"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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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.