The Silicon Valley prostitution trend story is as old as the tech industry itself. With every tech boom comes a tale not only of the nouveau riche using their disposable income to buy sex, but also about how the very technologies making these clients rich is changing the sex work industry. That's exactly the kind of story we get today from CNN Money's Laurie Segall and Erica Fink. In it, we learn that not only of that business is booming, but that sex workers these days (like nearly every other kind of worker) use social media and other web 2.0 stuff in their trade. One woman who goes by the name Siouxsie Q rattles off her various social media profiles. Another uses Square to bill her clients by credit card. But while the technologies powering marketing and transactions might reflect a new era, the prostitution itself is still pretty much the same.
"I don't see much evidence to support a boom now any more than I did when I lived in San Francisco. Sex for sale is persistently booming," says Melissa Gira Grant, who has written extensively on Silicon Valley sex work and is currently writing a book on sex work called Playing the Whore. "It's one of Northern California's oldest economies, and the one most closely linked with any boom-time -- whether's that's gold or railroads or boy-geeks." The gold rush brought very expensive "street walkers," according to San Francisco Memoirs, 1835-1851: Eyewitness Accounts of the Birth of a City: "Nearly all these women at home were streetwalkers of the cheapest sort, but out here, for only a few minutes, they ask a hundred times as much as they were used to getting in Paris," remembers one person. In 1997, before the dot-com era went bust, The San Jose Mercury News called the Valley a "prime target for trafficking" because of an abundance of "lonely, single men with money to burn."
While the prostitution trend story (like pretty much every other conspicuous consumption trend story) typically serves to illustrate a thriving economy, it's not clear that prostitution really ebbs and flows with boom times. Tech bubbles may come and go, but prostitution is a constant. After the financial crisis of 2008, the "high end women" Slate's Sudhir Venkatesh interviewed reported an uptick in business. And one of the reasons that sex work has thrived recently in San Jose is because city budget cuts, NBC News reports, means less money for enforcement. "Every night, any time after 6 o'clock you see women walking up and down the streets. After 12 o'clock you see pimps posted up on these corners," said one San Jose resident. "But that's nothing new to me, I see it all the time."
The CNN Money story uses the San Jose prostitution arrest stats (they're up 35 percent last year) to prove that sex work is on the rise in Silicon Valley. But, that might not have to do with the newly minted millionaires who's just sold a social media app, notes Grant. "While brand-name tech workers may work in Palo Alto and Mountain View, that's not really where they want to party. That's San Francisco. And in San Francisco, arrests have historically focused on more street-facing sex work, like that organized around bars, clubs, short-stay hotels, or massage parlors," she told the Wire. "The sex workers depicted don't square with arrest patterns."
As for the technology part of this tale, that's not new either. Sure, Twitter wasn't around during the dot-com boom. But, as Grant notes, why wouldn't we expect young people to use social media just because they happen to work in the sex biz? "It's not surprising to me that sex workers use the same social media tools as many other people in their 20's," she said. Just as it wasn't too surprising that sex workers "went cyber" with what Slate called "e-hooking" as e-commerce went mainstream. Just like any other established industry, sex work will evolve with the times.
And as poetic as it sounds, these tech savvy sex workers aren't unique to the tech bubble proper, either. Many prostitutes all over the country use Facebook and Twitter to advertise, according to The Telegraph. "If you want an escort or sex worker in any major city in the world, Facebook is a good place to start your search," said Mills Kelly, who has studied the impact of the Internet on prostitution at George Mason University.
So, it turns out, the Silicon Valley prostitution trend story is the trend. When journalists notice the money flowing in Silicon Valley and want to document Silicon Valley excess, they turn to the rise of Silicon Valley prostitution.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.