Fake Escort Website Launches With ‘Dead’ Escorts

A French organization creates an anti-sex work ad campaign featuring images of battered and bloodied women

Sep 28, 2016 at 3:25 PM ET

This morning, I visited the new French escort site Girls of Paradise and clicked a button to start a live chat with “Sonia,” a 25-year-old brunette. A hot-pink chat window popped up, she asked whether I wanted to see more photos, and immediately I was met with an image of her face covered in bruises. Then came a photo with two bloody knife wounds to her chest, right above her lacy black bra.

The text box informed me that Sonia was stabbed 53 times and found dead in the apartment where she saw clients.

As you can see, this is no ordinary escort website. It’s a digital campaign dreamt up by Le Mouvement du Nid, a French anti-sex work organization, and the advertising firm McCann Paris. What appears at first to be a site selling sex quickly reveals itself as a catalog of murdered, maimed, and drug-addicted sex workers.

Or, more accurately, a catalog of actresses pretending to be murdered, maimed, and drug-addicted sex workers.

More Sex Workers More Worried About Cops Than Dangerous Johns

Visitors to the site are allowed to navigate through profile pages that display sexy photos of the women and detail their measurements, age, and hair color. But if you call, text, or chat with any of these women, you are informed of the sad fate that has befallen her. And, if you’re chatting online or by text message, you’re sent grisly images — of pallid, blue-lipped Monica who was found dead and naked in a channel, or busty Ines, whose face was mutilated after her pimp threw her off a bridge, for example.

These dispatches end with the message that when you visit a sex worker, you are complicit in the violence perpetrated against them.

The folks behind the campaign even recorded some of the early phone calls they received in response to the online ads and produced a video featuring one of these conversations. When a man is informed that Ines was found dead in her apartment, he yells, “Nooooo!” It’s all very reminiscent of a Tinder ad campaign in 2014 in which men were matched with women whose profiles featured images of their faux battered faces and messages about the harm of sex trafficking.

There is no doubt, it’s an impressively well-executed digital ad campaign — but does it take the right approach to this important issue? Violence against sex workers is a very real problem: They are estimated to have a 45 to 75 percent chance of experiencing sexual violence during their careers. One study estimated that the workplace homicide rate among sex workers was 204 per 100,000 — a higher rate than for any other group of women studied, as the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has pointed out.

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But this campaign, and the abolitionist organization behind it, is bent on eradicating sex work entirely, not on making it safer for sex workers. The website’s message ignores several of the issues that sex worker rights organizations have raised about such violence. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects argues that one of the main causes of violence against sex workers is criminalization of sex workers and clients. That is in part because when clients are afraid of law enforcement, sex workers are often forced to conduct their business in ways that put them at greater risk.

In France, where this ad campaign is based, it is legal for an individual to sell sex, but illegal for someone to buy it. Research has shown that when sex work is fully decriminalized — meaning it is legal to buy and sell — rates of violence against sex workers are lower and sex workers are more likely to report violence. You won’t find any mention of that on Girls of Paradise.

A World Health Organization report details several values for addressing violence against sex workers, including promoting “the full protection of sex workers’ human rights,” rejecting “interventions based on the notion of rescue and rehabilitation,” promoting “gender equality,” and respecting “the right of sex workers to make informed choices about their lives.” You might notice: They do not mention creating make-believe escort websites to shame all potential sex work clients as abusers, or concocting images of fake brutality that recall those high-fashion advertisements that sexualize violence against women.

But I guess real facts aren’t as sexy as fake images of brutalized women in lingerie.