Sex workers have created the perfect method for keeping people honest online

Many businesses are based on trust.
Many businesses are based on trust.
Image: Daniel Greenfeld for Quartz
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If you work at Goldman Sachs in a major US city and you want to be tied up by a woman and then have sex with her, there’s a good chance you’ll first have to speak to Rita.

She’ll insist on calling your office, speaking to the switchboard operator, and being patched through to your desk. Then she will want to check out your profile on the company website and LinkedIn. She’ll demand you send her message from your work email, and require a scan of either your passport or driver’s license.

And you will comply.

Rita’s business is an online brothel that specializes in bondage and kink, and offers an essential customer-vetting service for sex workers. She is a madam, but for the electronic era. And the fact that her business exists at all offers a key insight into the future of trust and jobs in the technology-driven 21st century.

How technology disrupted prostitution 

Mid-range prostitution is a relatively new market, enabled by technology. Before the internet, it was hard for escorts to find customers: They had to either walk the streets searching for customers (the lower end of the market), rely on word-of-mouth, or work with agencies. Walking the streets was dangerous, while agencies ate up a large share of workers’ profit and autonomy, and created a bottleneck to entering the market. The internet changed all that.

“Before the internet, agencies provided the steady flow of clients and screening, but their capacity was capped,” Baylor University economist Scott Cunningham said. Soon after Craigslist launched in 1995, US escorts quickly started marketing directly to customers online. This newfound ability to advertise on the internet grew the market, said Cunningham, because more women and men could work independently. 

Today, sex workers can promote their own services on multiple websites (with hundreds of other competitors). This system means customers enjoy more discretion and a wider selection, while giving workers access to millions of potential customers, all over the world, from the dignity and safety of their own homes, while retaining their autonomy and earnings. Agencies make up a much smaller share of the market, says Cunningham.

Still, agencies have one remaining edge over independent sex work: They reduce risk. This is the market opportunity Rita has spotted.

Even criminals need someone they can trust 

If you’re selling something illegal, you can’t rely on the law to make sure the buyer upholds their end of the deal. Once the bill comes, clients might turn violent, or turn out to be cops. That means trust commands a large premium and that’s the centerpiece of Rita’s business model: watertight background checks on would-be johns.

Rita represents sex workers who offer BDSM in addition to sex. When rough play is on the list of services you offer, a high level of trust is essential; hence, Rita’s elaborate screening process, which can take days. ”I am looking to weed out police and crazies,” she said. She estimates that only one in four potential customers ultimately passes. Those who do win some time with a professional escort/dominatrix, but it comes at a hefty price: Each hour can cost up to $800, and Rita’s cut is 30%.

After every session, Rita calls and checks on her sex workers and offers them coordination, marketing, and a professionally decorated “play dungeon” in her apartment. But the screening is her main value-add. Escorts can screen for themselves, and many do. But a third party like Rita can be more objective and efficient, and has an incentive to protect the customer.

Across industries, any entrepreneur in need of cash can be tempted to lower their standards and regret it later. And small-business owners commonly find it overwhelming to do tedious due-diligence tasks on top of providing actual goods and services. That’s why outsourcing human resources, accounting, marketing, and research is so common.

Sex work is no different. Cunningham notes that several other third-party screeners for sex work exist.

Building trust in the dark web

Rita is addressing a problem that every business, both legal and illegal, has. Before the internet, more commerce occurred locally—customers knew their merchants or service providers and went back to them repeatedly. As technology has expanded our transactional networks, it must also offer new ways of building trust and reputation.

Online reviews—of anything from restaurants to handymen—are the most conspicuous example of this. As we’ve reported, they’re critical to the functioning of the ultra-secretive marketplaces of the dark web, which trade everything from drugs to weapons to stolen identities.

But reviews are not always reliable; referrals also play a key role. In fact, the higher the stakes, the more important the referral. You might trust Yelp to try a new restaurant, but you wouldn’t hire a new employee just because she has four and a half stars. The same is true for people engaging in crime. (A government official said that accessing the darkest corners of the dark web requires an invite—and you can only get an invite if you have been referred by “trusted criminals.”)

There are two-way reviews—by both the client and service provider—on escort websites, just as there on Uber or Airbnb. But many escorts still require at least two references from other escorts before taking on a new client, Cunningham said. That means first-time clients are often out of luck. The only option is to find a less fussy, lower-range escort, and work up the reference chain. To get the best, you have to get a reputation as a good customer.

So if you work at Goldman Sachs and you want to be tied up and whipped by a sex worker—but it’s your first time—you might go to Rita.

Technology doesn’t just destroy jobs—it creates them

The lesson here is that, while you’d think all the technological options for finding customers would make Rita’s job as a madam obsolete, it has actually made her services more critical. The internet may open up the market, but it hasn’t yet provided the trust that escorts need, nor the assurance of quality clients want. Rita protects her sex workers from abuse with her screening. She helps well-to-do johns get the standard of service they want because she trains new providers in BDSM, sits in on their first few sessions, and offers constructive feedback. Everybody wins.

Every time technology shakes up how we work, we worry that humans will lose their livelihoods. This time it seems even worse than before because smarter technology can now do tasks that once required human intelligence.

But Harvard economist Larry Katz speculates that those who will thrive in the modern economy will be the ones who can pair technology with particularly human interpersonal skills that no machine can replicate. Specialists in trust and mediation are a prime example of this. Rita’s vetting isn’t just based on checking phone numbers and passport scans. She says she has developed an intuition for acceptable customers, and that she picks up vital information from the tenor of the email interaction.

What once made agency madams valuable wasn’t just customers and marketing, but also accountability and protection. Today, in a much bigger digital market, those trust-building services are needed more than ever. One step ahead of the mainstream economy, Rita’s thriving business shows that some jobs won’t disappear. They just need to be recast in a way that capitalizes on what made them valuable in the first place.