Thursday, April 9, 2015

From an Industry to A Hobby: How Review Boards Have Changed Our Work

I was forwarded a couple of links to a great and very relevant blog by a sex-worker from US. I feel they both merit a re-post:

The good old days: 2007 Village Voice print escort ads, shortly before the dominion of the review boards (courtesy of the Design Observatory Group)
The good old days: 2007 Village Voice print escort ads, shortly before the monopoly of the review boards (courtesy of the Design Observatory Group)
When I first started working as an escort in this industry, review boards did not exist. The internet was not as widely used as it is now and I worked for agencies that advertised in the phone book or in local papers. We didn’t even have to post photos of ourselves in a public forum; some operator just described our looks and personality over the phone and clients took their chance at booking us. Business was hit or miss, but I liked the anonymity. Though I heard more and more escorts were using online advertising to promote themselves, I was late to the game. My old way of working didn’t yield me as much revenue as other workers, but it protected my privacy. And then finally the gig was up. I had to change with the times and start advertising online or I would have virtually no business. But I didn’t want a website. And I definitely didn’t want reviews.
I first became aware of escort review sites when I read an article about the Big Doggie debacle of 2002 and even then, I still didn’t quite understand what the website was. Upon visiting TBD for the first time, it looked like a confusing mess of ads and message boards, none of which I could access. Sometime later I found out about The Erotic Review, mostly from the controversy stemming from its founder Dave Elms and the various charges that were brought against him. Either way, I wanted nothing to do with either site. As someone who had already experienced arrest once before while working, I couldn’t believe any escort would want a detailed description of a session with a client posted online for anyone to read, providing law enforcement with another tool to prove their guilt in prostitution cases. Oh sure, the  disclaimer stated that the reviews were for “entertainment purposes only”, but when escorts got “fake” reviews, they were sure to raise holy hell about it and complain to the site administrators to have it removed, which is a daunting process in itself.
Then I got one. A fake review, that is. Yes, my first review was a fake review. It described me as having blond hair (not at that time),fake boobs (I wish) and doing a session I don’t recall booking, but I couldn’t read the rest because I wasn’t a “VIP” member. It was just a fluke that I found it as I never looked at TER, but I was bored one night and there it was, linked to my phone number and email address. I didn’t know what action to take–I didn’t know if I even could take action. Then a friend who was well-versed in the review system told me I could write the TER administrators and have the review pulled, which they did. But that request also got me banned from having a profile on the site, either to place ads or comment on the message boards. At the time, I didn’t care much about this.
A sample TER escort review screenshot
A sample TER escort review screenshot
Then things started to change in my world. I started to hang out with more escorts and attend “meet and greet” parties for escorts and clients,where folks would talk about “the boards” (the discussion boards on TER) and ask if I had reviews, where I advertised, and how long I’d been working. Turns out I’d been escorting for a while but because I didn’t use “the boards,” I was virtually unknown in this community and thought of as a newbie, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In casual conversation, other ladies would refer to clients by their TER handles. Some were even good friends with the board moderators, who wielded a lot of power. The previous year, several of them even attended the funeral of a hobbyist, a popular presence on the local board who used to write naughty limericks and was well-liked by many local escorts and clients. To this day, they still refer to him as his TER handle, never by his first name. It seemed to be a real community, something I wished I could’ve found years earlier before I got involved with sex worker activism.
I also started to get more reviews, unbeknownst to me as I thought I had been delisted. I advertised strictly for massage at the time (but did escort sessions for regular clients and those I felt comfortable with) and while my reviews were good, the numerical ratings for my performance were limited due to the acts I wouldn’t perform. I had no idea about any of this until a good client tried to post an outstanding review for me and had it rejected because the rating was not on par with previous reviews. He pushed through and got it posted, but not without lamenting on the boards about what a fucked up system it was. Then it happened again. A client that I had a fantastic session with had posted a review that was rejected because he had to find a way to prove that I was “really bi” because I don’t do anal, acts that could warrant a higher rating on the site. As per site rules—”An escort provider may only be eligible to earn up to a 7, unless she is also willing to perform the following during a session: Kisses With Tongue, Bare-Back Blow Job, Really Bi, Anal Sex, or More than One Guy. The addition of each offering will raise the score she is eligible for by one point,” with the best rating being a 10 for a “once in a lifetime” session, down to a 1 for a “ripoff.” So if the provider only does erotic massage sessions, the highest performance rating she could get is a 7. Same thing with most pro-domme sessions. Once again, the front page of the site states “everything contained here is fiction and is for your entertainment and amusement only,” so why have a rating system that scores higher points for a provider if a reviewer can “prove” he committed certain acts with her if it’s all supposedly fictional? Yes, I’m aware that they make that disclosure statement for legal reasons, but the hypocrisy of it is still so preposterous.
