Facebook provides shop window for NY sex workers

Website helps women to break free of pimps and is now the second biggest source of new customers

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The Independent US

It certainly gives a fresh meaning to the verb "poke." Facebook is revolutionising the world's oldest profession, putting traditional pimps out of business and helping "high-end" prostitutes drive a boom in the luxury end of the industry, a new survey shows.

Research by Columbia University shows almost 80 per cent of New York prostitutes now use a Facebook page to drum up business. The average sex worker uses the social networking site to find a quarter of all her clients, making it more important than any other source of new customers apart from escort agencies.

Prostitutes regard the internet as a tool of empowerment, allowing them to vet potential clients and set their own prices without pimps or other intermediaries who would demand a cut and try to control the prostitute's lives. Rather than standing on a street corner waiting for a car to stop, the modern sex worker is likely to set up a rendezvous with the help of an iPhone or BlackBerry.

"A luxury brand has been born," says the study's author, Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor at Columbia in New York city. "Technology has played a fundamental role. The internet and the rise of mobile phones have enabled some sex workers to personalise their trade."

Facebook is central to the growing respectability of the prostitute's work ing life, he explains. "Today, they can control their image, set their prices, and sidestep some of the pimps, madams and other intermediaries who once took a share of the revenue.

"As the trade has grown less risky and more lucrative, it has attracted some middle-class women seeking quick tax-free income."

Professor Venkatesh studied 290 women who worked in the sex industry in Manhattan for a period of at least 12 months. His findings were published this week in the US edition of Wired, the technology magazine, along with the prediction that, by the end of this year, Facebook will eclipse escort agencies to become the leading "recruitment space" for prostitutes seeking clients.

The survey contains some fascinating insights into the vagaries of a market that manages to remain largely under the radar. Prostitutes make more than the average US income, with 170 of the women surveyed reporting annual tax-free earnings of $30,000 (£18,750) or more. They say they can increase their fees by around 50 per cent if they undergo breast-augmentation surgery.

Many like to recruit clients via Facebook because it affords them a degree of security, Professor Venkatesh adds. The social network allows them to research the backgrounds and even employment history of clients.

Another important factor in Facebook's rise to dominate the American sex market has come thanks to the demise of the "erotic services" section of the classified advertising website Craigslist, which used to supply sex workers with around 10 per cent of their clients. It was scrapped amid public outcry over the so-called Craigslist killer, Philip Markoff, who is believed to have murdered one prostitute and robbed two others after arranging to meet them via the site.

Since prostitution is illegal in every US state with the exception of Nevada, news of Facebook's growing popularity as a forum for sex workers is unlikely to improve its public image. This was dented by the recent film The Social Network, which suggested that its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, originally designed it as a misogynistic forum for male students at Harvard to rate the attractiveness of their female contemporaries.

The firm says it does not have a specific policy designed to deal with prostitution. However, a company spokesman told Fox News that it takes a hard line against all illegal activity organised via the site.

"We will take down content, disable accounts, and may take further action including escalating illegal activity to law enforcement. We strictly enforce this policy through proactive investigations and response to user reports," he said.