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Invisible subjects: the men who fuel the demand for prostitution

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then punting is the oldest consumer activity. Yet it remains broadly unexamined, perhaps because the questions it raises are too uncomfortable.

In the UK, policing of prostitution targets sex workers far more often than punters. Photo: Christopher Churchill/Gallery Stock

 

It is 1am on a late summer’s night in Tower Hamlets in east London, and the Metropolitan Police vice squad is out on patrol. Police CCTV operators have alerted the team that a street walker has climbed into a man’s car. He had paid her but is stopped before any sexual acts can occur. The woman’s name is Jessica. She is 36. Her right eye socket is heavily bruised. Swigging vodka from an old plastic bottle, she tells me that she is a crack and heroin addict and has been a prostitute since running away from her children’s home in Paddington at the age of 12. “I’ve had every bad experience you can think of – gun to my head, raped, stabbed twice,” she says.

The would-be punter is in his late thirties. He is tanned and wears a peach polo shirt, blue shorts, white Havaianas flip-flops and a wedding ring. Sitting on the bonnet of his smart estate car, he is close to tears. “I’ve had the worst three weeks of my life and this was just a mistake, the cherry on the cake.” This married, middle-class man, who has taken to the streets in the twilight hours to pay for sex with a visibly ill woman, may or may not be a typical buyer of sex. As Jessica explains, there is no one type of man. “Society seems to think that: they’ve got this perception that all punters are dirty old men in raincoats. They ain’t, they’re from all walks of life. Black, white, thin, fat, young, old – all types.” She twirls her chestnut hair around a long, petrol-blue false fingernail. “Maybe they’ve had a bad relationship, or they’re going through a bad patch in their marriage, or they just get a full-on hit: it’s dangerous, there’s the thrill of getting caught.”

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then punting is the oldest consumer activity. Yet it remains broadly unexamined, perhaps because the questions it raises – about male desire and power, about society – are too uncomfortable.

Instead, organisations that monitor prostitution, from the police to NGOs and feminist lobby groups, usually focus on the sex workers, whose situation is more easily categorisable. One view is that prostitutes are victims who need help to get off the streets. Others argue that many sex workers are empowered individuals exercising their autonomy and that they simply need greater legal rights. But to consider prostitution only from the perspective of the sex worker is to obscure the economic and social power dynamics that govern the prostitute’s position. Where demand exists, supply will emerge – and it is a fact that men’s demand for sex fuels prostitution. (There are, of course, male and transsexual prostitutes and also women who buy sex, but as they are in the minority and present a different range of problems, male punters are the focus of this article.) The motivations behind paying for sex are varied and various; the punting community is a wide one, as is that of the estimated 100,000 sex workers in the UK – most of whom work indoors rather than on the streets.

Who are the men who pay for sex with women in Britain? Research is thin. Eaves, a charity that supports women at risk of violence, is one of the few organisations that has conducted a study of punters. Men Who Buy Sex: Who They Buy and What They Know, published in 2009, was based on interviews with 103 men in London who had paid for sex with trafficked and non-trafficked prostitutes. The authors noted: “Many [punters] reported that they were aware of pimping, trafficking and other coercive control over those in massage parlour, brothel and escort prostitution. These men were frequently aware of the vulnerability and risk factors for entry into prostitution including childhood abuse, lack of alternative job choices, coercive control and homelessness.”

The demographics of the self-selecting participants – who replied to advertisements for the study – were nearly equally split between three age groups: 18-to-29-year-olds, 30-to-40-year-olds, and 41-to-70-year-olds. Almost half the participants were white, 20 per cent were Asian, 11 per cent were black, and the rest were of other ethnicities. Most were in a relationship; the report did not distinguish between short-term and long-term relationships, but this finding nonetheless supports other research showing that a man seldom decides to buy sex just because he lacks a partner.

As the marketing of the commercial sex industry has moved from classified adverts in the back of newspapers to online forums, it has become possible to garner a clearer view of punters’ attitudes. A wide range of these can be inferred from PunterNet, the “premier online community for Patrons and Providers of Adult Personal Services in the UK”. The web metrics site alexa.com profiles the most frequent PunterNet users as being men aged between 35 and 44, who are educated to graduate level and are more likely to have children than the average internet user. The posts on the PunterNet site range from obscenely violent and misogynistic descriptions of experiences with prostitutes to mundane notes on the easy availability of off-road parking.

In 2011 Jon Millward, a self-described “ideas detective” who analyses information relating to prostitution and pornography, data-crunched 5,000 reviews posted on PunterNet. He found that “nice”, “lovely” and “lady” were among the top five words the punters used to describe prostitutes; “breasts” was the only overtly sexual word in the top ten. Location was commonly discussed, with “clean” and “safe” among the most popular review terms. The banality of some of the most commonly recurring words cannot obscure the brutal behaviour frequently described by punters on the site.

A blog called the Invisible Men Project was set up last year to record some of the most extreme reviews from PunterNet, further illuminating the behaviour of the “invisible subjects of the sex industry”, as Eaves describes them. Most of the comments posted on the site are too lewd and disturbing to reproduce here, but the scornful tone is well captured by this contribution: “Yes she will endure hard penetration. I say endure because she does not engage with you on any level, to her it is just a matter of going through the motions . . . I was not successful in trying to animate her beyond her cold mechanical stupor.”

