Between 4% and 6% of adult males in Spain state that they have consumed prostitution over the last year (photo: Osman Rana / unsplash.com)
Juan F. Samaniego
The platformization of prostitution has led to a reorganization of practices, locations and times
The reconfiguration of prostitution on digital platforms has had one great impact: making it invisible
The internet is changing the way we relate to one another. We frequently hear this being said, but it is often difficult for us to appreciate the extent to which this is the case. Over the course of the last decade, the net has become pivotal for the exchange of sexual goods and services. So, how has the provision and consumption of prostitution been reconfigured in the digital universe? And what has the impact of the recent platformization of the sex industry been?
These are just two of the many questions for which answers are sought in a study featuring Rubén Rodríguez Casañ, researcher at the Global Literary Studies Research Lab (GlobaLS) of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and doctoral student with the Network and Information Technologies programme, at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). The study analysed close to 450,000 advertisements and 21,000 reviews by prostitution clients to provide support for the proposed sociological framework.
The platformization of prostitution
Providing exact figures on the number of clients, pimps and sex workers or the money involved in the sex industry is no easy task. The study indicates that, currently, between 4% and 6% of adult males in Spain state that they have consumed prostitution over the last 12 months, giving a figure of between 700,000 and 1.1 million men. Furthermore, it estimates that around 100,000 people, mostly women, work as prostitutes in the country, although it stresses that providing a specific estimate is difficult.
These figures have scarcely changed over the last decade, despite the fact that the supply and organization of the sex industry has been completely transformed by digitization. According to the study, the internet has led to five major changes in the supply of and demand for prostitution in Spain.
1. Reorganization of practices, locations and times
The first significant conclusion reached by the study is that the use of digital technologies has shifted a great deal of prostitution from brothels and striptease clubs to other locations, such as consumers' own homes, advertisers' flats, hotels, agencies' premises and erotic massage centres. This has forced sex workers to use new vocabularies and a new form of introductory sexual marketing featuring all manner of details so that potential customers can refine their searches based on physical appearance, proximity, origin, services offered and even car parking and free drinks.
Furthermore, although street prostitution and brothels still exist, it is increasingly common for contacts to take place online and for the physical encounter to be tailor-made to clients' requirements regarding location and time, taking place throughout urban settings, and particularly in flats. The report estimates that there are between 4,900 and 5,300 such flats in Spain.
"We've seen how the activity is increasingly distributed based on proximity and availability at the location and time potential clients search for," explained data scientist Rubén Rodríguez Casañ. "In the 1990s, there were specific neighbourhoods in cities hosting prostitution. Through a series of public policies, this practice was removed from cities and the model of brothels lined up along motorways in cities' outskirts became common. These days, the brothel model is on the wane and, as a result, timetables are also changing. Whilst brothels are more focused on large-scale consumption on Friday and Saturday night, flats are used more during the working week, from Monday to Friday."
2. Greater diversity and new forms of exploitation
According to the study, platformization and the development of internet-based prostitution has also led to an increase in diversity in profiles and services, with the resulting specialization and differentiation. However, above all, the study notes, digital marketing displays new attitudes to women's bodies, which it objectifies still further and which it turns into a complementary source of wealth creation for new actors, such as the owners of agencies and of the platforms themselves.
"In the report, we approach prostitution as an institution: in other words, as a system with behavioural patterns that are regulated and stable over time. There is no prostitution without third parties to intervene, organize and profit from it," said Rodríguez Casañ. "Nevertheless, these third parties would seem to disappear from the contact websites, as they are offered as a further experience with a rating or review system. As much as the internet seeks to portray itself as providing a relationship between two individuals under equal conditions, this isn't the case. We've seen how inequalities in gender, ethnicity, age and class are clear in this activity."
3. Anonymous and invisible
Changes in locations, times, practices and the way prostitution is organized due to digitization have had a significant ramification: making it invisible. "What we're being told by key players on the ground, such as the police and NGOs, is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to access sex workers. It's hard to know whether or not they're associated with an agency, with a human trafficking organization or with a pimp," explained Rodríguez Casañ. "Platformization has helped conceal the entire chain of organization and it appears that the relationship between client and advertiser occurs on equal terms."
4. Greater normalization
Another important result of this concealment and the apparent equality in relations is the increased normalization of prostitution. According to the report, everything that was unacceptable on the street is presented with more sanitized language on the internet and within the reach of a couple of clicks. This gives rise to a disassociation in people's perception between street prostitution (frowned upon and dangerous) and "invisible" prostitution (much more tolerable), dressed up with terms such as "escorts" or "sugarbabies".
“What we're witnessing is a kind of legalization in practice,” said Rodríguez Casañ. "The perception of prostitution is more positive when it's less overtly visible, when it uses terms to disguise itself. What's more, we've detected that men accept it more than women."
5. New risks
There is, these days, widespread debate around whether this platformization offers more or less safety, freedom and independence for sex workers. According to the report's authors, whilst it's true that, by being carried out online, the risks traditionally associated with the street (arrest, violence, hostility, etc.) are avoided, new sources of harm have appeared with the internet, as have digital risks such as cyberbullying, online misogynist or racist attacks, or emotional dependence on ratings.
"Although we're living in more liberal societies, no significant reduction in the consumption of prostitution has been seen. What clients are seeking is still a matter of power and to live out a series of sexual fantasies that they cannot fulfil outside the world of prostitution. Risky practices such as unprotected oral sex and drug use are very present in prostitution client reviews and in its supply" concluded Rodríguez Casañ. "There's a clear trivialization of women's bodies and of the practices themselves."
Rubén Rodríguez's study forms part of the book La prostitución en la Comunitat Valenciana. Una mirada sociológica (Prostitution in the Autonomous Community of Valencia: A sociological review), coordinated by Antonio Ariño, professor and researcher at the Universitat de València.
ARIÑO, Antonio. La prostitución en la Comunitat Valenciana. Una mirada sociológica (2022). Generalitat Valenciana. Viewable via this link.
This research helps foster a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including goal 5, Gender Equality, and goal 10, Reduced Inequalities.
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Rubén Rodríguez Casañ