These Men Are Reviewing Hundreds Of Sex Workers Online

They say they're "giving back"—but many sex workers argue they contribute to a review site that exploits and objectifies

(Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso)
Mar 05, 2016 at 11:24 AM ET

“Mark” is what you might call a “super-user.” Over the past 15 years, under the handle “dotthei,” he’s written 344 reviews, an average of nearly two a month. These are the kinds of stats that could gain him recognition as a top reviewer on Yelp or TripAdvisor. Only Mark isn’t reviewing restaurants or hotels—he’s reviewing sex workers.

Mark is a self-employed 50-year-old who lives in the D.C. metro area and makes six figures a year. None of his customers, friends or family know that he’s the No. 8 most prolific reviewer on The Erotic Review, a site where men post reviews of sex workers. It’s a distinction the site advertises through a prominently displayed link to a list of the top 100 reviewers. “I’ve ranked as high as five, I think. One time, I think that I may even have been three,” says Mark, who describes himself as “probably maybe your typical sex addict or just one horny person.”

The Erotic Review, founded in 1999, boasts 1.2 million reviews. That’s only 1 percent of the number of reviews found on Yelp. Still, it’s often referred to as the industry standard and the site’s founder has been called “the most influential man in the prostitution business in America.” In interviews with half of the top 10 reviewers on TER, most explained their motivation in writing reviews of hundreds of “providers,” as they’re called on the site, as at least partly an altruistic one. In the fashion of Yelpers, they described themselves as not only wanting to help bring business to their favorite sex workers, but also to “give back to the community” of reviewers that have warned them away from a scam or introduced them to a beloved provider.

“They have a desire to share information, they have a desire to get information—it just happens to be about providers,” says Christine Milrod, a sex therapist and researcher who has studied The Erotic Review and found that most of its male users are white, well-off and either married or partnered. “What are these review sites all about? It’s about not wanting to waste your hard-earned dollars,” she says.

That’s how the site currently describes its raison d’être: “We all work hard for our money and we don’t want to waste it on someone who doesn’t deliver as promised.” In the past, though, TER has put it in more aggressive and threatening terms: An ad that ran in 2008 in the Village Voice’s Backpage section read, “DID YOU GET RIPPED OFF AGAIN? Didn’t read her reviews, did you? Don’t let them get away with it. … By submitting a review you are not only warning thousands of guys in your area, you hitting them where it hurts…HER WALLET.” It’s a tone set early by the site’s now-estranged founder David Elms, who has said that he came up with the idea for the site after, as one journalist put it, “being ripped off by a call girl.”

For these reasons, and more, many sex workers take issue with The Erotic Review. They say the site harbors a culture of misogyny and objectification, and exposes them to extortion, legal risks and pressure to perform unwanted acts. Some are categorically against reviews, given the intimate nature of the services being provided. “The Erotic Review, it’s a cantankerous relationship,” said “Alexis,” a sex worker who asks her clients not to review her. “Quite honestly, if it blew up, we’d all be happy.”

Providers’ profiles—which they do not post themselves and are instead generated by users—include their name, website, contact information, physical details (from pubic hairstyle to cup size), services offered (whether oral sex without condoms is allowed, for example) and a list of reviews. Those reviews begin by numerically ranking the woman on a scale from one to 10 on “looks” and “performance.” The rest of the review is broken into two parts: “general details” and “juicy details.” The latter, which is restricted to VIP members, details the literal ins and outs of an encounter, often through a string of acronyms representing various sex acts.

Mark’s reviews have several recognizable tropes. He ends the public portion of his review with a cliff-hanger that is then picked up in the VIP section—“When I arrived I was greeted by… the same lady in the pictures just slightly heavier” or “When the door closed… the kissing began,” for example. Then he makes a point of detailing how he “dropped the donation on the nightstand,” which might seem an odd detail to include, except that the money sets the tone of the interaction for him. “There’s that inherent basic feeling of, ‘Here is your donation.’ There’s no emotional connection,” he said. “Have a nice time, then gone, goodbye, thank you.”

Then typically comes an evaluation of the provider’s body (“nice body with huge tits”), followed by details of his own “pumping” or “thrusting” and then, of course, ejaculation (“dropped a huge load” or “dropped a massive load”). A typical kicker to his reviews: “Nice time and would repeat” or “Would see again for sure.”

Only he rarely actually sees them again, even if he really likes them. This is in large part because TER provides incentives for new reviews. As an alternative to paying $30 a month for VIP access, users can get free access by posting frequently. Two reviews gain a user access for 30 days, but after that they have to post a new review every 15 days to maintain it. “Once you see someone and you write a review, you can write a followup review, but you don’t get credit for it anymore,” he explained. “I wanted always the credit for my reviews.”

In this way, at least according to his account, The Erotic Review—the thing supposedly in service of his “hobby,” as many TER users call it— has actually changed the nature of his “hobbying.” Some argue that it encourages the writing of fake reviews as well, a problem that plagues even sites like Yelp where there aren’t direct financial incentives for contributing. As “Alexis,” a sex worker, put it, “When you’re talking about ‘super users,’ when I see people like that, I see ‘super bullshitters.'”

Many sex workers say the site also threatens to change the nature of their work by pressuring them into acts they don’t want to perform. “If somebody says to me, ‘I’d like to do this without a condom,’ I can say no to that and he might give me a bad review,” said Alexis. And that can have horrible ramifications on a sex worker’s career. “Sally,” a 38-year-old sex worker who doesn’t use TER, said, “I’ve heard [of] guys threatening, ‘If you don’t do such and such, I’ll give you a bad review.’”

