A new app, developed in Canada in consultation with sex workers, is dubbing itself the Airbnb of sex work. Advocates say “Gfendr” could help keep sex workers safe, but due to legal grey zones around sex work, there’s concern police could use it as a tool to harass sex workers.
Gfendr, a free mobile app developed in Montreal, has attracted 700 users since its launch two weeks ago. The app allows sex workers to list their services and rate clients. In turn, clients can search for sex workers based on their preferences and chat with their chosen service provider about location and price ahead of time.
Sex workers can flag difficult or dangerous clients, helping others avoid unsafe situations in the future.
Vancouver sex-worker advocacy group PACE said the founders of the app reached out to them and other groups across the country ahead of the launch and asked for feedback.
“We all thought the app was great in that it helps sex workers’ ability to work safer,” said Laura Dilley, executive director of PACE.
Co-developer Melissa Desrochers says she and her partner have built the app without funding. Once there are more users, sex workers will be able to pay to promote their services in search results.
“This is a difficult project, but we truly think this initiative can improve their security,” she said.
However, Dilley said the app is only a stop-gap measure. Her group advocates for the decriminalization of sex work.
Given current laws that say buying sex and helping advertise are illegal, she’s concerned the police might use the app to gather information on sex workers and clients. “The app is basically a third party advertising on behalf of sex workers. A lot of the lawyers we talked to didn’t feel that the app was actually legal,” she said.
Gfendr only requires a phone number or email to register, and Desrocher assures that this and all other identifying information is encrypted by an outside company, so even she doesn’t have access to it. “We’re trying to navigate within the law,” she said. Ultimately, “the collective benefit is more important than the individual risk we can have (as the developers).”
I never felt more satisfied or optimistic than when I rode the river in my youth.