"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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.