Denise might be a good deal. An athletic- looking Berlin native, she specializes in massage, safe sex and "Vibratorspiele." Her home page lists a phone number with the assurance "English spoken." Too bad Berlin's so far away.
Resources such as these are the wet-dream nightmares of those who would mold America's moral character through legislation. As if JPEG porn, chat-room orgies and lurid CD-ROM ads weren't enough to tempt Junior off the straight and narrow, the Web now offers ladies for rent around the world. Yahoo!, for example, lists over three dozen escort services, mostly in the United States. Individual offers can be found on Usenet sex groups, albeit through a haze of phone-sex ads. Sometimes it seems as if plug-in sex toy VR interfaces, payable through First Virtual accounts, are next. It's enough to make your average parent think that maybe Sen. Exon had something going there after all.
The Net's perspective on sex for sale mostly comes down to the question of how soon you can get it for how much. Most Net users still log on for either long nights of caffeine-inspired clicking or some lunch-time quickie-surfs behind the boss' back. This leaves little time for foreplay. Convenience is key: the first Net prostitute resources were designed to help get the potential customer laid as effortlessly as possible. Most famous, perhaps, is the World Sex Guide founded on posts to the Usenet newsgroup alt.sex.prostitution. In a show of consumer empowerment, johns report their experiences with prostitutes around the world, describe which ladies' services they preferred and issue warnings to each other. Elsewhere in the alt.sex groups, massive pro-prostitution cross-posts incite flame-wars as vicious as vice-sweeps. One of several pro-prostitution Usenet spammers, Dave Hutchison of Liberated Christians, takes great care to emphasize prostitution as morally uplifting. "Sex workers could be a vital source of healing by teaching and letting people experience different sexual and intimacy skills with a variety of people," he says, after decrying prostitution by force or by minors. In a Net where the pedophiliac rape fantasies of alt.sex.stories co-exist with Usenet- wide racial hate trolls, the relatively victimless crime of prostitution seems innocuous.
That quality has led to a subtle shift in the way the Net encourages us to think about prostitution. Some of the newer resources treat prostitutes as human beings, not mere objects of barter. The lone goof or indignant moralist scouring the Web for hookers is likely to run across the Prostitute's Education Network (PENet). Overseen by the vibrant "Scarlot Harlot," a.k.a. Carol Leigh, an abundant cheery-faced prostitute and activist who believes in the power of art to change people's minds, this site is dedicated to providing "information for sex workers and activists/educators who study issues of decriminalization, human rights in the context of prostitution, violence against prostitutes and women, sex workers and pornography, as well as current trends in legislation and social policy in the U.S. and internationally."
Leigh says that she believes the most effective part of the PENet site is its resources for students writing about the issue: "A real reading of the site would help students (our future leaders) understand that prostitutes are individuals like them, with thoughts and feelings...that we are more than the stereotypes. My hope is that some may understand that our rights are seriously violated on an ongoing basis."
Two of the top-billed items on the PENet site are in fact the "Student Resources" and the "Health and Community Needs Assessments and Services" sections. These offer a list of suggested readings, an introduction to the concepts of legalizing and decriminalizing various aspects of the sex trade, a page of statistics, several files on prostitutes and law enforcement, and a summary of health service needs reports. Realistically, of course, the curious young researcher is more likely to be drawn to the essays with juicier titles, such as "Working in the Nevada Brothels," "Thoroughly Modern Madam" and "Don't Swear. Don't Slouch. When in Doubt, Smile." But as it turns out, those particular essays are about the injustices of the Nevada system, the managerial problems of running a brothel and the legal difference between lap-dancers and showgirls.
None of this is calculated to arouse lecherous interests. In fact, the closest that PENet comes to offering the lurid scenes of sex-for-money is a description of a police bust: "He grabs me. Since I did not get a clear look at any type of badge, I got scared and I thought I was going to be raped and robbed...I tried to get away but he grabbed me by my hair and slammed me against a brick building wall."
"Almost every day I say my mantras," Leigh says. "LAWS THAT PUNISH PROSTITUTES ARE CRIMES AGAINST WOMEN and THE ARREST AND INSTITUTIONALIZED HARASSMENT OF PROSTITUTES ARE ATROCITIES." Apparently she is not alone in her beliefs: The PENet site provides information from and about organizations such as PONY ("Prostitutes of New York"), the Exotic Dancer's Alliance and COYOTE ("Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics"). The Sex Worker's Alliance of Vancouver celebrates sexuality in its own way, with a dominatrix cartoon splashed on its main page and an archive of news, information and resources second only to PENet's. COYOTE in Seattle has a similarly ambitious site in progress. "As long as the sex worker and client have a mutually respectful business relationship and no one is stealing, cheating, assaulting, et al, the other, what's the problem?" asks COYOTE-Seattle executive director Catherine La Croix. "Why is it illegal to charge for what can be freely dispensed? Sex work is no more moral or immoral than the chocolate or distilling industries."
The world as a whole tends to disagree. Reports and essays from Off-Net media sources that have been transferred to the Web tend to focus on the dangers of exploitation and abuse. Some of the most vivid imagery is found in Andrea Dworkin's writings, which warn about abstracting the realities of prostitution, and the far-left magazine On the Issues, which decries prostitution as a damaging model for sex.
This is not to say that the prostitute activists deny the dangers of prostitution; this is, it would seem, why they spread information and debate rather than GIFs and sex stories. The World Charter for Prostitutes' Rights on PENet's site calls for an end to "fraud, coercion, violence, child sexual abuse, child labor, rape [and] racism" in the context of decriminalized prostitution. Elsewhere, these resources deal with the dangers of trafficking, the vulnerability of the prostitute and the need for more safe-sex awareness. And there is always the conviction, among the happy- hooker graphics and the off-hand sex-talk, that when prostitutes aren't being exploited they truly are doing nothing wrong.
When exploitation occurs, however, it is not treated lightly. The horrors of child prostitution have inspired a host of sites: Don't! Buy! Thai! organizes a boycott of goods from Thailand in response to abuses there; The Survivor's Voice supports the boycott and gives readers a chance to sign a petition online. The Thailand-based Coalition Against Prostitution and Child Abuse in Thailand is dedicated to the "Thai volunteers, educators, social service workers, law enforcement personnel and government workers who are sacrificing on a daily basis to help the young people of Thailand," but disagrees with the boycott approach. Organizations around the world such as the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation advertise similar efforts. This is global education at its finest.
The Net-naïve may be unable to distinguish between sexploitation and education, but there is a feeling among the latter that they're on a mission. "Most other [sex-related] sites are crap," says Atta of the World Sex Guide. "Low quality photos, phone sex ads and a monthly fee and no genuine information. That sucks. My site is completely free, lives on contributions from readers and contains no commercial messages whatsoever. That's how the Internet was meant to operate."
Other prostitution advocates concur. "Some [sex-related stuff online] is done responsibly and professionally. Most, I would say, and I've been online for nearly 10 years," says La Croix of COYOTE-Seattle. "Of course, there are always the sleazy schlockmeisters hanging around but, again, no one's forcing anyone to view adult material and most adult sites have rather large warnings as to content. Half of my clients come from the Net, and I have yet to encounter an adolescent boy." And Leigh of PENet expresses astonishment that anyone would choose a computer over a real-life encounter, joking, "I still can't figure out who sits in front of their computer diddling themselves looking at low res GIFs."
Judging from the traffic in the binaries' groups, it would seem that self-diddlers make up a large and lusty share of Net users, and the market has not been slow to respond. Usenet's alt.sex.prostitution, along with many of the other alt.sex groups, is regularly flooded with explicit advertisements from porntrepeneurs. The spread of pornography has dominated the political and public perception of the Internet's sex-related resources, threatening to engulf even the most constructive voices in a tide of righteousness and hysteria.
Economics and sex are two of the Net's greatest concerns, and prostitution issues, straddling the two, are a potentially volatile area. But the human sex drive is as resilient as the Net itself; the lusty young male determined to score will inevitably find a way to do so. It could be that in the coming years accessing information about prostitutes' health and legal issues will be as shady as accessing prostitutes themselves. But regardless of whether or not we have the intelligence to distinguish between the two, one thing is certain: No matter how hard the job or how dire the threats, there will always be people somewhere in the world willing to sell their bodies and share their stories.