Elms has been accused online of extorting free services from sex workers in exchange for keeping positive reviews on the site, which he has denied. He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly attempting to hire an undercover cop to both murder a provider who was suing him for copyright infringement and severely injure the owner of a competing sex worker review site. (Ultimately, the murder charge was dropped and he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison on the assault charge.) The site then “parted ways” with Elms, although as Charlotte Shane wrote on the sex work blog Tits and Sass, “A project cannot be cleanly extricated from the ideology of the person(s) who created it, no matter how convenient or fervent the dream of tie-cutting may be.”

A common complaint Katherine Koster, communications director at the Sex Workers Outreach Project, has heard is that TER pressures “sex workers to provide the same service across clients, rather than adapting it to individual clients.” TER reviews are structured around a hierarchy of acts: The site asks reviewers to reserve 8, 9 and 10 performance rankings for “situations where out of the ordinary services are provided,” including blow jobs without condoms, kissing with tongue and anal sex. Koster says the site also rejects reviews without explicit sexual details. “Those two things really can change the culture of the industry in a problematic way,” she says.

Sally compares it to encountering men in the dating world who see women “as a bunch of unattached body parts” and says you “almost feel like you’re up on a wall chart” being compared to other women. She says many of these guys think of “sex as Legos”—a series of mechanical and interchangeable configurations, if you will—whereas Sally talks about it as an experience “you want to be enlarging, enriching, transformational.” Of course, sex is inherently commodified when money is exchanged, but she says that sex workers can still have authentic, caring and humane interactions with clients.

Plenty of reviews appear to show no real empathy for their subjects. Take “Sam,” a top-ten reviewer who has been on the site for well over a decade. When he’s fond of a provider he’ll wax poetic about it—“I love to peal off the layers of clothing and reveal the beauty of a women’s nude form, [sic]” for example. But when less enthused, he’s brutal. “Allie is a tall young lady that has seen the effects that a few children and poor nutrition can do to her body,” he writes in one review.

He details how women are missing teeth and “thicker” than in their pictures. “She seems like a nice enough girl but I suspect her figure and her position in life are a direct result of her motivation and effort,” one review reads.

He lays into their surroundings, too. “To say her home was a pig sty would be insulting to pigs,” he writes. “The place was disgusting with debris, clothing and even dog excrement on the floor.” In other reviews he criticizes a woman’s apartment as “a hovel” and complains about having to meet a provider in a basement with “a nasty mattress with sheets and blanket on the floor,” with no apparent consideration of the circumstances that led these women to be there—with him. A woman gagging on his ejaculate is written up as a “humorous note.”

Ironically, Sam, a “happily married” 55-year-old business owner in New England, told me that he tries not to be “too graphic and foul” in his reviews. “First off, I’m a gentleman and I do not consider it polite,” he wrote in an email. “Secondly it’s bad karma.” When asked whether his wife knew about his extracurricular activities, he wrote, “LOL, not if I am to stay happily married. ; ).”

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Then there are reviewers like “Bob,” another top-ten reviewer, who worries that some reviews are unnecessarily nasty toward sex workers. He describes himself as “a believer in humane and honest serial monogamy” and says of his interest in TER, “I do love people, their quirks and foibles and idiosyncrasies, and I do relish the surprise of getting to know a new provider.” His reviews, which include numerical rankings as required, nonetheless seem relatively sympathetic even when negative.

Mark also has concerns about the impact a bad review can have on workers. “I don’t think I would necessarily tear them apart in that forum, I would just maybe make the score somewhat reflective of my experience, but I wouldn’t go into a diatribe about details and why I didn’t like it,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair to the person. It’s a weird industry, and to hurt somebody’s ability to make income, that’s not what you’re really supposed to do.”

But there is a huge range of opinions on how to fairly review a provider—or whether it’s even possible to do so. “A lot of sex workers feel like the service they are providing is categorically different than other services, like waiting tables, giving a massage, or teaching a class—a lot of sex workers feel like their because their work is so intimate, it shouldn’t be reviewed and that reviews are misogynistic and objectifying,” said Koster.

That said, many sex workers do rely on TER for their business. “It’s free and highly effective advertising, which is becoming increasingly important as advertising sites become more expensive or require additional identification or stop taking accessible forms of payment,” said Koster. It’s also the case that review boards can “establish a minimum baseline of respectful client behavior and consent culture which isn’t perfect but is better than nothing.” And many review sites, including TER, have sections where providers can interact with each other. “It’s not for sex workers, but in the absence of well-designed, easy-to-find sex worker online communities, that’s useful to a lot of people,” she said.

For some, it’s actually a way to vet potential customers, and not only because the site allows providers to share warnings about clients. Alexis said she actively avoids top posters on The Erotic Review. “I’m gonna look and say, ‘Do they have more than twenty reviews or less than twenty reviews?” she explained. “The good ones that you really want to see, they have a life, this is not all they do all the time, they’re not sitting on the message board all day.”

She doesn’t have a TER membership, but sometimes she asks a friend who does to check whether a man mostly writes positive or negative reviews. “I personally don’t take them,” she said of harsh or prolific reviewers. “Some of the guys on TER are decent people, and some of them we feel a little sorry for,” she said. “Some of them, if a woman is that much of an object to you, what does that say about you, man?”