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Sex work apps are about more than advertising – they can keep workers safe

Ugly Mugs, a new safety app aimed at sex workers, shows how technology can step in where law enforcement fails.

Matt Haworth was paying a visit to a sex worker charity in Manchester when a brightly coloured bulletin board in the corner caught his eye. It was covered with descriptions of bad punters – those who were abusive with sex workers, or didn’t pay up. “One that really stuck with me was a man who drove around in a Vauxhall, throwing hardboiled eggs at sex workers,” Haworth tells me over the phone, several years after the event. “It preyed on my mind for years. Why did he hardboil them?” 

There are around 80,000 sex workers in the UK, and they’re statistically more likely to be attacked or raped at work than most other groups. Because of their unsure footing in a country where sex work isn’t criminalised, but many related activities like streetwalking or running a brothel are, sex workers are also unlikely to trust the police – and police can be reluctant to help, or keen to clamp down on the profession rather than protect its workers.

The board Haworth saw in Manchester was an analogue version of National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a service run by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects. Now, it protects sex workers from rogue customers via a network of text and email alerts that are tailored to specific regions. The service gave Haworth, who owns a technology company, an idea: what if the sex workers could get these alerts directly to an app, and also use it the app to report back on their own safety?

With his team, Haworth developed the NUM app based on the charity's body of knowledge and feedback from sex workers themeslves. Spreading alerts as quickly as possible is a vital part of the app's offering. As Haworth tells me, the need for it is aptly demonstrated by the case of Thomas Hall, who attacked four sex workers in the course of a single evening in Manchester in 2013. This feature was also inspired by location-based dating apps like Tinder and Grindr. “We wanted to use the same location technology for a very different end,” Haworth tells me.

The app checks incoming numbers with its database of rogue punters, and also features a kind of panic button, which workers can press if they feel unsafe. Again, detail is key: the button feature uses a black background, so the phone doesn’t light up sex workers' faces and attract attention. The button can be used to report bad clients, call the police, or log that the worker felt unsafe so NUM can check in with them later to offer services and support. The app has been tested in Manchester to a positive response, and is currently undergoing a bigger pilot in London. Haworth tells me that the police themselves are supportive of the scheme. 

This would all be moot, of course, if smartphones weren't already part of sex workers' lives  but Haworth found out in focus groups that “many said that the internet and technology were paramount in their work”. Reason Digital, Haworth's company, carried out what he believes is the first dedicated research into sex workers’ smartphone use, and found that somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of sex workers in Manchester use a smartphone. Anecdotally, Haworth found that escorts and “indoor workers” who don’t walk the streets are more likely to use them, partly because “they get bored – there’s lots of waiting around”.

In fact, over the past few years, there has been a rise in technology services marketed specifically to sex workers. German site Peppr was billed earlier this year as the “Tinder for sex work”: workers can advertise their services, and punters can contact them through the app.

Unlike Ugly Mugs, it’s purely for advertising, and isn’t particularly concerned with workers' safety. I asked a customer service representative if the app acts on reports of violence, and was told that the company reserves the right to block any user, but has only done once for a no-show. “It’s amazing how effective linking people to their address and payment card is,” the representative told me.

Image: Peppr

The rise of apps aimed at sex workers isn’t surprising when you consider that sex workers have used online advertising for about as long as the internet has existed. Margaret Corvid, a New Statesman blogger who works as a dominatrix in Plymouth, tells me that she does all her advertising online on sites like Adult Work (she also receives NUM email alerts and reads them “religiously”).

In the early days of the internet, sex workers used directories like Alta Vista to list their services. Some of these have even survived the rise of Google and are still used by some workers, Corvid tells me, “especially in kink”. Many sex workers advertise, or have advertised, on sites like Craigslist or even Facebook, but these companies have become stricter in shutting down sex work advertising.

Craigslist originally ran an "Adult" listings section, but closed it in 2010 under pressure from the public, yet Corvid argues that the ability to advertise and receive payments online actually makes sex work much safer. Clients email her, then she “insists on a phone call with every client” and takes a security deposit via online payment.

In the US, where sex work is still criminalised, major credit card companies are pulling their services from sex work sites, and in doing so, putting sex workers at risk. This is partly because the ability to advertise online means workers can act alone. “You don’t need a manager or a pimp, and you can set your own prices and choose your own clients,” Corvid says.

Apps like Peppr, which automate the transaction, could arguably make this process less safe, however. Their click-and-go business model doesn’t encourage the kind of screening processes Corvid uses, and the app doesn’t pre-screen clients either.

Online booking and advertising also results in a digital paper trail, which, depending on your jurisdiction, can be a good or a bad thing. In the US, where the law is harsher on sex work, a digital footprint can also be a risk for workers and punters alike. In the UK, it may actually make the work safer. “Right now it's a good thing there's a paper trail, because even though it's almost impossible to get the cops to deal with issues of assault and violence against sex workers, there would be at least some records of the punter through the app system which could be obtainable by authorities,” Corvid says. 

