Tinder is the playground for sexual networking. Download for free onto your phone and hundreds of available singles will appear on screen. Swipe left to never see them again, swipe right in a bid to chat to that seemingly good looking person displayed in their photos. The game continues on in a never ending stream, browsing through people in your area, with the hope that those who accept wish to meet up and everything that follows. But reports during the summer allude to another side to the app, with The Washington Post and the CBC reporting on escorts using the platform to find clients.
Digital media across the world featured a similar scrutiny of the app this past week, following an Irish sex trafficking awareness campaign advertised through Tinder. Turn Off The Red Light (TORL) partnered with marketing firm, Eighty Twenty, to raise awareness of Ireland’s increasing problems with sex workers being trafficked here and exploited.
As part of the campaign, headed by the Immigration Council of Ireland but featuring 70 different organisations, three fake profiles were made from real stories. Models were captured in a stream of five photos, enticing the viewer first with a sultry image, followed by four photos revealing abuse at the hands of the Irish sex industry. The final image of one profile tells you, “Your options are left or right. Women forced into prostitution in Ireland have none.” This slide includes the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s logo and a link to the website.
While this particular arm of the TORL movement is specifically targeted against sex trafficking, the group are working towards the end of any type of legal sex trade in Ireland. Though we see no red lights flaunting prostitution in Ireland, Irish law makes the practice legal behind closed doors. You may not advertise your services, but once consensual sex is exchanged for money it’s seen as a legally protected exchange under our laws.
In 2009, their research showed that the domestic sex industry is continuing to expand. Last year it was worth over €200 million per annum.The Criminal Justice Act 2008 has made it illegal to buy sex from someone who has been trafficked, but with no strict liability on the purchaser. Therefore a defence can successfully claim you did not know that the sex worker was trafficked.
The campaign has garnered international attention, from Time to The Telegraph to Buzzfeed. It’s a novel approach to viral marketing, people across the country can happen across it in their daily lives. This type of guerrilla marketing is a new frontier for advertising companies.
Eighty Twenty, the company behind the campaign, are better known for creating apps than infiltrating them and have worked for Bank of Ireland, Bulmers and have made an ingenious Chrome extension, which removes all references to Garth Brooks from your screens, like a secret service redaction.
Turn Off The Red Light has been active online since 2011, but it was Cathal Gillen of Eighty Twenty who thought of using Tinder as a way of taking the campaign in a new direction, targeting a new audience directly, who could be potential purchasers of sex. Cathal Gillen said, “Tinder has become an extremely popular app in Ireland, and it provides us with a unique, innovative and stand out way of communicating to men the issues faced by women involved in sex trafficking.”
Clara Kelleher, Eighty Twenty’s senior accounts manager, talked me through the finer intricacies of setting up the campaign. Three stories were taken, reconstructed in a photoshoot, then used to create 17 different profiles, with 17 different names spread throughout the country.
Though catfishing (the practice of putting forward a false identity online) has plagued Tinder like all other social media and though the app has already been infiltrated, in many countries, by sex workers advertising their services, its use as a medium for campaigning is an innovation. It’s a little ridiculous that it’s taken so long for the app to be commercially penetrated, and the immediate thought goes to how potentially cost effective this new advertising platform is.
Kelleher confirmed that the firm behind it all were blown away by the international attention the profiles have received. They started the campaign in the last fortnight by geo-targeting Ballsbridge, home to the monumental Web Summit, knowing that a diverse subset would be the ideal place to launch the profiles and engage users.
Through a generator website, they were able to emulate geo-specific profiles with PCs instead of phones. Gradually they’ve broadened out the base to its current 17 profiles which appear throughout the country.
International reaction has been colossal but has also at times confused the issues at hand. Time’s article featured quotes from activists who saw the campaign as a conflation of two separate problems: trafficking and the sex industry. Mashable quoted Gillen responding to criticism that Tinder is an app for people to meet and opt for consensual sex – and therefore not the correct platform to target those who purchase it.
These arguments seem to make not only the unquantifiable claim that the two are mutually exclusive, but ignore all reports that Tinder has been used for solicitation in the past, and new apps based on its format are being created specifically for the sex industry, like Peppr.
The legal standing of prostitution is an issue that the EU is currently targeting together. Last October, The European Women’s Lobby held a conference in Brussels, Together for a Europe Free from Prostitution, with the backing of 200 NGOs and 60 MEPs, including six Irish MEPs.
I reached out to the DU Gender Equality Society (DUGES), which has adopted a neutral stance on the question of whether to further legalise sex work in Ireland. Their coming out in support of either side should be welcomed in the future, as Trinity needs a united voice to speak on this issue. Their chair, Ciara O’Rourke, in a personal capacity, thought TORL using Tinder to spread awareness of the issue a good idea, and spoke knowledgeably about the conflicting sides of the movement here in Ireland.
Katie McGrew, sex worker and RTÉ reality star, is one of the most visceral opponents of the movement, and after giving a speech to Feminista Cork, inspired them to leave TORL this summer. McGrew gave a frank interview to the Irish Independent around the same time, detailing her experience from New York all the way to her Cork-based website and the college students who are her clients, who admit that “their parents are paying for me.”
Mick Wallace expressed more direct negative comments about TORL in an Irish Examiner viewpoint this week, eager for the sex industry and sex trafficking to not be condensed into a soundbite solution, though failing to offer any other way of addressing trafficking. He voiced his support to preserve the inherent virtues of the completely separate sex industry, in his eyes at least.
I spoke to Rachel Collier, CEO of Young Social Innovators, a foundation that was originally part of the same preceding organisation to the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI), before both initiatives were separately launched. YSI have supported TORL from the beginning and she welcomed the campaign, particularly for its engagement with younger users of the app. Her support for movement suggests we won’t be seeing other TORL members drastically change their stance like Feminista Cork.
Denise Charlton, chief executive of the ICI, stated in the press release that, “Sex trafficking is one of the most lucrative crimes, with the sums involved on a par with those for drug smuggling and gun running” and that the ICI is “committed to using every possible opportunity to increase awareness about the activities of the thugs behind these crimes and the impact on their victims.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article suggested that DUGES has not yet adopted an advocacy stance on whether sex work should be legalised. The society instead maintains a neutral stance on the issue.