The Heaux App: When Allyship Is Just A Marketing Strategy

by Mama Luscious on December 21, 2017 · 6 comments

in Prostitution, Uncategorized

It’s no news to anyone that sex workers are an extremely marginalized group of people. As always, where there are isolated groups of people, there will be opportunists scheming to make a buck off the fear and insecurity felt by those outcast from mainstream society.

I recently observed the development of an app simply called “Heaux.” It has not gained much momentum at this point, having just launched in May 2017. However, the risks involved in using it are apparent on multiple levels. The app coyly walks the line of legality, claiming to not be promoting sex for money, yet enabling all other aspects of escorting—in fact you can pay to be assisted at every turn. The app features drivers-for-hire, promotions for the founder’s “guides”, and a store to help you look the part.

In order to sign up for Heaux through the app store, you’re required to use your personal information, so the app poses a threat to your security from the very beginning. However, the potential for danger doesn’t stop there.

Lydia Dupra, the app’s founder and creator, dubs herself variously as an “adult industry leader”, “the Steve Jobs of Escorting,” and “the Heaux Mentor,” and refers to her current work as “creating jobs.” Her website sells her series of books on escorting, provides information on her pricey seminars, and includes a store for purchasing products which Dupra claims everyone needs in order to be a successful high-end escort. Of course, what this store actually consists of are mundane items used by many sex workers over the ages without the Heaux App’s guidance, such as sea sponges, makeup, and self-defense gadgets—but Dupra’s marked them up by 50-100 %.

The Heaux App is available to the public through iTunes and Google play. There is no approval process whatsoever for joining, unlike safe spaces like VerifyHim.com where users are required to prove their identity to gain access to a private community and blacklist. On Heaux, anyone can join—sex workers and clients, but also pimps, gawkers, and law enforcement. The app features a timeline for “heauxs” to post and connect with one another, a mechanism for hiring personal drivers, a public blacklist of bad clients (which is also shared publicly on the platform’s active Instagram page, allowing bad clients the possibility of retaliating since they can discover they are listed), and of course—“The Heaux Shop.”

I gave the app a chance after seeing a pitch claiming that Heaux App was a “Safe Space for Sex Workers”. At one point I responded to an Instagram posting about users allowed on the site, expressing my privacy concerns. I was curious about how “safe” this space could be for sex workers when the community could include anyone with a smartphone. Heaux’s Instagram account responded to me and explained that the success of the app was determined by its number of users versus the integrity of its safe space. My hopes for the app very suddenly deflated.

I unfollowed the page and deleted the app after this brief period of cautious optimism. I cringed thinking about how this predatory self-help/pyramid-scheme model was being applied to a community of vulnerable people.

Since then numerous users in the escort and sugar baby community have begun voicing concerns about the tactics and legitimacy of the Heaux operation. The primary website seems to shift focus with regularity, orders from the store are not being filled, the app is now charging money for access, and no customer service appears to be available for users. Dupra has also promised in postings that she would sniff out and eliminate all pimps present on the small social network, which raises further questions about the “safe space” the app claims to offer.

Investigating some of these complaints, I found even more tangible evidence of my concerns. Dupra has boasted about using Heaux App’s background check tool to research and out someone she refers to as a “troll.” She posted screenshots of highly personal information about another woman who frequents the Instagram sex worker and sugar baby community where Heaux App finds it’s home. Dupra used the opportunity to plug her convenient nine dollar per month background check service while broadcasting the woman’s real name and criminal record. She mocked her for being a “square,” assuming she is not a sex worker since she has no solicitation charges (?!). After this display of total disdain for sex worker confidentiality, my worries about Dupra’s operation are growing rapidly as I write this article.

Sex workers are easy prey. Legal troubles, abuse, violence, and damaged relationships are all a constant concern for us. This makes us a perfect marketing pool. Vendors can rack up their rates by simple promising a “safe space” for all hookers alike to not be judged and make more money—with the help of their services, of course.

Purported allies like Heaux design their pitches to promote a glamorous and apolitical conception of sex work as a get-rich scheme. Their marketing models tend to passively shame sex workers into feeling as though the next big break is just around the turn, but only if they cough up their hard-earned cash to improve their image.

It is obvious why sex workers are targeted by these people. Civilians with no skin in the game—and even “saved” former sex workers—seem to believe that we are all high-priced call girls, sitting around batting our lashes until a client calls wanting to pay us thousands of dollars. They want in on this fantasy of abundantly flowing, disposable cash. As much of society does, they diminish our humanity and view us as cash cows with plenty to spare.

For example, many of us are familiar with the photographer newsletters popping up in your inbox by way of data-mining from your ads. Instead of a legitimate response to your ad, you find that a photographer has kindly put together packages to better your business and attract more clients—to the tune of several hundred to several thousand dollars; a rate far higher than comparable boudoir photography services for civilians.

