Many believe that the Internet has empowered individuals and social minorities by giving them a voice. For sex workers, however, it is another story. As Hong Kong law criminalizes “the exhibition of advertisement on sexual service” and “conspiracy to live on earnings of prostitution of others”, they cannot run their individual websites and are exploited by those who are capable of running sexual service promotion sites overseas.
Mavis Siu for Hong Kong-based inmediahk.net investigates the manipulation of sex workers by website sex141.com, which is the biggest portal website for sexual services in Hong Kong. Her article originally appeared on inmediahk.net on July 24, 2013 in Chinese. The trimmed English version has been translated by Alpha Au and republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
A number of newspapers have exposed that sex141.com has taken advantage of “Money-Drop Review”, a customer review of service, to scam money from sex workers who were smeared by anonymous Internet users and ghostwriters unless they paid to get good reviews from the website-recommended ghostwriters. JJJ Association [zh], an organization defending the rights of sex workers, has debriefed the situation to local journalists.
Yet many still wonder: Why do exploited sex workers continue to register and have their profile shown on sex141?
Monopoly of the online sex industry
The scams that exploit sex workers are related to the monopoly of the porn site business in Hong Kong.
There are three major porn sites in Hong Kong, with sex141 being the most active with its index on “One-Woman Brothels”, the term for sex workers working out of small, often one-room apartments in the city. sex141 was created in 2002 by a local university graduate [zh]. The website allows sex workers to publish ads as well as offers a forum. Originally, it was based in Hong Kong, but after the owner was convicted of “conspiracy to live on earnings of prostitution of others” in 2006, the web server has moved to the US, managed by a company called Black Lotus Communications. In recent years, it has expanded to other Asian regions such as China, Taiwan, and Macau.
The site that targets the Hong Kong market has a “VIP girls database”, which categorizes the registered sex workers according to location of their workplace to make the search results more convenient to customers. A campaigner from the JJJ Association said the porn site is very resourceful. For example, they have a legal team to back up their work.
Their web ranking and popularity is high and thus has established their monopolized status in Hong Kong. According to alexa.com, sex141 was ranked 126th in web traffic in Hong Kong, while two other similar porn sites “Miss 148″ and “161 Sex” were ranked 1,088th and 1,638th respectively.
Miss Ho, a sex worker registered on sex141 for more than a year, believes that the high popularity of sex141 is a result of its marketing techniques. Other than the main site, sex141 also runs an online forum [zh]. The forum's content is no different from any other public forum, except it has a lot of ads from sex141 and other sex-related products and services. The forum ranks 148th on Alexa.
Just like other porn sites, sex141 comes with a “paid member” system, under the name “Sponsored Member Scheme”. Members who donate $300, $1,000 or $8,800 have different user rights, such as taking or viewing the sex workers’ photos, reading service reviews, watching online videos and using search and other functions. Members could also earn credits in the forum to obtain more user rights.
Miss Ho pointed out that sex workers are the biggest source of income for sex141. “We pay 1,300 Hong Kong dollars [about 180 US dollars] each month for putting up ads,” she said. Currently, there are more than 3,000 sex workers on the site. It's estimated monthly income is in the millions.
The high cost of bad reviews
Miss Ho agrees that sex141 is an effective platform for advertising their services. It helps her business. “I cannot explain why clients are so dependent on the site, anyway it helps us get more clients,” she said.
Yet sex141 wants to extract more from the sex workers in addition to their monthly ads fee. Miss Ho pointed out that sex141 has “many different tricks to exploit sex workers”. For instance, there is a “Star of Today — Flower Box” on the main page. The website has a function that allows clients to buy virtual flowers for the sex workers. But in most of the cases, the sex workers are paying 300 HK dollars (about 40 US dollars) to get themselves 30 virtual flowers from the system for self-promotion.
“These things are tricky, but none is worse than “Money-Drop Review”, she said.
“Money-Drop Review” is a recently added feature. It encourages members to write bad reviews, such as the service was terrible or even that the sex worker has sexually transmitted diseases. The writers are not responsible for the reviews, nor do they have the responsibility to offer proof. The reviews smear the sex workers, and they have to pay for good reviews.
“It costs $200 to delete a bad review. If the smeared sex worker was not a paid member of sex141, she has to pay 1,300 HK dollars [about 180 US dollars] to become a member, and another 1,000 HK dollars [about 130 US dollars] for FeiLung [a ghostwriter recommended by the website] to write three good reviews in order to maintain a positive image and business”, Miss Ho added.
This “Money-Drop Review” not only forces the paid sex worker members to pay more, but also forces others to join the site.
“141 could have raised the ads fee to, say, 3,000 to 4,000 HK dollars [about 400 to 520 US dollars], the sex workers could then choose whether or not to continue using their service,” Miss Ho indignantly said . The current bad review system has caused emotional stress as much as financial burden.
Miss Ho heard that one sex worker spends 10,000 HK dollars (about 1,300 US dollars) per month on ghostwriting, and some even get depressed and suicidal because of smearing. When a bad review accuses a sex worker of having sexually transmitted disease, her business will go down immediately.
Given the nature of their work, sex workers have no way to look out for bad reviews or refute untrue allegations. If they want to get laudatory words, they have to use the ghostwriter service. Miss Ho questioned why sex141 does not protect their sex worker members: “After all, we are the ones who pay for the ads! Why does the Money-Drop Review only target us? The other ads on the site like finance companies, sex products, and sexual hotlines do not have a similar review feature.”
The website defends their review feature citing freedom of speech. However, the “bad reviews” cannot be proved right and the review writers are not responsible for their untrue remarks. The “freedom” has undoubtedly hurt the sex workers. Miss Ho questioned, “When the information includes the workers’ addresses, names and phone numbers, how would its influence be unrelated to the real world?”
The admin of sex141 forum suggested that “the recommended reviewers “FeiLung” and “GwatZingKoeng” are chartered writers and are not employees of the site … no one is allowed to charge in the name of sex141.”
But Miss Ho questioned, “If there is no embedded interest, why does the advertising department of 141 recommend the two ghostwriters to us?” Inmediahk.net's contributing reporter tried to contact the staff of sex141, but received the reply, “You know the nature of our website. We don't accept media interviews. No comment.”
A member of the JJJ Association said that they have introduced other websites of similar nature to local sex workers, but the lack of popularity and view count cannot help them to attract clients. The association once considered setting up a new platform, but once they were confronted with legal risks and technical problems, they were forced to drop the idea. It appears that the workers have no other choice but to keep on “paying for their own discomfort” if the monopoly situation continues.