Since becoming a full-time companion (my euphemism of choice) in the United States about nine months ago, I have noticed two distinct issues that affect our safety and ability to continue to operate. The first, most pressing issue is the fact that full service sex work is illegal in most parts of the country. The second issue is the fact that a very large online community of reviewers or “hobbyists” exists. While most hobbyists are not sociopathic predators who use coercive tactics to rape sex workers, the very fact that a review community exists creates a power structure that makes coercive rape a fairly common occurrence for sex workers. With so many sex workers coming forward saying they were sexually violated after being blackmailed with the threat of a bad review, there is something deeply wrong with a community of reviewers who perpetuate misogyny and rape culture.
The problem comes out of the hobbyist propensity to reduce sex workers to commodities. Many hobbyists claim it is important for them to know what they are getting into if they’re going to drop that kind of money on a “product,” and on the surface this argument makes sense. Law enforcement is a very real concern not only for sex workers, but also for our clients. It seems reasonable that a client would want to know whether or not they can trust that a sex worker is legit before agreeing to meet with them. Depending on the mood I’m in, I can even be sympathetic to the plight of the poor hobbyist who had a kinky fantasy that a sex worker cannot/won’t fulfill. We are, after all, quite the expensive hobby.
When we talk about reviews, though, and the information that is contained within them, we are not just talking about simple yes or no answers to questions of legitimacy and customer satisfaction. The hobbyists’ arguments for the necessity of reviews fall apart with one look at the reviews themselves. Not only will you find a full and detailed accounting of a sex worker’s body type and appearance, grooming habits, gender assignment versus presentation, and how nice/real their various body parts may or may not be; you also have the opportunity to read a very detailed account of the session a hobbyist enjoyed (or didn’t) with a sex worker. This includes all the dirty details on what the sex worker was or was not willing to do, and how happy or unhappy that made the hobbyist. These reviews can often read just like an Amazon.com review, with all the information about the provider’s body listed like basic product info, and the experience with the product (person) detailed below. I think most sex workers and even quite a few hobbyists would agree that these details are unnecessary and in fact compromise sex workers’ legal safety, since most of us try not to admit to exchanging sex for money.
I believe these sorts of details are included in order to commoditize sex workers, making them less than human and less deserving of empathy. It also creates a power structure in which hobbyists can use the threat of a bad review, or disappointment at not receiving services a sex worker chooses not to provide, to coerce workers into doing things they don’t want to do.
Let’s say, for example, that business has not been as good as usual for the past month and you’re worried about paying your rent. What happens when you agree to a session with a hobbyist during this financially unstable period? You could show up and your session could go very well and you could leave it feeling relieved that this hobbyist will probably write you a good review and you will probably get more clients from it and thus be able to make that rent payment. Or, perhaps you show up to the session and the hobbyist will ask you for anal sex even though that’s something you don’t always do (but have done in the past and some of your reviews mentioned that you did.) When you tell them that’s a boundary you can’t cross that particular day, they tell you that they’re really disappointed since they read a review that says you did it, and they may even want their money back and/or subtly threaten to write a bad review. What choice do you make then? Is it really so easy to stick to that boundary when your rent is coming up and you know you won’t be able to pay it with that bad review out there affecting your bookings? This is the type of situation that sex workers in areas dominated by review board culture frequently find themselves in. This is how hobbyists use their power and entitlement to rape.
There are many, many sex workers out there who depend on reviews for business. Some sex workers even exclusively use reviews for marketing and advertising. I have been lucky enough to avoid accepting reviews altogether while still maintaining a healthy business. I devote a large amount of my time to marketing and advertising in venues outside of review boards, and maintained a sexuality blog that talked in detail about my sex life and interests before I even entered into this business that has been an invaluable marketing tool for letting potential clients know what I’m all about. I would never expect other sex workers to opt out of reviews, especially if they know how to work the system in a way that feels safe to them and makes them lots of money.
However, we need to begin working towards abolishing the hobbyist review system as it exists today. This work begins by doing just what we’re doing here: talking about why review culture is a problem, a hierarchical system that creates a culture of coercion and rape. We need to be outspoken with our clients about this and ask them to opt out where they can. Until we achieve decriminalization, we need to think about ways we can keep the process of vetting sex workers and clients more egalitarian. There are blacklists (though I do not believe there are many free-to-view blacklists currently operating, and that’s a big problem), and sites like P411 and Date-Check at least allow us to say whether or not a client is “OK,” or “satisfactory.” But we need to level the playing field by lobbying clients and review boards to include less information on sex workers in reviews. Finally, we need to create a review site maintained by sex workers that goes into detail about how clients behaved in sessions. I get a big kick out of imagining a client review site that lists details like penis size and sexual prowess. What would be most helpful, though, is knowing how well a client respects not only the sex worker’s boundaries but also their humanity.