The danger of these sorts of “resources” provided by non-sex-workers is not simply a matter of insults to our pride or unethical marketing strategies. While looking for their cut of the game, these sex industry invaders fail to analyze the risks they pose their sex worker consumers or factor in the well being of the community as a whole.

This was certainly the case with Heaux App. A week or so after I deleted the app, I received a text to the Google Voice phone number that I originally signed up to the Heaux App with. The text read “(Heaux Alert!) Heaux App: secret sale in the Heaux Shop! Use code LOYALTY to see how much you’ll save at checkout. Just open the app and start shoppin -Lydia D.”

Understandably, I was furious. Being “out,” I am lucky this didn’t cause any issues for me besides pissing me off. But many closeted sex workers could have been exposed and hurt by this automated text alert they never explicitly agreed to receive. I was outraged and stated my concerns about Heaux App publicly for the first time. It turns out I wasn’t alone in my qualms about the app’s security. I posted a screenshot of the invasive text on my Instagram. Many other members of the sex work community who shared my concerns immediately responded. Just as I’d imagined, these women felt betrayed and put at risk by having such a blatant text message pop up on their phone when anyone could be around to look over their shoulder.

One woman who commented mentioned that her current partner has no idea about her former involvement in sex work. Her story demonstrates that our lives often depend on discretion. In my post detailing my concerns around the app, I spelled out this problem for the makers of Heaux App by illustrating a likely scenario: Imagine a sex worker or former sex worker who, like many of us, has an unsupportive relative or significant other. If this person did not previously know about the sex worker’s activities, the Heaux App could have clumsily revealed them. The resulting shock could lead to a damaged relationship, or even worse—to rage and violence.

Heaux App responded via comment again with a disappointing lack of concern, scoffing at me for caring about the safety of others: “Thanks for the free promo. Since I was a sex worker for almost 10 years, I understand and highly value time. But if you just give it away like you did with this post I understand why you’re so bitter about my success.”

Heaux App creator Dupra is only 26 years old and presents no evidence other than her own claim that she worked for a decade (!) that she ever was a sex worker. Needless to say, this was my last attempt at pleading the dangers of this app or the flaws of its approach to its creator.Thankfully, I haven’t received any subsequent indiscreet texts. I hope Dupra learned from this experience and hasn’t sent any to anyone else who signed up for the app, either.

Most of us know how keep ourselves physically safe, and how to look out for abusive third parties, bad clients, and other obvious dangers. What we don’t always realize is that sometimes biggest threats are posed by faux allies whose primary motivation is a piece of the pie. Their intentions are not always malicious–they can even be pure. However, their intentions do not make them more helpful to sex workers than the pimps or bad clients who selfishly expose us to harm.

One thing I would urge any ally considering tapping our industry to think about is that if prostitution is illegal in the United States, what does that mean for your ability to help or support us without exposing yourself to the same dangers we face? Is your product to “help sex workers” going to include a disclaimer somewhere that says “escorts are not welcome” or that the service “does not promote prostitution”? Can this truly be considered “helping” sex workers? Helping sex workers should not be confused with making money off of us—the two are almost mutually exclusive due to the sensitive and personal nature of our business.

The recent “dating” app Ohlala perpetuated the idea that sex for money or being an escort was not ok, but yet it portrayed the idea of ambiguous “dating” for money as progressive and innovative.

Pia Poppenreiter, the founder of Ohlala, emphasized that the app was created with women in mind because the design does not allow men to browse for women—only women can respond to men who are seeking dates. While this may, in fact, contribute to the increased safety of female users, the bottom line is that this platform is walking an extremely fine line maintaining this arbitrary legal distinction between escorting and “paid dating.”  The solution developers always seem to gravitate towards is throwing sex workers under the bus in order to maintain legality.

You cannot claim to be an advocate for sex workers while maintaining that you do not condone or promote sex in exchange for money. I personally believe that until sex work is entirely decriminalized, platforms like this cannot exist without being inherently predatory, unless they are run by actual sex workers on a not-for-profit basis.

In most cases, not only are the concepts behind these schemes politically inept, they just remove money from sex worker’s pockets without offering them anything substantial in return, often while endangering them.

What I find most disturbing is when sex-worker-targeted marketing schemes are run by people who appropriate sex work culture, falsely claiming to be or have been sex workers (or at the very least presenting themselves as the most in-the-know ally ever), while charging us money to use their guidance. Many sex workers are hungry for safe spaces and understanding. Even more of us are hungry to do great business. Because we are so heavily restricted by the law, our opportunities to do better business in safe and legitimate ways are few and far between. It just takes one clever person who knows the right things to say, backed by cash or other privilege, to steer sex workers away from helping themselves by claiming they can help us while profiting from us.

Sex work is hard—we are vulnerable and infrequently supported. But what my experience with Heaux reminded me of is that it is even harder when we are preyed on by those who call themselves our allies or who identify themselves as one of us.

