While the Internet has revolutionized all sorts of industries over the past 20 years, its effect on the world of prostitution has been especially dramatic. Street walkers and their handlers are still around, but an increasing number of tech savvy escorts have bypassed their pimps and have taken to the Web, where they've seen not only a surge of interest in their field, but a perceived lower risk of arrest.
Today's high-end sex workers typically have their own websites and even advertise their services on easily found online guides, with names like Eros and Slixa. It's a sophisticated business that operates in plain sight. While law enforcement officials still conduct stings, Justice Department records show arrests for prostitution in the U.S. dropped by nearly 50 percent from 1990 to 2011, falling from 111,400 to 57,345. (The statistics do not break down arrests between street walkers and online escorts.)
What constitutes a high-end sex worker? It's a variety of factors. Many online sex workers command prices of $500 per hour and up, and on average, see substantially fewer clients than prostitutes on the street. Scott Cunningham, an associate professor of economics at Baylor University, said they also tend to engage in safer sex practices and often have repeat customers.
With the recent high-profile arrest of an alleged prostitute in the death of Google executive Forrest Timothy Hayes, the sex worker industry has circled its wagons, with many organizations declining to comment. But there have been several academic studies on the industry's transformation that show the mindset of today's escorts.
Cunningham notes that the migration to online by the escort industry has helped mainstream the profession. That, in turn, has led to an increase in the number of women who become sex workers.
"In our recent survey of sex workers who advertise on the Internet, respondents were asked to rate their risk of arrest on a scale from 1–10 with 1 being lowest risk of arrest and 10 being highest," he wrote. "The average response was 3.91, with more than 31 percent rating the risk of arrest at a 1 or 2.5."
But make no mistake: Escorts who advertise and make appointments via the Web are just as illegal as any other form of prostitution.
"Each state has its own definition of what's legal and what's not," said David Schnipper, an Atlanta-based attorney. "For the most part, though, if there's an exchange of money for sexual services, most jurisdictions find that illegal."
Cunningham notes police in general have been less inclined to go after Web-based escorts, since the costs of such operations are higher than a street roundup. He cites a 2008 analysis by the Cook County (Illinois) Sheriff's Office, which estimated the average cost of arresting one Internet-facilitated sex worker to be $674.
Officials are hardly turning a blind eye on the process, though. On June 25, the FBI and IRS shut down MyRedBook.com — a popular site for escorts to advertise their services. The site was said to have more than 40,000 listings for various erotic services when it was shut down, though many of those were likely duplicate listings for escorts.
And crackdowns that big are raising fears that authorities could be renewing their focus on the escort business.
"I think right now [sex workers] are a huge target because there has been a lot more pressure from various conservative organizations," said Sabrina Morgan, a rights advocate for the sex worker industry. "This is something that has been building steam for several years."
Today's escorts rely on sites like the now-shuttered MyRedBook and The Erotic Review, which receives 500,000 to 1 million unique visitors per month, to raise awareness and advertise their services. Eros, for example, charges anywhere from $100-$400 for escorts to run an ad, depending on location.
In addition, many escorts have their own promotional Web pages where prospective clients can learn more about them and set up appointments. For those sex workers who do not have Web design skills, there are several online services — like EscortDesign and EscortBook — that, much like WordPress, offer easy-to-create templates that can create a professional-looking site in minutes.
That gives sex workers who advertise their services online more independence, too. Ninety-three percent of Web-based escorts classify themselves as "independent," compared with the 40 percent to 80 percent of street walkers who work under a pimp, says Cunningham.
And the more sophisticated and well-designed an escort's site is, the more it helps their bottom line.
"If a prostitute invests in her web site's copy editing, professional photographs, or video, this may signal to potential customers her quality, education level, or income (and thus popularity or success in the market)," University of Colorado law professor Scott R. Peppet said in a research paper. "Such signals matter: evidence suggests, for example, that sex workers proficient in English can charge higher prices and are more likely to attract customers, and that prostitutes willing to reveal an accurate picture of themselves command higher prices."