"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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.