“Something is twisted inside, mediocre sex like in a puppet show, you have to work too hard,” “A midget, not a great face, a bimbo,” “Suggests sex with her husband present; older, looks terrible.”
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These are detailed descriptions of prostitutes from their clients’ perspective. The “critiques” were submitted by a member of the online Hebrew portal Sex Adir (“Great Sex”), aimed at consumers of sex for pay. These descriptions, which included nicknames identifying the women, were accompanied by a call for a “consumer boycott”: “If every one of us would stop going to girls that don’t deliver the goods, the results wouldn’t be long in coming,” the writer suggests.
As in many realms, the internet has also changed the way sex is consumed. Nowadays a client can get information about a “discreet apartment” or arrange sex for pay on his own in a manner even more private and discreet than in the past. Moreover, the anonymity the internet provides allows clients to find each other, support each other, disseminate information and conduct themselves as a community. In other words, the internet is the new pimp.
“When we speak about the sex industry, there’s a type of triangle – the prostitute, the pimp and the client,” says Yeela Lahav-Raz, who wrote her doctorate on the Sex Adir portal, which contains several different forums. “In the past the pimp had a lot more power in this equation because he was the one who mediated, traded and sold. Today a sex client can surf the site, which acts as the pimp in terms of making information accessible. It has also shifted a great deal of power to the sex consumer at the expense of the pimp.”
The Sex Adir website has 28 forums divided into different categories based on venues (street prostitution, discreet apartments, strippers’ clubs); preferences (older/younger prostitutes, transgender prostitutes, homeless prostitutes at the central bus station); and geographic areas.
Lahav-Raz, 36, who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and at the Tel Aviv Academic College, says the Sex Adir portal has 18,764 registered users, all consumers of sex for pay, and that over the past year there has been a sharp increase in their number. “When I started my research six years ago there were around 11,000 users,” she says. “In the past year alone there were 4,000 new ones. This is a very large increase, and of course does not reflect the overall number of sex consumers in Israel, only those who choose to share their experiences on the forums. Most sex consumers don’t share.”
Lahav-Raz became interested in the sex industry a decade ago, when she was doing research for her master’s degree on the sociology of the home and its significance for the homeless teens being helped by a center for young prostitutes run by the Elem association for youth in distress.
“I had planned to write my doctorate on teen prostitutes,” she says. “But when I went out to the street for the first time with the Elem car that cruises through areas of prostitution, I was struck by the presence of the johns. When we think of prostitutes we think of the prostitutes, but the client is faceless and nameless, an amorphous, abstract entity, protected by the gloom.”
One objective of her research was to analyze the significance of the texts written by the sex clients. “On the surface the declared purpose of the forums is purely consumerist in nature,” Lahav-Raz explains. “‘I’m a consumer like any consumer and I want to get better service at a lower price.’ And how do they achieve this? By uniting as a consumer community through which they can exert pressure to reduce the prostitutes’ prices.
“But that’s just the declared, open purpose,” she continues. “In fact, the forums serve as a confessional for sex consumers. The internet facilitated their transition from single, isolated consumers to an active community of anonymous members. Because of the anonymity component the sex consumers can share their sexual experiences. They also share the difficulties they have – for example impotence during sex with a prostitute or guilt feelings about cheating on their partners, the fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, fear of being caught, and more. What has developed is not just a confessional space, but a type of support group that serves as a therapeutic self-help environment.”
Lahav-Raz divides the sex clients on these forums into three groups – the consumer, the hunter and the addict. The consumer has a neoliberal, capitalistic outlook and is aware of his power as a consumer who aims to “improve the terms of service.” Many prostitutes are in fact aware of the forum and know that they will be subject to criticism and oversight, she says. “They know if they don’t give ‘good service’ as defined by the forum members they will get bad reviews that could harm their livelihood.”
The hunter holds antiquated ideas about the man as the hunter and conqueror, she says. “They call the prostitutes names like ‘street cats’ and ‘street dogs.’ It shows that they see them as wild animals which makes it legitimate to use force with them and relate to them as inhuman.”
The addict, she says, “defines himself as a victim responding to his drives. Defining himself as an addict frees him from all moral responsibility because from his perspective it’s like a drug controlling him. They are focused on their own suffering.”
She says that these users get support and sympathy from the group. “The empathy is not for the prostitutes, but for themselves.”
Lahav-Raz has also examined how prostitutes react to these online discussions.
“It’s clear that this environment multiplies the resonance of the exploitation and humiliation, since suddenly 19,000 people are reading about people’s sexual experience with the prostitute, ranking her body, reading about how her genitals smell and about their weight and whether their home is dirty – these are all things clients write about.”
But interestingly, she notes, the forum also provides a platform for the prostitutes to fight back.
“Prostitutes have slowly begun to enter the forums and respond,” says Lahav-Raz. “During an actual encounter with a client they would never react that way; he might not pay, he might rape her or get violent. But in the online forum they dare to and are able to express themselves.”
Lahav-Raz has identified ways in which the prostitutes have begun to use these forums strategically. “One of the amazing things is in their posts they try to hit back at the clients, often with humor; they rank the client to show them how it feels to be ranked. They write, for example, ‘The client was hairy, he smelled awful, he was stingy and argued a lot.’ They are using the same tools. I don’t believe that this breaches the wall or brings about a change in the power structure, but this is a very intelligent use of this arena, demonstrating their understanding of the discourse and concepts, in the hope that it can provide a little sisterhood.”