But with more money comes more problems. With a wider net to catch clients, child trafficking is on the rise. This Sunday's Super Bowl event in Texas is considered a major target for sex trade workers, young girls in particular. Escort services and individual workers are booking clients who will pay for their transportation across the country. Authorities continue to chase sex trafficking trends online, but it's hard to keep up with technology.

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