Predicting the Future of Sex Work in the Digital Age
Paying for sex is as old as humanity—and is undergoing incredible change.
Any discussion about sex work is going to be complicated but the bottom line is simple: people will always want, and will pay for, sexual pleasure. And other people will always be there to supply that need.
While in no way trying to make light of the complex issues involved, this article will focus on those who freely consent to be involved with sex work. If you, or someone you know, has been forced or coerced into sex work by violence, emotional abuse, or financial desperation, immediately contact emergency services or The National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
While it is frequently called the oldest profession, let’s look at where consensual sex work is today—and then its possible evolution into the future.
The world will embrace the decriminalization of sex work
A personal favorite quote by the famed biologist E. O. Wilson sums up the unfortunate views many individuals, and far too many governments and institutions, currently have toward sex work.
“The real problem with humanity: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology,” he said in a conversation with Robert Krulwich at Harvard University. Despite our many technological innovations, there are some people with an illogical resistance to the simple truth of sex work’s inevitable existence.
Luckily, there are signs we are nearing a more rational approach to sexual commerce. Countries like The Netherlands have been looking at the issue with their brains and not their guts for quite some time: focusing on human trafficking, organized crime, and human exploitation, and not criminalizing the concept of exchanging sexual pleasure for money.
Others point to studies showing that a decriminalized sex industry has noticeable health and community benefits. Using just one quick example, when a 2003 loophole in Rhode Island’s sex work laws basically allowed prositution—until the law was changed in 2009—Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah of the National Bureau of Economic Research found that during those six years “decriminalization caused both forcible rape offenses and gonorrhea incidence to decline for the overall population.”
To give some idea of how this sane approach to sex work is gaining momentum, last year Amnesty International joined Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization (WHO) in calling for the decriminalization of prostitution.
Sex work will become increasingly digital
Then there’s the impact of technology. With the arrival of the information revolution, many sex workers have found not just a new way of connecting with clients, but also a newfound sense of security.
Andrew McLean, who wrote a doctoral thesis on sex workers told The Age in 2014 that digital technology “gives [sex workers] the power to screen clients on the Internet, awarding them greater levels of perceived safety and financial security compared with that of street, brothel, or agency workers.”
Adding to safety and security, organizations like Peers (“an innovative, multi-service grassroots agency that was established by, with, and for sex workers in 1995”), and The Sex Workers Project—to name just two—offer a wide range of support for those in the industry: just a call, text, or email away.
Many sites now exist that not just provide venues for sex workers to offer their services, but also screening and security for both seller and buyers. Meanwhile, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become active places for the exchange of sex for money—albeit mostly under the radar.
It’s natural to assume that in the future these trends will continue. No doubt we’ll see even easier and safer ways for sex workers to connect with clients—and clients to have equally safe and easy interactions with sex workers.
Sex work will go virtual
With an already staggering number of specifically erotic digital playgrounds, like 3DXChat [NSFW], Sociolotron [NSFW], and Chathouse 3D [NSFW], it doesn’t take a lot to imagine the explosion that’s going to happen when virtual tech really gets going.
That there will be virtual sex work is obvious. Adult virtual world Red Light Center [NSFW] already has its own network of Working Girls and Working Guys willing to exchange sexual acts for a price. Even Second Life has a digital sex industry—and its own form of avatar sex workers.
“I do this for fun, because I am exceedingly good at it, and because I make relatively easy money,” says Khannea, quoted in Next Nature about being a Second Life prostitute.
Then we have the Bluetooth-enabled, Internet-connected vibrators like the Vibease, OhMiBod, and the KIIROO—that allow people to send and receive sensual sensations. More than likely we’ll be seeing virtual sex workers like Khannea integrating them and their future generations into their sex work repertoire.
Meanwhile other pleasure-for-pay venues continue to evolve. While not as popular as in its heyday, phone sex continues to draw customers—as well as its updated version: sexting and erotic chats.
By the way, for those interested in joining this new erotic economy, VirtualSexWork offers a range of options for earning some real-world money through virtual interactions with paying clients.
Sex work beyond even tomorrow
I opened with an admission that sex work can be complicated to discuss. But there’s even greater additional complexity in definitions: what sex, and sex work, can be—and thus could be in the future.
Think it this way, if a U.S. President had a hard time defining it, you know it’s going to be difficult deciding just what is, and what isn’t, sex.
The same is very true for sex work. Some adult entertainment performers consider themselves part of the occupation, even though they only have paid sex with other performers. Explicit fiction authors also sometimes use the term, as they pen sexual tales for money.
We touched a bit on these new possibilities with Second Life prostitution and the coming impact of both virtual and interactive sex toys. But that’s just scraping the surface.
For instance, consider a few thought experiments. Harking back to adult entertainment performers, what happens if you create a virtual version of yourself that you then send out to exchange sexual enjoyment for currency? There are already people making a profit creating avatars and erotic environments—being able to manufacture a sex worker surrogate of yourself is certainly not far off.
In the more physical world, what if you make a sexbot and offer its services? There’s already been some talk that eventually flesh-and-blood prostitution may be replaced by plastic and silicone. There are even services available already, such as Siumi Le Chic, that rents high-tech sex dolls.
Adding to this complexity, we’re getting close to a time when it’s going to be really hard to tell a sexy chatbot from a human being. Think about this: what if the sexy person you’ve been sexting or chatting with turns out to be an artificial intelligence? Are you a sex work client? Is the programmer a sex worker?
I did say it could get complicated, didn’t we? Add to all this, questions about what payment for sex can be.
We already have a massive virtual gold mining industry around games, where people repetitively play certain levels for game currency or rare weapons. What happens when the same occurs in erotic digital playgrounds? Would you call a gold miner, plugging away (sorry) at some kinky MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game) to acquire, and then sell, a special virtual character or erotic item a type of sex worker?
While these thought experiments are fun, in the end the biggest change to sex work is going to be less about technology and more about a shift in cultural perception.