Can Facebook Replace Pimps?

According to a new report on sex work in New York City, pimps are becoming passé. So is Craigslist — but Facebook is (allegedly) on track to becoming 2011's biggest sex-work hub.

In Wired (via PC Magazine), Sudhir Venkatesh breaks down Prostitution today, especially when it comes to technology. Some interesting findings: 70% of sex workers Venkatesh studied carried BlackBerries. The reason: "To clients, this symbol of professional life suggests the worker is drug- and disease-free." I guess an iPhone, used by just 19% of prostitutes, suggests to clients that the sex worker will drop your call. Also, the current market for sex work has apparently made pimps "superfluous." Venkatesh says the gentrification of New York City, especially Times Square, has made sex workers move indoors — and technology has enabled them to cut out middlemen and go into business for themselves. Since the demise of Craigslist's adult services section, that technology is often Facebook.

In 2008, 25% of the sex workers Venkatesh talked to told him Facebook was a source of regular clients, Making it the most common source after effort agencies (31%). And 83% of sex workers said they maintained a Facebook page. Venkatesh says, "I estimate that by the end of 2011, Facebook will be the leading on-line recruitment space." A cursory search for "escort" on Facebook does turn up the Windows application EscortPro, meant to help sex workers keep track of their business, but no personal pages. Presumably, actual escorts using Facebook are being discreet, as the social networking site says it will remove and possibly report sex worker pages: "We will take down content, disable accounts, and may take further action including escalating illegal activity to law enforcement."

As Facebook becomes universal, though, it will be forced to cope with the kind of activity once confined to Craigslist, MySpace, or niche sites. Facebook used to be the Internet equivalent of a walled-off college campus, but now it's becoming the Internet equivalent of the world, with all the complexities that entails — including a market for sex. That said, some are skeptical of Venkatesh's numbers. Says Melissa Gira Grant, "I'm not a Columbia professor, but my own network of sex worker friends and colleagues is at least as wide, and extends across the US — and no one, not one of them, uses Facebook as part of their direct client marketing." She adds, "Sometimes, just being female talking about sex on social networking sites means men will hit you up with offers to hire you. [...] But that doesn't mean it is what you are there to do with your profile, or that it is widespread." And Venkatesh's figures aren't completely clear about what sex workers are doing on the site. 83% of them may have a Facebook page, but maybe they're just using it like all other workers are — as a way to waste time.

Report: Sex Workers Turn To Facebook, Blackberrys [PC Magazine]
How Tech Tools Transformed New York's Sex Trade [Wired]

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