Apps and websites, whether they are for safety or advertising, also offer other, less obvious, benefits for sex workers. “Sex work is a historically isolating occupation,” Corvid tells me, “and technology has really changed that.” Technology allows workers to organise politically when needed, or just swap tips – “like ‘Where do I get this specific type of stocking my client asked for?’”

This was one aspect of sex workers' use of technology that surprised Haworth and his team while they were developing the NUM app. At one meeting, Haworth tells me, a male sex worker in his teens asked quietly: “Are you only going to send out bad news? What about good news?” As a result, the team are including news of new support groups and successful convictions of rogue punters in their updates.

Overall, both old-school listings sites and apps aimed specifically at sex workers are empowering a group traditionally maligned by society, the police, and even, on occasion, its own clients. As Haworth tells me, the NUM app is radical because it’s “decentralised – it lets sex workers look out for each other”. Until our more traditional instiutions get their act together in their dealings with sex workers, this will remain incredibly important.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Maggie Goldenberger
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Living the Meme: What happened to the Ermahgerd girl?

Four years after going viral, Maggie Goldenberger reveals what it was like for her childhood photo to become a meme.

Maggie Goldenberger is not the Ermahgerd girl, not really. Although she is the star of the four-year-old meme of an awkward tween girl holding up her favourite Goosebumps books, she was actually in costume at the time.

“I was in like sixth grade [year seven] maybe, and I’d always dress up and take photos with my friends,” she says. “I don’t feel that offended by it [becoming a meme] or feel that embarrassed by it, because I was just messing around.”

Now 29, Maggie is video-calling me from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she works as a cardiac nurse. Although she was 11 or 12 in the now internationally famous picture, it only went viral when she was 25 and on a six-month-long travelling trip. The image spread across the internet and was quickly captioned phonetically to imitate a speech impediment, and thus a rhotacised pronunciation of “Oh my God” was born. “Ermahgerd,” an internet user emblazoned the image, “Gersberms!”

If you’re not exactly sure what that means, you’re not alone. Maggie’s mother, although immediately proud of her daughter’s new-found fame, was a little bemused by the internet’s captions. Maggie tells me her mother, “had the picture up in her office and she thought it was hilarious. But she kept telling me like: ‘Maggie! They’re putting all this German writing all over your picture! What’s going on!’

“She didn’t quite understand it but she loved it.”

Like her mother, Maggie didn’t immediately comprehend her new online fame. She is happy to share her story, and laughs about it, but admits she still doesn’t really “get” the meme. “I’m even more confused about it now than I was then,” she says. “I kind of got like the novelty of it and it being fun but I don’t understand how it’s lasted so long.”

It is this confusion that means that Maggie, unlike most of the memes I have spoken to, has not made much money from her viral fame. “It’s hard for me to get behind something that I don’t understand,” she says when I ask if she ever considered releasing merchandise. “Also if I’m gonna make shirts I wanted them to be like fair trade, organic . . . and it just seemed like a lot going on, like the responsibility of it.”

Though Maggie could potentially have made thousands of dollars, not cultivating her online fame means that she is now able to live a relatively normal life. Most people don’t recognise her from the image, although word-of-mouth does mean that sometimes strangers approach her to take a picture. Maggie doesn’t mind this, but she is annoyed when people won’t reveal why they want a picture with her. “Then I’ll just find out a couple weeks into knowing them that they know about [the meme],” she says, “and I’m like, oh, just say it upfront.”

Yet while Maggie has never been embarrassed of Ermahgerd girl, she did get a taste of the darker side of internet fame when her friend’s brother uploaded a more recent photo of her, in a bikini, to Reddit, and revealed in his post that she was lesbian.

“I could finally feel for other people like in those tabloid magazines,” she says. “I thought I was a pretty confident person, not that weird with my body and things, but to have someone put your photo out there without your knowledge and to have people sharing it and making ugly comments . . . it's kind of an ugly world out there.”

Although Maggie did not enjoy being exposed in this way, she says the best thing about becoming a meme was when Vanity Fair wrote a profile on her in 2015. “I was going through a break-up at the time and when it came out I was getting attention for that and it just took away attention from the big break-up, so that was good timing.”

Despite enjoying the renewed attention on that occassion, however, Maggie is generally very grounded, and says she doesn’t normally announce who she is when she meets new people. “I usually try and not say anything,” she says, when I ask if it affects her dating life. “I keep it on the DL.”

 



Via Maggie Goldenberger

In many ways it is fortunate that 29-year-old Maggie is detached enough from her Ermahgerd persona to be able to do this. “I try to feel for others that have their meme go viral and it's their real picture,” she says. “It was kind of weird that people were just making fun of a child without trying to figure out who the child was . . . I just don’t understand why people feel like it’s okay just because it's online and it's a stranger.”

For the future, then, Maggie says she is “still working” on embracing her meme status. She has no plans to cultivate it online or to make any money, and instead intends to do some travel nursing across the United States or potentially abroad. I ask her, if she could have been famous for anything else, instead of this, what would she choose?

“Initially I think like comedy,” she muses. “But then I think I should do something for the greater good.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.