"What do you think about his choice?": uncovering the men who visit prostitutes

The Invisible Men Project aims to reveal what men who visit sex workers think about the women involved.

In the feminist debate over sex work, it's often said that we don't listen enough to the voices of women who work as prostitutes. While that has started to change, thanks to a growing grassroots lobby movement, there is another group whose voices are even more rarely heard in mainstream debates.

The men who pay for sex. The punters.

In a way, that's peculiar, because there's an enormous database of men's thoughts about prostitution. It's called PunterNet, and it's been around for more than a decade. It is like a Which? of women you can pay for sex: men give their thoughts on the location, the "friendliness" of the sex worker they choose, the prices they charge and the services on offer.

It was even attacked by Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman in 2009:

"There is now a website... where pimps put women on sale for sex and then men who’ve had sex with them put their comments online. It is 'PunterNet' and fuels the demand for prostitutes. It is truly degrading and puts women at risk."

Now, it should be noted that the website itself is garlanded with warnings about reporting any potentially underage or trafficked women, so it at least gestures towards responsibility. And it offers sex workers a right of reply to bad reviews.

But still, some of the posts on it are fairly shocking in their callous lack of interest in the circumstances of the women involved (you can easily find plenty of reviews complaining of being "ripped off" by any obviously unhappy or distressed woman).

Now, The Invisible Men Project is gathering a selection of posts from Punternet to ask a simple question: never mind the debates about the ethics of sex workers themselves, what do you think of the men who pay them? As the site puts it: "Without seeking to prove, disprove or debate choice on the part of the women described, we invite you to consider: what do you think of his choice?" 

The reports do not make for easy (or safe for work) reading, but if you are interested in the debates about prostitution, both moral and legal, then you should look through them. It's utterly crippling that in this debate - as in the ones over online abuse, or about teenagers and porn - "polite society" can't talk about what people actually think and say on a daily basis.

The most recent post is particularly shocking: a sex worker reveals that she now prefers to offer clients anal sex, because she is so small-framed that "some idiots bang her pussy so hard it bruises her cervix, which is really painful for her". (I've checked on Punternet, and this comes from a genuine review, quoted fairly.)

A second reviewer describes choking a woman during oral sex, while another says that he "found her 'disinterest' a real turn on". "She kept herself propped up on her elbows with her back twisted to the right as if she were on guard against some possible dangerous act and needed to be able to escape quickly," reports another, adding petulantly: "This defensive posturing prevented me from properly enjoying the experience of massaging her."

The inevitable response to the Invisible Men Project will be that these opinions have been cherry-picked, and are not representative of what I imagine is probably now referred to as "the punting community". While there is some truth in that - from what I can see, the majority of posts on Punternet are merely quietly depressing, rather than frankly outrageous - there is one thing to remember.

The chokers and the "idiots" and the men who are still happy to have sex with a tired, unhappy, defensive woman all exist. And if you are a sex worker, how do you know whether your next client will be one of them?

The Invisible Men Project.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser