Edged Out of Times Square and Off Craigslist, Prostitutes Turn to Facebook

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A survey of sex workers in New York City finds that 83% of prostitutes have a Facebook page, which accounted for 25% of their regular clientele in 2008. Five years prior, Facebook didn’t even factor into sex workers’ business plans, but the shift suggests that streetwalkers are increasingly getting off the street and turning prostitution into something more upscale — even respectable — according to Columbia University ethnographer Sudhir Venkatesh.

Venkatesh’s study of prostitution began in 1999, just as then mayor Rudy Giuliani was in the midst of his “quality of life” campaign to make the city more palatable to middle class families, ushering homeless people off the sidewalks and cracking down on offenses like panhandling, jaywalking, squeegeeing and prostitution — especially in the city’s seedier locales like Times Square and the Bowery. (More on Time.com: Legal Sex Work in Canada Just Became Easier, But Will It Be Safer?)

Venkatesh writes in Wired magazine:

The gentrification of Times Square made for a unique social experiment: What happens to sex workers when they are pushed off the streets and into the outer boroughs? I had little idea at the time that I’d be documenting the rise of an entirely new, upper-end “indoor” market, in which streetwalkers have given way to a professional class.

That market was spurred by demand for a higher-end product, Venkatesh argues. “Whereas men once looked for a secretive tryst, now they seek a mistress with no strings attached, a ‘girlfriend experience,’ and they are willing to pay top dollar for it,” he writes. And these are not the kinds of men who pick up girls through an open car window. The ubiquity of mobile digital technology helped professionalize such transactions, and allowed many sex workers to create their own businesses, avoid pimps and madams and keep 100% of their profits.

Venkatesh surveyed 290 prostitutes — 170 of whom made more than $30,000 a year, putting them a notch above your average streetwalker — and gathered a wealth of information about how and where they work, what they charge and how the industry has changed over the past 10 or 20 years. (And how it hasn’t: “indoor” or “outdoor,” prostitutes are still abused.) 

Among the compelling data are the differences in cost for the same sex act in different parts of town. Like in real estate, location matters: johns in the Wall Street and Tribeca neighborhoods are paying a premium. Image matters too: prostitutes say having a BlackBerry significantly increases earnings, because the “professional” device makes the sex worker seem drug- and disease-free. (More on Time.com: The Real Question About Eliot Spitzer Has Yet to Be Answered)

The rise of Facebook as a marketing platform, while not surprising perhaps, was also striking. Back in 2003, it wasn’t Facebook but Craigslist that prostitutes favored; among the women Venkatesh interviewed, 61% said they had used Craigslist to advertise, and in 2003 they were getting about 9% of their regular customers through the site. In late 2010, Craigslist shut down its adult-services section, following pressure from state officials and human-rights advocates as well as the highly publicized April 2009 murder of Julissa Brisman, a woman who advertised “massage” services on the site.

“But even before the crackdown on the site’s adult-services section, sex workers were turning to Facebook,” writes Venkatesh. Between 2003 and 2008, the share of regular clients coming from Craigslist fell from 9% to 3%, while the share from Facebook jumped from zero to 25%. At the same time, the survey data suggest, prostitutes were moving away from soliciting business at strip clubs, bars and hotels or through escort agencies, and relying more on social media and personal referrals. “I estimate that by the end of 2011, Facebook will be the leading on-line recruitment space,” Venkatesh declares in Wired.

The New York Daily News reports that “Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said the site comes down hard on anyone who uses it for illegal ends,” but that won’t likely stop escorts from using it to tout their services. The demand is simply too great. As New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne told the News: “Everybody is using the Internet.”

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