"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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I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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