Do dating apps have a prostitution problem?


A fake sex worker on Tinder. (Symantec)

Fake sex workers are everywhere on Tinder, according to a new report by the security firm Symantec.

What the report doesn’t mention: Real sex workers aren’t unheard of on dating sites, either.

The Symantec report, which came out Tuesday, documented a number of scams that many Tinder users have probably swiped-left by before: enticements to chat on sketchy platforms with names like “Slut Roulette,” provocative photos promising dirty acronyms for cash, short-URL advertisements for webcam sites and services that cost absurd amounts of money. In most cases, Symantec reports, the hoax is a simple one: When users click through to say, blamcams.com, and then sign up for an overpriced membership, blamcams pays the spammer a kind of head-hunting fee.

But what about when it’s not spam?

“My brother who works in Manhattan was matched with a fellow New Yorker and chatted with her for a few days when she asked to meet up with him,” Katherine Wolfgang wrote about Tinder in Elon University’s student newspaper last year. “Within ten minutes of the date she mentioned her going rate, and my brother realized that he was on a date with a prostitute.”

That echoes a personal essay the Australian writer Al Kalyck wrote last March: “This one time I met up with a prostitute on Tinder,” he begins. He and his date, “Victoria,” hung out around her house for a while before she had to go to work. “I begged her to let me come in and sit in the corner and watch the process,” Kalyck wrote, “but she told me I’d have to pay.”

In a statement to The Post, Tinder said it actively polices both spam and illegal activity on the app — and that a major technical update the company rolled out last week should help cut spam down. But the service declined to say how many real users it had deleted on suspicion of prostitution. One Tinder user in Brooklyn recently told me he sees profiles advertising sexual services frequently — he estimated one out of every 30 or 40 swipes.

To be fair, Tinder is far from the only dating site dealing with these kinds of issues; in fact, since the advent of Craigslist, the world’s oldest profession has been quick to adopt the world’s newest technologies whenever possible. Keywords like “pay to play,” “escort” and “sugar daddy” turn up hundreds of users on OkCupid and its less-cool corollary, Plenty of Fish. (One indicative profile: “NO sniching [sic] and reporting s*** over here … pay to play ONLY … $$$$$$$$$.”) In 2012, the now-defunct blog Annals of Online Dating compiled half a dozen solicitations from users of online-dating sites. And Reddit’s /r/okcupid forum is full of stories about “accidental” meet-ups with sex workers — men and women who seemed like run-of-the-mill online daters, until they asked for money.


(OkCupid)

But location-based apps like Tinder and Grindr — with their frenzied swiping and aura of casual sex — make a particularly good platform for this kind of advertising. “My Danish friend paid off his debt by becoming a gay prostitute,” reads an October 2012 headline on The Billfold, above a story about a man who used a promiscuous European hook-up site to pay off $70,000 of debt. The Internet abounds with similar stories and confessions: “I used to find queer guys on criagslist & grindr and make them pay me for sex,” reads one chilling Reddit post, from May 2013, “… and I just tested positive for HIV.”

Stories like this one, of course, highlight the need for more than just vigilant moderation on the part of social networks and dating sites; if the Internet has become “a virtual street for people in the sex industry,” then sex workers operating online arguably need the same protections that people on the street do: safe-sex education and health care, chief among them.

But in lieu of that kind of outreach, dating sites have little recourse besides the delete button.

“We review every reported/blocked profile and delete accordingly,” promised Rosette Pambakian, Tinder’s spokeswoman. “Maintaining a positive experience for our users is very important to us.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · July 18