The Future of the Commercial Sex Industry: As New Technologies Impact the Products and Services of the Sex Industry, Other Businesses Will Find New Opportunities in the World's Oldest Professions

By Empel, Emily | The Futurist, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Future of the Commercial Sex Industry: As New Technologies Impact the Products and Services of the Sex Industry, Other Businesses Will Find New Opportunities in the World's Oldest Professions


Empel, Emily, The Futurist


My interest in the commercial sex industry began while choosing a theme for the "World Futures" course I was taking in 2011 at the University of Houston. I stumbled on a Wired article, "How Tech Tools Transformed NY's Sex Trade," by Sudhir Venkatesh, who presented a fresh perspective on the sex industry.

His findings were fascinating. For instance, the most common investment of a New York City sex worker--after breast augmentation, dying her hair blonde, or befriending the hotel concierge--is buying a BlackBerry. Sex workers who own BlackBerrys are perceived as more professional and less likely to have sexually transmitted diseases.

Additionally, the far reach of social media has changed the way prostitutes solicit business. In 2003, social media were in their infancy, and there was no such thing as Facebook; by 2008, prostitutes acquired as much as 25% of their clients from this channel. Technology transformed New York City sex work from an on-the-streets business to an online business that provides a safer, higher-paying, and more stable work environment for sex workers, according to Venkatesh. This shift in work practices in turn has lowered crime in the city.

But instead of focusing on prostitution in the United States, I decided to expand my research to forecast the commercial sex industry more broadly My definition of the "global sex industry" includes services and goods on a worldwide scale. Sex services include any offering that is con-tact-based, such as prostitution, massage parlors, or lap dancing. Sexual goods are mainly made up of the pornography and the sex toy market sectors. (And note, we are excluding from these definitions the billion-dollar online dating industry.)

In truth, authoritative figures about the sex industry are difficult to obtain, simply because much of the industry is underground, and the data is dispersed and not necessarily compiled by impartial parties. Most existing research on commercial sex observes the industry from either an empowerment or an oppression paradigm model, both of which have an element of advocacy My research approach was to try to be as objective as possible. I merely hope to encourage futurists to take the subject seriously.

The commercial sex industry remains an enigma within the developed world. Despite its pervasiveness, it is considered by many to be a "deviant enterprise." According to a 2008 survey of more than 1,000 individuals in England, two-thirds of the population believes that paying for sex exploits women. At the same time, an estimated 80% of city workers in the United Kingdom take their clients to strip clubs annually as part of work entertainment.

Multiple surveys conservatively estimate that 10%--15% of men in the developed world pay for sex. In Asia, the number of men paying for sex is closer to 40%. A reasonable conclusion to make based on these figures is that the consumption of sex services in Asia is more culturally accepted than in the United States.

While the United States is typically considered the center of the global sex industry, sex workers in Asia contribute significantly to both employment and economic growth of their countries. In 1994, the International Labor Organization reported that the sex industry accounted for 2%-14% of GDP in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Additional studies report that sex workers add value to the development of their larger communities by financing certain infrastructure development projects.

In order to understand how sex work may look in the future, the remainder of this article will focus on three trends that in my opinion will drive the commercial sex industry toward 2030.

Trend 1: Client Preferences Are Dependent on Worker Region

Male clients are seeking different sexual experiences in the developed versus developing world. In the United States, demand for the "girlfriend experience" is thriving. …

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