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25 July 2016updated 26 Jul 2016 9:18am

“They pay me in Bitcoin”: What it’s like to work as an escort in the digital age

Groupon photoshoots, SEO, and what spying and sex work have in common. 

By Barbara Speed

Navigating the market as a sex worker isn’t easy. In the UK, the act of prostitution itself is legal, but all sorts of related pursuits that might actually help you find work – kerb crawling, offering services in a public place, or acting as an agent or brothel manager – are not. 

But the rise of the internet has made available a whole new range of tools, some of which are particularly useful to sex workers trying to make a living. Oz, an Australian male escort who has worked in London for around six years, meets me for lunch to explain how he uses his phone and laptop to boost business and keep himself safe.

Ask me anything (really, anything)

Oz has his own website, which he employed a developer to build and now maintains himself. He’s constantly trying to boost it up Google’s search rankings using SEO (search engine optimisation) tricks familiar to journalists and marketing executives: linking it to his Twitter, updating the site regularly with blogposts about other escorts he offers “duos” and “trios” with, and linking to his ads on online sex work directories. Interviews like this one help, too. 

He recently participated in an AMA, or “ask my anything”, thread on reddit, in which users quizzed him about his life as an escort. Users asked whether he ever has sex outside work (yes), and the weirdest requests he’s had (to kick someone repeatedly in the balls).

Why reddit? “I’m into a lot of nerdy stuff myself, science fiction and fantasy, so I lurked on the site for a long time before I did the AMA,” he tells me.

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But he was also gunning for clicks: “I thought it would generate a lot of traffic, and it did – it sold a few videos, and helped my search rankings.”

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Hell to pay

Taking payment is a constant difficulty for sex workers, and as a result are most forced to take wads of cash, which they keep in their homes. “I prefer not to use bank accounts,” Oz tells me. “And you can’t really use PayPal for that kind of thing because they ban you if they think you’re doing sex work.”

Advances in blockchain technology, though, can offer a way around this, as payments are not made through a bank and aren’t traceable. “When I work for overseas clients, I get them to pay me in Bitcoin, if they can figure that out. It’s pretty alien to some of my clients – lots are middle-aged and older, and not all that tech-savvy.”

Swipe right

Like many other sex workers, Oz occasionally gets work from dating apps like Tinder or Grindr. “Whenever I do that, I get 100 complete time-wasters for every genuine person. So it’s quite time-consuming.” Other app users tend to know he’s an escort because he has “kind of glossy” photos, which he had taken by a photographer through a Groupon deal.

I ask whether the rise of dating apps, which supposedly make casual sex easier than ever before, has affected the market for sex work, but Oz says the two scratch slightly different itches. “People who want an escort want discreetness and quality. You could have something for free or next to free at home, but people who can afford it want something special, so they’re willing to pay for it.”

Face unrecognition

Any photos of Oz online obscure his face through blurring, which he paid someone from a crowdsourcing website to do. “I blur my face because of the progress of facial recognition and reverse image search technology,” he says. “And what it might be like in another five to ten years.”

In Russia, this is already a pressing concern: FindFace, a facial recognition app, has been used to find sex workers on social media and out them to friends and family.

Double ohh 7

Perhaps most importantly, new technology is helping keep sex workers safe. The Ugly Mugs app and email alerts, used by Oz and many of his friends, circulate details of punters who didn’t pay or were violent.

Oz also uses the TrueCaller app, which shows you what names a phone number has been saved under in other users’ phones. The app is marketed to the general public, so you may just find they’re listed as “Bob”, but it’s also popular among sex workers who might mark “do not work with” or “time waster”.

Escorts also use photo recognition (such as reverse searching an image on Google to see where it has appeared before) to check out punters’ photos. “We investigate them to see whether they are using a fake photo or are dangerous,” Oz says. “But also to see how rich they are.”

While Oz has his digital escorting down to an art, the skillset overlaps with some very different industries. “I know a few escorts who would make quite good spies,” Oz says, “because of the skillset they picked up on the job.”