For sex workers, an app that provides extra protection

By Mary Emily O’Hara , written on September 9, 2013

From The News Desk

Recently, Safe IQ, a startup based in Ireland, launched an app aimed at better protecting sex workers in Ireland, the UK, Sweden, and Norway, countries where prostitution is legal. (Canada is next.) The “Ugly Mugs” app enables users to screen calls from men whom other sex workers have reported for violent attacks, aggressive behavior, harassment, theft, and other bad behavior rarely reported to police.

The app employs a simple but invaluable automatic call-screening system that checks incoming numbers and emails against a database of bad guys. The developers chose Android because Droid-based phones are cheaper and more prevalent among sex workers. Also Apple doesn’t allow apps to engage with the incoming/outgoing calls list. The only way it would work would be if people were to jailbreak their iPhones, which the group didn’t want to encourage. Outing violent johns to potential escorts is one thing, but apparently no one wants to cross Apple.

If it seems Pollyanna-ish for a developer to avoid encouraging jailbreaks while marketing an app to prostitutes, the organization seems to pride itself on hewing to the law. It only offers the app for download in countries where prostitution is legal. It also means that an app like this won’t be coming to America any time soon. Even if it did, that doesn’t mean American sex workers would use it.

Attorney Siena Baskin of the Sex Worker’s Project, a legal advocacy branch of New York’s Urban Justice Center, says, "Sex workers may be reluctant to download an app that is designed for sex workers, for fear that that their information would be retained and possibly shared with law enforcement or the public." Baskin suggests a similar app could be successful stateside if it were not marketed openly to sex workers but maintained some of features they could use to increase safety. "For example," she says, "an app could serve anyone who engages in casual sex encounters arranged online, which also has risks of danger."

Why, it sounds ideal for Ashley Madison and users.

"Bad date" lists, as they are frequently called in the States, are not new. Non-profits that perform outreach and advocacy work have for years handed out sheets of paper to sex workers that seek to inform them of violent attacks, thefts, crooked cops, and other safety issues. Some cities have some form of online bad date list directories: Seattle’s is on Facebook, Milwaukee uses BlogSpot, and Portland’s is published by a women’s crisis line.

Sex workers are no luddites when it comes to communication technology. When pagers took off they used pagers. After craigslist began cutting into Village Voice classifieds they migrated online and to social networks. In a 2008 study, Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh found that 25 percent of prostitution clients in New York City were contacted over Facebook while 70 percent of those with mobile devices chose Blackberry as their mobile phone of choice.

Because many sex workers loathe escort agencies for grabbing a piece of the action without providing security or support, a number of sex workers "self-incorporate and create a fake agency web page with swiped photos that make it appear as though they are part of a bigger operation." What's more, Venkatesh found that the Internet was disintermediating pimps, who were being forced into other jobs. In a sense, technology was empowering sex workers.

The European Ugly Mugs app springs off a similar website with a solid history of use: about 700 Irish sex workers use the online lists, and 40 downloaded the app during the first week it was available. Sites in Europe that list escorts have adapted to mobile, but sex worker advocates here in the U.S. have their doubts about any kind of official mobile use. According to "Prostitution and Sex Work" author Melissa Ditmore the illegality of prostitution creates a different kind of safety concern here than in Europe. "Sex workers are already surveilled by the government," she says, "and public posts on social media are watched by anti-trafficking NGOs. Such an app could be and probably would be surveilled by law enforcement, and this should be on people's minds when they use such technology."

“Avoiding one risk could lead to other risks,” she adds.

Baskin, the attorney, says the risks brought by such an app could be twofold: in addition to privacy concerns are fears that “bad date” lists could inspire retaliation from angry clients when they discover the sex worker has shared their information with others. Because of the criminalization of prostitution in the states, it is more difficult for workers to protect themselves from retaliation by going to the police. Baskin acknowledges that greater numbers of sex workers are using phones and online forums to conduct business with johns, and sees room for potential when it comes to apps, with some basic ground rules.

"Security and privacy settings should be very strong and disclosed as part of the app how-to," she says. "I would also incorporate a way to submit a bad date or ugly mug to the list through the app."

Ironically, avoiding legal risk, not just for sex workers but also for webmasters, led to the creation of Safe IQ. The original Ugly Mugs site was a side-project of Ireland’s escort directory site, run by the E Designers company. Recent legislative threats spurred E Designers to find a new separate entity to run its safety site, since if the law were passed, it could be a criminal offense for sex workers to access Ugly Mug services through a website with escort ads, which would be viewed as being akin to looking at child pornography.

The app means that legislation or no legislation sex workers could still be able to join the private Ugly Mugs site and use its directories without fear of criminal prosecution -- another example of sex workers adapting to technology.

[Image courtesy mattmangum]