The networking site tried to clamp down on the oldest profession earlier this year, but sex workers are still operating on Linkedin and have no plans to leave, finds Theo Merz
By Theo Merz
Log on to a social network “for professionals” and you can meet Emma, the self-employed escort and travel companion from London; or Matt, who offers “gay male sensual erotic massage” in New York; or Charlotte, the transexual Latina escort who visits clients across the globe.
This is not a specialist ‘pay-for-play’ listings site, but rather LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional networking platform. And among the 238 million lawyers, management consultants, journalists, PRs and others with profiles, there are hundreds like Emma, Matt and Charlotte using the network to further their professional interests.
The exact number of sex workers are hard to find, especially since LinkedIn clarified its ban on all prostitutes and escorts having profile pages on the site earlier this year. In an update to their user agreement terms, the company wrote: “Even if it is legal where you are located, [users cannot] create profiles or provide content that promotes escort services or prostitution.”
LinkedIn ‘essential for SEO’
But it seems like the move has had little practical impact. Searching ‘escorts’ on the site brings up more than 19,000 results – and while a large proportion of these relate to white-collar jobs which happen to have the word somewhere in their description, there are still dozens of agencies and individuals in each of the world’s capital cities offering “nude massage” or “adult entertainment” in their profiles.
With its recent announcement that children as young as 13 are going to be able to create profiles from September, down from a previous minimum age of 18, LinkedIn’s owners may now be especially concerned their updated T&C’s are enforced. A spokesperson for LinkedIn offered no details on how they would make sure the user agreement is adhered to, saying only: “If we become aware of profiles and other activity on the site that may be in violation of our policies, we will take appropriate action.”
The escorting agencies on the site, however, say they have no plans to leave, and that – while they may not get much direct custom through the network – social networking platforms like LinkedIn are essential for their business model.
One of the businesses listed is the ”high class escort agency” So Secret London. Its owner – who asked not to be named and naturally insisted the agency was no more than a matchmaking service, with any sexual element being decided between client and escort – said his biggest concern was SEO, or search engine optimisation, which companies employ to ensure their brand comes to the top of Google results.
“You filter out the random types that could be on Facebook”
“The weight of social media within SEO has increased,” he said, adding that the agency also has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. “The majority of this is window dressing [getting customers to call the agency or into their main site]. However we have had some enquiries through LinkedIn. And you can see through Google analytics that we do have traffic through there.”
The owner claimed that most of the clients that came through LinkedIn were tourists, and said he could see no reason why agencies such as his own should be kicked off the site. “It’s where professionals meet, it’s a good filter to filter out the random types that could be on Twitter or Facebook. You give the perception of your business being legitimate. It shows it doesn’t have a hidden agenda, it can be something you transact.”
Sheri’s Ranch is another agency listed on the site. This one is different, though, as it is based in Nevada, where prostitution itself is legal. The owners of the ‘ranch’ openly refer to their business as a brothel and were enraged when LinkedIn said it would be clamping down on sex workers earlier this year – but seem heartened that no action has been taken against them so far.
“In 2013 most legitimate businesses benefit from a presence on social media. Having a Facebook page, Twitter account, LinkedIn company page, and even a YouTube account for interactive video is pretty much standard practice for any company worth its salt,” a spokesman for Sheri’s Ranch said. “The legal sex work industry is no exception.”
Despite prostitution being legal in the state, brothels are unable to advertise in the mass media and so social networking sites are especially important for sex workers, he said. “SEO is absolutely a concern for us, as the adult industry is highly competitive and maintaining key positions for certain search results is of paramount importance. I can’t go into the details of our online strategies, but we do have a full time SEO team on staff.”
Today’s critic is tomorrow’s client
The spokesman added that individual women at the ‘ranch’ were also active in a professional capacity on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, occasionally using the platforms to change people’s perception of prostitution.
“Ladies using social media do receive abuse on occasion,” he said. “But the ladies often approach criticism as an opportunity to debate the topic of legal prostitution and start a conversation. Often, people who are abusive don’t have all the facts about our industry and social media provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the realities of sex work. Our ladies can be very convincing and persuasive; today’s critic is tomorrow’s client.” Sheri’s Ranch, like So Secret London, said it would not leave LinkedIn until it was ejected.
Sex workers are concerned about their online profile as any other professional, and sites offering tips on how to make yourself stand out in the marketplace are available on the internet as they are for any other industry. “Stay true to your escort brand,” one reads. “You’ve worked hard to create and maintain an image for your escort career.” It will take more than a change in T&Cs to stop escorts and their agencies developing their brands on LinkedIn.