Just like all marginalized people, we often work against ourselves by supporting the mechanisms that keep us weakened. We need to learn to use extreme caution when utilizing these resources, if we decide to use them at all. Ultimately, we deserve better than an outsider tapping into our cash flow. We need to make a stand and recognize these purported resources for what they truly are —an added disadvantage in our existing struggle.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Holly Marie December 21, 2017 at 5:02 pm

I watched an Instagram LIVE featuring her. She referred to the woman answering her hotline phone as someone who was an expert on being a lower end provider and referred to herself as high end. I asked her the difference and she said “I work inside so I’m highend”. She’s awful and I question her experience in sexwork.

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Marie R December 27, 2017 at 1:52 am

That’s a messed up way to go about it.

I got a similar idea, over four years ago, not so much for an app, but a social networking site for sex workers. (But just people in the industry helping each other, vs an app open for all & sundry, used as a platform for selling products.) I had no idea how to go about it, though. I told a friend on Facebook, who in turn directed me to one of his sex worker friends on Facebook. I told her that I knew about HIPS and some places had “bad date” lists, but more resources and social support were needed. She agreed on that point, but asked had I heard of $pread, and that sex workers tended to have some resources more on the local level, and said that people were already working on ideas like mine. She said that she was sorry to assume, but saw me as at least a partial outsider, and that sex workers more needed resources to help them help themselves, and would be wary of help from someone who wasn’t involved. To be fair, I wasn’t all that experienced- about 10 months prior, I had spent about four weeks replying to ads that had phone numbers on Craigslist (my shitty flip phone didn’t give me access to the reply addresses) which had netted me five client encounters and one “theft of services,” and I’d accepted three car dates off the street. Then, 5-6 months later, I started answering ads and posting from a laptop, which I’d done for about five months when I pitched that idea. That period of hooking was coming to a(nother temporary) close due to getting student loans. I suppose *I* was the one who was isolated and without resources, only my bf and a couple of out-of-state friends were aware of what I was doing for work. I didn’t even know about Tits & Sass til a bit over 2 years ago, sex workers on Twitter (which I don’t use) til later than that, and didn’t do any (half assed) screening until this Spring. I still only know a couple of escorts in real life, one (higher priced than I am) does it intermittently, the other is street-based and rarely has a phone. I’d long given up on my “Lip Service” idea, sad that it’s come to reality in this form.

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Princess Marx December 31, 2017 at 6:48 am

I was alarmed by several things with this app/Dupra’s website. 1) The markup on normal products (and the price of some of the offered “consultations”) are suspect. How can you claim to want to help SWers, but charge ridiculous markup to a generally financially disadvantaged population? It’s like saying you want to help/advise single mothers, but then you turn around & sell diapers/consults on-site at a ridiculous markup.

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Princess Marx December 31, 2017 at 6:50 am

2) There is no discussion anywhere in Heaux’s materials of how *exactly* they plan to protect our privacy/anonymity when the app store is explicitly tied to our real identities. I have zero reason to believe that either Heaux, Apple, or Google Play would defy a court order to divulge users’ info under the ever-present specter of “human trafficking.” A good SWer-oriented app would address these concerns before users had a chance to bring them up.

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Princess Marx December 31, 2017 at 6:56 am

3) The creators of the app seem blissfully unaware of similar efforts that have failed, and that gives me ZERO assurances when considering whether to trust them with my identity. A) Backpage recently got shut down for merely facilitating ads – not sure how Heaux thought it would be different. Why not learn from others & improve upon the product instead of repeating the same mistakes?
The fact that Heaux creators hadn’t considered what happened to Backpage suggests Heaux lacks the necessary professionalism and technical/legal know-how to protect themselves. And if they can’t even protect themselves, how can they protect me? B) As far as I know, Apple is still extremely strict in what kinds of apps it allows. Language on the Heaux app/site/IG page made it pretty clear that services included not only client matching, but also SW coaching, both of which could be construed as pimping (however ludicrous) in legal situations. Other apps with not only better execution but also better-coded language have been excluded from the App Store for lesser infractions. Once again, if they can’t even protect themselves, how can they protect me?

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Princess Marx December 31, 2017 at 7:03 am

4) My final point is speculative. The fact that Heaux has evaded capture by Apple’s screening process, all while using pretty transparent language, makes me think its creators possibly used shady tactics to get approved in the first place (eg using watered down language when launching, then changing it). This means that sooner or later they’ll be discovered & shut down. That’s a huge risk in my book (not to mention, a waste of time), and wouldn’t be worth it unless they were actually *planning* to get shut down & do something with the data they’ve acquired. These days, personal data is currency – it’s what the app industry is *actually* mining. It’s not about the sales from downloads – it’s about the data mining. And the thought of someone – a purported SWer ally – selling my SW data is terrifying. I don’t recall seeing a Privacy Notice that pledged not to sell data to 3rd parties (though I didn’t look for it at the time). So apart from being, at best, incompetent and unable to protect me, Heaux could potentially do something far, far more shady. Thanks for this important & thoughtful piece.

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