Meet Dr. Mary Finn
To find out how technology has affected illegal prostitution, Dr. Finn hit the streets to talk to the people who know.
Interview Josephine Werni, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Dr. Mary Finn, the director of the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, recently published a study on how the internet has affected prostitution.
In order to determine how pimps are adapting to new technology, she and her co-investigator Loretta Stalans of the University of Chicago Loyola interviewed 71 pimps in both Atlanta and Chicago.
JW: Where did you find the pimps that you interviewed?
MF: We exclusively used a website called Backpage. It’s similar to Craigslist, except that it tends to provide more adult services, things like massage and escort. When Craigslist was sued, I think due to a business decision to no longer include on its website these kind of personal ads, Backpage kind of stepped in and provided a place for that advertisement sector to move.
Did you contact them directly or did you place an ad?
We posted an ad and they called in response. When they called, I told them that I was interested in interviewing adult managers of persons who worked in the erotic industry and that it was legitimate study and that I was a legitimate researcher.
I had to clarify that I wasn’t looking to be managed or to provide a service, which many of them had thought. I described to them that I was primarily interested in understanding how technology was reshaping the sales tax. We paid them $60 for each for a confidential interview. I think they were interested in being able to talk to someone outside of their work about what it is that they do.
Are there any other modes of technology that have come to play a large role in the sale of sex?
Most of it’s now moved into mobile apps—we’ve all heard of things like Tinder, Jacked and Men4Rent. Now there are just apps where a customer can plug in their location and it will show them the nearest service. It’s weird to think that you can look for a hookup the same way that you can look for pizza.
How have transactions and payment changed since prostitution has gone online?
One big component is the use of vetting services. Vetting services are used to ensure that individuals who work in the independent service industry have a way to be sure that the customer they are interacting with has the money to pay for the service being provided. That protection exists to decrease the risk of not getting your money if you’re involved in that type of service.
Are pimps making more money now than they were before?
Well, simply moving from the street to the online market means that you can charge more because there’s a perception that online service is higher quality. In the business world, being online signals that you are a better product. They can charge more online than if they were doing a street based business.
In that sense they probably are making more money, but the reality is they are also have infrastructure cost. Placing those ads costs money on most sites, though not all sites. Then you have to repost the ad if you want to make sure you’re at the top of that web page.
Ultimately, because they are able to charge more, they’re still making more money, even if they take the same percentage of the workers earnings.
Theoretically, the web makes it easier for sex workers to practice independently. Are pimps still as relevant as they were before prostitution went online?
Pimps are still quite active, though their role seems to have changed a bit with online prostitution. It seemed to us that many of the women still wanted to have that additional level of protection. Or, the relationships were more of business partnerships than the stereotypical exploitive relationship many assume is in place. Sometimes they were actually intimate partners in addition to being business partners, and in some instances it was clear that the manager wasn’t taking the lion’s share of what the worker made. In general, it was clear that even with the change in the dynamic created by the internet, it’s still a business with risks, and many workers want that extra back up of another person.