Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In Germany, at least.
If a German app launched this month succeeds, smartphones could well be the next big marketplace for prostitution. Not unlike Uber for sex workers, the Berlin-based Peppr app uses GPS to connect potential clients with prostitutes in their immediate area. Prostitution is legal in Germany, and the app's declared intention is to save prostitutes from having to pound sidewalks for customers. It was created by Austrian developer Pia Poppenreiter – you couldn’t make up her (actually genuine) last name, which translates loosely as "screw-rider" – who came up with the idea after seeing sex workers out of doors on a cold night. "The story always sounds corny, but it's true," she told German start-up magazine Grunderszene. She continued:
On a late autumn day in Berlin, I was on my way with a friend to a bar on Oranienburger Straße. It was cold - I had a skirt on myself - and I saw a sex worker on the street. I thought, "It's crazy that there’s an app for everything, but not for that. Why do they have to stand there in the winter all day?" That thought has never left me.
To help make sure that its sex workers don't become part of any human trafficking chain, Peppr interviews its advertisers over the phone before they sign them up, hoping to weed out anyone who is working against their will. The company will also not work with brothels, only individuals and escort agencies. Given that legal prostitution is already common and open across Germany, the app seems a fairly sound way for prostitutes to drum up customers from the comfort of a chair. The app's relative privacy could also be welcome – users could, for example, send identifiable headshots only after receiving a message. Many women and men working in the sex industry are keen to find ways to limit their exposure only to potential clients.
Still, there are some obvious issues. Sex workers who solicit on the streets get a chance to suss out customers before they go off alone with them. Streetwalkers also tend to cluster in groups, for good reasons other than attracting customers. Having someone who can pay attention to who you're going off with and whose car you're stepping into can provide an extra, if far from infallible, sense of security. Exchange that for the comfort of an app, and prostitutes could find themselves turning up to a strange address to meet someone they've had little chance to assess. This is of course what thousands of sex workers who advertise on the Internet already do daily, but it could be one reason why some still prefer the streets.
Especially streets like Berlin's Oranienburger Straße. The strip where Poppenreiter first got her idea is probably safer than average. A small area in Central Berlin that’s busy day and night with shops, offices, and bars not connected to the sex industry, sex workers are probably tolerated there by police because it’s so compact – you can walk through it in two minutes. Angela Merkel herself lives in an apartment barely 100 meters away, so this is hardly some far-flung alley.
To get a good number of hits on the app, sex workers might still need to locate in busy areas like this, where clustering together would also help to attract steady customers. The obvious answer to this would be to pick out a well-located place or premises in which to hang out together, and maybe some security. The problem with this concept – beyond the potential for abuse and exploitation – is that it has already been invented. It's called a brothel, a working model with which Peppr currently says it won't associate.
Given the app's need for sex workers to situate themselves near customer clusters and its limitations as a screening device, it seems unlikely that concepts like Peppr (should more come) will supplant existing markets for sex work entirely. It will still be very interesting to see how the concept’s future pans out.