At first glance, Ohlala is just another dating app. But after matching over the app, women can charge for the date. In New York, the first American city that has the app available for download, the idea is still controversial. Marie Claire chatted with some users and tested it to understand
This article originally appeared in Marie Claire Brazil
For years, I’ve followed the evolution of dating apps out of curiosity. I used one for a short time back in 2012, when first I moved to New York and hadn’t yet met my fiancé. When I got here, I quickly realized that when it came to meeting people in bars and clubs, Americans were much slower than Brazilians. This was the pre-Jurassic era; Tinder wasn’t a thing, and OkCupid owned the market of “attractive singles within a short subway ride”. These days, I enjoy hearing about my single friends’ adventures in dating apps.
When I thought that every possible gimmick had been exhausted, I heard of Ohlala: a dating app like Tinder and Happn, but where women can charge for the date.
So: prostitution, right?
The creator of the app, the German Pia Poppenreiter, insists that it’s not. In recent interviews, she prefers the term “paid date”, and emphasizes that sex on the first date is a mutual decision (Poppenreiter declined an interview with Marie Claire). Michelle Spollen, 25, a single American copywriter who used the site, strongly disagrees. “The app has a super-weird vibe. I felt like I was getting into prostitution when I got in and got offered money by the guys. I don’t want to use it again, ” she said. To draw my own conclusions, I decided to sign up—but not without warning my fiancé that my research would be for reporting purposes only.
Who pays more?
Released in August 2015, Ohlala sells itself as “on-demand dating”. Men create a profile and post prices for dates with different durations. I created a profile, answering information about age, profession, spoken languages, body type, and smoker/non-smoker. On the main page, I found a list of available men, what they were willing to pay, and what times they wanted their dates to be. I agreed to talk to two of them—from there, according to Ohlala rules, we’d have 21 minutes to arrange the meeting.
The first guy claimed to be a 31-year-old consultant. His photo was a close-up of his tanned six-pack. He was willing to pay $150-$350 for a one-hour meeting at 1:30pm. Right after “hi,” I got a notification from the app: “Go ahead and ask him what your expectation is for the meeting.” I did that, and his answer was, “I’m just looking for fun. What about you?”. I said that I was looking for something casual, just like in Tinder. That’s when the money talk started: “Since it’s a paid meeting, I think it’s weird that we just meet casually.” I asked him if he had met other Ohlala girls and whether they were all expecting sex. He replied, “I did not go out with anyone yet, but in Ohlala sex is a prerogative, right?”
I tried to negotiate, asking if for $150 we could meet without sex, but have him pay more later if we felt a connection on the date and decided to have sex. He only wanted to continue the conversation if we exchanged more pictures. Our 21 minutes were up, and things had gone nowhere.
My second attempt was with a 41-year-old marketer on the Upper East Side. He was willing to pay $150-$350 for an hour and a half, starting at 11pm. In the chat, he mentioned he had already met some girls from Ohlala. Sometimes they were escorts, sometimes they weren’t. He confessed to starting a relationship with a woman he met through the app, but said she had to move to Africa. I asked why he likes Ohlala. “On Tinder, girls look for more than sex. They want something more serious. On Ohlala, I can have sex without romanticism or promises, and I know I’m not going to hurt anyone.”
A legal gray area
In the U.S., Ohlala is being called the “Uber for escorts.” The founder of the app takes offense with this description. Poppenreiter says her platform is “an improved Tinder”, and that women deserve to be rewarded for accepting to go on a date. In an interview with Bustle, she explained the site’s philosophy in more detail: “If you’re looking for love, I wouldn’t look on Ohlala. But if you’re looking for fun for a specific period of time, where the details are agreed upon, and one [person] wants to be paid while the other wants to pay, then Ohlala is the right pick.”.
Psychologist Aline Monteiro, a specialist in couple’s therapy, finds it difficult to believe anyone is signing up for Ohlala expecting something other than sex. “On Tinder and Happn, men and women are on equal terms. Both of them are there looking for an effective relationship. When money enters the picture, it becomes a service.”
The last thing Ohlala wants is to be associated with paid sex work, which is a crime in New York and most states in the U.S. It’s no surprise, then, that the app’s homepage has an explicit warning, even if it probably goes ignored by many: “Ohlala isn’t an escort service. Prostitutes aren’t welcome.”
Through Facebook, I met Stacy*, 23. She’s an escort that has been using the app for two months, and has met with ten different men. “I was searching Google for new ways to advertise my services when I came across Ohlala. Thanks to it, I started to have younger and cuter clients,” she says. “Another advantage is that users are verified by the service. If a woman complains about a guy, he’s banned from the app. That gives me some security.”
In my conversations with Ohlala users (there were eight men between the ages of 25-45), sex was always a condition for meeting up. They would only negotiate payment if we would end up in bed. None of them were rude, though—their messages were standard-issue dating chatter, with the only difference being the big pile of cash on the table. The biggest shock: at the end of all those chats, I was sent a total of zero dick pics.