The hookup app Tinder supposedly ushered in the dawn of the dating apocalypse, making no-strings-attached sex more available than ever before. But one Berlin startup has realized that a price tag isn't always a turnoff.
Pia Poppenreiter may have a name straight out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but she belongs firmly in the world of adult entertainment. This week - a day before Amnesty International approved a policy to call for the global decriminalization of sex work - the Berlin-based entrepreneur launched Ohlala, which claims to be the world's first app for "paid dates."
"We're already outperforming on many levels," Poppenreiter told DW. "The response has exceeded our expectations."
Ohlala is basically a cleaned-up version of Peppr, the first app Poppenreiter developed, which provided a platform for independent sex workers to connect with prospective clients. It sparked a frenzy of media interest when it went live last year. "There Is Now an App for Prostitution," a headline in Time magazine screamed.
Now 28, Poppenreiter sold up earlier this year, after she and her team disagreed on Peppr's future direction, and she's all the wiser for it.
"I like to say that Ohlala is halfway between Peppr and Tinder," Poppenreiter said, referring to the hugely popular dating app recently accused by Vanity Fair of fueling a culture of casual sex. "But Ohlala is a lot less explicit than Peppr was. And, above all, we've flipped the booking process."
Empowering or exploitative?
It's a move that Techcrunch equates with "putting the power back in the hands of the women." Users, or "gentlemen" as Ohlala demurely calls them, register for free and make a pitch, including hourly rate, duration of the date, place and personal preferences. They then send their pitches to available "ladies" nearby.
The escorts' profiles are private and verified by Ohlala, not least to ensure that women are signing up voluntarily. "We conduct interviews to vet them and to make sure they know what they're doing," said Poppenreiter, who this year advised the government on changes to its prostitution law. "If they don't speak much German, for example, we won't verify them."
The women decide themselves what happens next. If they choose to reply to the booking request, they can open a chat on the platform and the rest is up to them. Perhaps the date will involve dinner, a visit to the opera. Perhaps it will involve sex. Whatever course it takes, money will change hands, although Ohlala doesn't take a fee for facilitating the transaction.
Instead, it aims to monetize with functions, product placement, content such as a blog and possible membership. "That's an ethical choice, but it's also a question of criminal liability," Poppenreiter said. Although Germany legalized prostitution in 2002, advancing or promoting prostitution is a criminal offense.
Legal restrictions will inevitably be the biggest obstacles facing Ohlala's expansion. But there is growing international consensus that the Web has done more than any law had to make prostitution less hazardous. In 2013, for example, Scott Peppet, a University of Colorado Law School professor, made waves with a paper called "Prostitution 3.0," in which he argues that governments need to start factoring new technologies into debates about reforming sex work laws.
Using tech to transform the sex trade
For now, Poppenreiter insists on using the term "paid dates," skirting the issue by saying that exactly what transpires when users meet is none of Ohlala's business. "What is a prostitute anyway?" she asked. "Is it someone who has sex for money as a full-time job? Are you a prostitute just because you do it once? I don't like labels and I would prefer to distance myself from certain language. We want to develop a tool for users, not engage in political debate. The service we're offering is honest and straightforward."
Sonja Dolinsek agrees. A researcher on sex work at the University of Erfurt, she feels that Ohlala could tackle prejudices about "the oldest profession" by helping to smarten up its image. "Ultimately, women have always used their sexuality for financial gain," she said. "Sex workers might do so professionally, but that's the only difference between them and other women who capitalize on their sexuality."
Dolinsek welcomes the possibility that an app like Ohlala could improve perceptions of sex work and is also convinced that it could make it safer. "So long as sex workers are vilified by society, there will be an increased risk of violence," she said. "Perpetrators know that no one, not even police in many cases, care about sex workers. An app like this means that johns are registered."
For now, Ohlala is geared to the upper tier of the sex trade. According to the Federal Statistics Office, only 60,000 of Germany's 400,000 sex workers are call girls and escorts rather than street walkers. But it nonetheless shows how technology can be used to help lift sex workers out of the criminal world. "Today they can control their image, set their prices, and sidestep some of the pimps, madams, and other intermediaries who once took a share of the revenue," Wired magazine wrote back in 2011.
As Ohlala's founder points out, even those who have moral doubts about the service should be able to recognize its potential. "It's disrupting an industry that needs to be disrupted," Poppenreiter said.
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