supporting sex workers: rapid ideation

The goal of our research is to support the agency and safety of women working in the sex industry. This week, we were challenged with generating  200+ ideas for potential products and services that aim to work towards this mission.


We began by revisiting secondary research surrounding sex work in the US. According to economist studying prostitution, Scott Cunningham, sex work is the most dangerous job for a woman in the United States. In an episode of ReplyAll, he shares that it actually has a homicide rate of over 200 per 100,000 people. The second most dangerous job for a female is a liquor store employee and that has a homicide rate of four per 100,000.

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Image 1. Pocket knife that Leila keeps on her during work

After the introduction of the “Erotic Services” section of Craigslist – later replaced by other websites including – the total female homicide rate went down nearly 20 percent in a given city on average. Not just sex worker homicides, but total female homicides. 

Since the disintegration of Backpage, after the passing of FOSTA/SESTA laws, sex workers are forced to operate in a world before the internet. Imagine trying to run a business without having access to email, web-based advertising or interaction with customers. Access to digital products and services empowers women to screen clients from the safety of their homes, where they are far less vulnerable and have greater control. 

As we move into the ideation phase of our project, we used our research and insights to create new ideas for products and services that may increase the safety and autonomy in a post-FOSTA/SESTA America.


Our net new knowledge from rapid ideation included some of the following ideas.


Tapping into Blockchain.

  • We spoke with an industry expert working in blockchain technology in San Francisco in order to improve our ideation around encrypted services that could provide sex workers with secure and private communication online. This allowed us to generate new ideas around blockchain encrypted “endorsement” services that sex workers and clients could both use as vetting tools.
    • Links: Web of Trust, Monero

Sex workers are small business owners.

  • Our research led us to believe that like entrepreneurs, sex workers value creative control and take serious pride in self-reliance. With this in mind, we generated ideas that foster this inherent creativity. For example, web-camming platforms with built-in filters and prompts. We also found value in strategic networking and saw opportunity in partnerships with successful entrepreneurs, influencers, and sex brands.

Ensuring safety is important.

  • Sex workers have to create their own safety systems because no one else will for them, so we want to bridge the gap by creating systems that better ensure the safety of sex workers. Recurring clients are one consistent way that sex workers build trust with reliable clients, so we would like to create products that incentivize this connection, such as a “Sky Miles” type service with points and awards.
    • Other ideas: VR immersion experiences, pre-packaged “Airbnb” style sexual encounter experiences

Let’s play a game.

  • We realized that sex work and the entertainment industry in general lends itself well to gamified experiences that may not only create a better client experience, but ultimately increase sex worker income and expand client base. Building off of the current trends of bars themed around playing games (ping pong bars, bowling bars, axe throwing bars, put-put bars), we toyed with the idea of strip poker bars and role-playing bars.
    • Other ideas: Make it digital with gamified webcamming

Sex workers are providing therapy.

  • Through our research, we found that because clients often seek validation under the guise of sex, sex workers come to realize that they have also signed up to be therapists. This insight inspired multiple ideas for services that treat sex workers similarly to therapists. Ideas like wellness practices and training in counseling supporting this side of their work and challenging society’s definition of sex work and its associated skill sets.
    • Other ideas: Health and wellness center that incorporates sex work into therapy services, all-encompassing intimacy services platform, training in counseling, wellness practices

Informal money management: dresser banking.

  • Many of the women we spoke to frequently dealt with money in the form of physical cash. The dancers we met expressed particularly negative experiences with banks, associating them with fear and judgment. As a result, women often stored and hid money in dressers and clothing. Sometimes thinking it is better to spend than stow away. This inspired deas like smart safes, cash labeling systems, and savings tools.
    • Other ideas: service that helps women prove their income, financial planning tool for predicting income (e.g. house fees, client meetings)


Even being as informed and as excited to jump in as we were, we immediately realized that ideating for wicked problems is no easy task. Here are some of the difficulties that we faced.

  • Imposter syndrome. Attempting to address problem spaces that we feel unqualified for 
  • Diversity of ideas. Generating a range of concepts that are unique from one another
  • Value of ideas. Holding space for ideas that may feel silly or impractical 
  • Legality. Ideating solutions that may not be legal 
  • Emotional quality. Working in problems related to the ‘human condition’ that don’t have one-size-fits-all answers


Next week, we will be building concepts. We plan to narrow down to our strongest ideas and develop them into concepts that can be further illustrated by vignettes, storyboards, and theories of change. We look forward to expanding and challenging our insights and hope to develop concepts with the capacity for creating a positive impact on the lives of sex workers.

If you’re interested in connecting with us, please reach out