This got me thinking back to the pre-review days when you could refuse to perform a certain act that you were uncomfortable with, and usually, that was fine. If the client was upset about it he might not see you again, but you didn’t have to read about it a few days later. Blow jobs always required a condom (CBJ), deep french kissing (DFK), was reserved for clients that were super-cute, and Greek was rarely on the menu. Nowadays, escorts are pushed to perform acts that make them uncomfortable, all for the sake of getting that 10 point review. I think this blurs the lines of consent: are escorts performing certain acts that are out of their comfort zone because they want to or because they are fearful of getting a less than stellar review that might affect their business?
It’s not to say that good reviews can’t help an escort’s business, but much like the Yelp! review system for mainstream businesses, this review system has flaws. Fake reviews are harder and harder to get removed these days, stories proliferate of guys writing poor reviews to get back at escorts for whatever reason, and review board owners sometimes lower the review scores of escorts who won’t fuck them for free. The first time an escort friend of mine got a mediocre review, she started sobbing in her hotel room, damning the last minute appointment she took with the guy who showed up late and had to be rushed out the door, resulting in a bad experience for him. I tried to console her in every way possible, saying the reviews were an offensive, ridiculous practice and that she had dozens of glowing reviews to offset that last one, but she was convinced it would destroy her business. Another time, I sat having cocktails with three other escorts who were obsessed with talking about their review scores, talking up their 9s and 10s as if this point system were the only thing that proved their value as sex workers .
Sample TER escort review screenshot
Sample TER escort review screenshot
The guys who write reviews call themselves “hobbyists,” a term I had never heard before these review sites popped up. Some of them proudly identify with the title, but here’s the deal—there are “hobbyists” and then there are clients. Hobbyists are generally not good clients. They’re not the guys that we want to cultivate into regulars, the ones who we make a connection with, who treat us like queens. They’re the guys who want to see a different girl every week or two so they can write a review and get their 15 day free VIP membership. They make promises like “I will repeat” in their reviews, but they rarely do, as they can’t review the same person again, so they move on to the next escort. My best clients, my regulars, the ones who take me out on the town and spend all night with me, don’t write reviews. A few admit to reading them, but none of them write them. Sometimes these hobbyists go into shock when they see that a provider doesn’t have any reviews, not realizing that there’s a whole world of men out there who don’t read or write reviews or even know about the existence of these review boards.
Nowadays, there’s review sites for nearly every aspect of the industry—from Pro-dommes and subs, massage parlor workers, strippers, streetwalkers, and of course, escorts. The conversations that transpire among hobbyists on some of these review sites oftentimes range from junior high banter littered with talk about “hookers” and “how to weed out fat and ugly providers” to the nearly indecipherable posts strewn with acronyms (BBBJCIMNQNS, MSOG, DATY, DT, DS, FF, etc.) that even Urban Dictionary can’t always interpret. While most of it is just annoying nonsense, much of it is offensive enough to fuel the prohibitionists’ fire in characterizing all johns as predators who need to be punished. Earlier this year, one grad student from the University of Chicago even did a research study  on the USA Sex Guide (one of the more detestable yet comprehensive review boards)  called “Our Great Hobby” (Manson, Mann, Marro, Matvey), in which it was determined that “many of the men blame women for enticing them to buy sex.” While it seems questionable that monitoring two months of message board posts from anonymous users would qualify as research that properly characterizes all men who buy sexual services, it does show that outsiders are taking notice of these websites and using the information gained from them to try to take down the industry as a whole. (I won’t even touch on the campaign that’s littering the streets of Chicago right now.)
This isn’t to say I’m slamming all sex worker review boards. I understand many workers absolutely loathe the boards but I’m also aware they serve a purpose. I’ve talked to many clients over the years who’ve been scammed by sex workers who took their money and ran, did a bait and switch or provided a poor experience. There’s also the fact that the spread of End Demand ideology nationwide has caused LE to ramp up arrests of johns, so they need to be wary of undercover cops posing as escorts. I get that these guys need to have a venue to check on someone and see if they’re a legitimate provider who will provide them with the type of experience that they’re looking for. I also understand that many providers find these sites to be helpful for their business, and that they provide a forum for them to connect with other workers. The boards offer a community for both sex workers and clients that wasn’t present when I first started in the industry. All that aside, they are also a sexist and demeaning forum for hobbyists to engage one another in locker room behavior without having to confront anyone face to face. One bad date on what might be an off day can potentially ruin a provider’s business, and most sites don’t allow any forum for rebuttal. Still, reviews and review sites have dramatically changed the industry in the past decade and many of the workers I know that have entered into the industry during that time can’t seem to live without ‘em.

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