The escort industry has been around for a long time, but it’s not very well understood by people outside of it. A new book aims to change that: “Escort: The User Guide.” Author and escorting expert Susan Bordo takes us through the ins and outs of this growing business in her new book, published by MIT Press. We spoke with Ms. Bordo about the industry, what she learned during research, and why this book is so important right now.
How did you come up with the idea for Escort? Was there something specific or some incident that led you to write this book?
I had read about escort sites (and similar services) such as UptopiaGuide before, and I’d always thought they sounded like great ideas. They seemed like an innovative way of connecting clients with independent sex workers. But my knowledge was limited—I didn’t know much about these sites beyond their basic functions. So when I decided to write a book on the history of prostitution, I started researching things like this more closely. As I got deeper into the subject, I realized that, like everything else related to sex work, there are lots of competing theories about what escort sites do and how they work. Some people who’ve studied them think they’re bad, others say they’re good, still others claim they don’t really matter at all. And of course the sites themselves have never provided many details about how they operate.
So I decided to try to shed some light on the topic. Escort is meant to be a user’s guide to escort sites—a primer for those who want to understand what sites like this are and why they exist. It also provides a historical overview of prostitution, which will hopefully help readers better appreciate the evolution of these sites and what they mean today.
You mention in your introduction that the women who use UtopiaGuide and similar sites are rarely discussed in the mainstream media. How does this lack of coverage impact the public perception of sex workers, and how has this changed over time?
There’s no question that the proliferation of escort sites and other online resources has created some problems for sex workers and the communities they live in. But for the most part, the effects of these sites have been positive for many. The fact that these resources were made available gave sex workers more control over their own lives than ever before. They are able to work from home, manage their schedules, and reach out to clients without relying solely on street-based pimps. And they can even advertise and find clients anonymously.
But there’s another side to this story too. Many sex workers feel that sites like UptopiaGuide undermine their independence. If you’re advertising online, then you’re depending on someone else to provide a platform for your work. Your livelihood depends on whether that site is around tomorrow or not. You might get lucky and not need to worry about it, but there’s always the possibility that, like so many other sites, the one you use could disappear overnight.
Some critics also argue that escort sites contribute to the problem of sex trafficking. That’s because sites like UptopiaGuide make it easier for traffickers to find their victims. When you put all the ads in one place, it becomes less likely that potential victims will be able to identify a potential trafficker by the way he looks. By contrast, if you went to different websites, you’d probably see lots of different kinds of people trying to sell sex. Allowing that kind of diversity makes it more difficult for traffickers to find their targets.
Another concern is that escort sites themselves often exploit the women they represent. There have been reports of workers being forced to have sex with clients before getting paid, and of having to pay the company a fee just to have access to the site. Is this true? Are these sites really run by a handful of men who are exploiting sex workers? Or do the women working for the companies actually benefit from the arrangement?
In my book, I try to answer these questions by providing detailed accounts of how each of the major escort sites operates. I also talk to some of the workers who participate in these sites, as well as the owners and managers of the businesses. I wanted to find out for myself what’s going on behind the scenes, and what sorts of things people are thinking about when they operate these sites. My goal was to create a resource that would allow the public to engage with these issues in a more informed manner.
Could you give us an overview of the different escort sites you cover in your book? How do they differ, and why does this matter?
I write about four different sites: ErosGuide, UptopiaGuide, AdultFriendFinder, and Rentboy. Each of these sites has its own unique characteristics, but they’re also very similar in important ways. For instance, they all offer a platform for users to post information about themselves and the services they provide. They also have forums where people can discuss things like safety tips and travel arrangements, and they all have sections for classified ads.
All of them have large databases of advertisements that include photos of the people offering the services. They also provide tools that help clients find the kind of service they’re looking for. This includes search options that let you specify criteria such as age, gender, ethnicity, body type, and so forth. Most of these sites also have features that allow customers to rate and review the services they’ve received.
This interview is part of our ongoing series on sex work and trafficking. What do you think of escort sites? Do you think they help or hurt sex workers? Does the fact that they exist in a legal grey area add to their power? Let us know in the comments.