Millward wrote: “I don’t think punters are lacking the emotional circuitry necessary for experiencing genuine love and affection. They have just decided to bypass the usual steps men must take to go from not knowing a woman to having sex with her.” While the posts betray the dehumanising view many punters take of the women they pay for sex, 71 per cent of the men in the Eaves study admitted experiencing some degree of guilt or negative feelings about paying for sex. Almost 80 per cent viewed their use of women involved in prostitution to be an addiction – that is, uncontrollable behaviour. But over half thought that prostitution decreases the incidence of rape, because prospective rapists can be satisfied by paying for sex. Looking for further insights into punting, I contacted several men through PunterNet about their personal prostitution habits: their motivation for participating in the British sex industry, and their views on the ethics and legality of it. From these conversations, a gamut of opinions emerged – from shame, through wilful blindness, to defiance – but few agreed with one common interpretation of prostitution: as a form of commercial sexual exploitation and violence against women.

Keith, a regular contributor to PunterNet, replies to my request for an interview with an alacrity that hints at the regularity with which he views the site. He is a retired professional in his late sixties. Reflective but unapologetic about buying sex, he says over the phone: “This sounds dreadful, but I suppose I like the variety. The excitement, too.” He refuses to countenance ethical issues around paying to have sex with women, justifying his actions by saying that he only visits brothels, rather than engaging in outdoor prostitution with street walkers. “I’ve never felt sorry for working girls, because I’ve never been with one who shows she’s in a bad state. I’ve never been with a girl who looks really ill, coughing. A street walker wouldn’t appeal to me at all.

“I want to feel I’m giving pleasure to the woman. That wouldn’t be the case with a girl on the street, someone who had been trafficked or had a heavy drug dependency.”

Keith, who lives in Manchester, has a wife and grown-up children. He defends cash for sex as “a positive for my marriage” – his once “adventurous” sex life with his wife faded after she had their first child and now he views prostitutes as an acceptable stand-in. “It means I’m not forever pestering my wife and feeling resentful about her not giving me sex . . .” He adds quietly: “She makes me feel like a pervert for asking.”

He can remember the exact date he last had sex with his wife; it was over a year ago. Using sports sessions and outings with friends as false alibis, he has attempted to keep his trips to the brothel a secret from her, although he is “paranoid” that she has suspicions. It is his “greatest fear”, he says, that she would find out for certain.

Like some other punters I contacted, Keith believes that men have both a biological imperative and a right to have sex. If a man is not getting it from his wife or girlfriend, or from casual hook-ups, it is “natural” that he should desire, and be able to pay for, sex. “I try to limit myself to once every two weeks and not spend more than £80 a go,” he says. Sanguine on the subject of punters in general, he adds: “I don’t go [to a brothel] in a local part of the city, so I’m quite happy chatting to the other men in the reception area. But we wouldn’t sit there talking about which girls we see.

“Most men have regulars, but occasionally see someone new for that bit of variety. I saw one girl for about a dozen visits. Most men advise against that because you can get obsessed. I was obsessed, in love, with this lady. I’m more sensible about it now.”

Another man I contact through PunterNet, Jim, points out that some men have difficulty finding a sexual partner. Now in his mid-thirties and working in law, he recalls, with a stammer, that he was 29 years old and desperate to lose his virginity when he first sought the services of a prostitute.

“I was very nervous the first time. It didn’t go very well because she clearly wasn’t into it, but I was so excited that that went over my head at the time,” he says. Without the easy confidence to walk into a bar or nightclub and try his luck, he justifies paying for sex and has developed a routine. He travels an hour away to visit the same working girl once every three weeks, paying £300 for a two-hour session. “She is very attractive, so I know what I’m getting, and she’s also very enthusiastic. I feel very nervous meeting a new working girl.”

The woman he visits is British, the mother of a one-year-old, and although her online profile says she is 25, she has told Jim that she is 30. He has paid her for sex for more than two years.

Despite working in the legal profession, Jim says he has no opinions on the legality of prostitution and will not be drawn on the merits and drawbacks of various legal models across the globe. He has observed, however, that in the flat his “regular” shares with other sex workers, “only one of them uses it at a time, in order to try and stay within the law”. In English law, any property used by more than one prostitute at a time counts as a brothel, which is illegal. He says they talk openly when he visits, but the “sex is the be all and end all for me”.

“I do feel guilty about doing it,” he says hesitantly. “I just feel it’s bad emotionally for women. She doesn’t seem depressed, but I don’t know. Maybe that’s an act. I sometimes think, though, it’s just one more person at the end of the day, and I do treat escorts better than a lot of other customers do.”

Right to desire: the International Union of Sex Workers joins a May Day march in Soho, London

The prevailing view of the punters I contacted for this article was that, in one way or another, a man always “pays” for sex. Many viewed marriage and relationships as intrinsically economic relationships, in which the man provided financial security in return for sex, among other rewards. Some justified their use of prostitutes as merely an equivalent transaction. One man notes: “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Why pay for sex?’ It should be: ‘Why not pay for sex?’ We pay for lots of things in life. Sex is just another commodity.”

Many prostitutes who view themselves as empowered rather than exploited might agree that sex work is a simple financial transaction for services rendered and assert their right to sell it. In her 1997 essay “Inventing Sex Work”, the prostitutes’ rights activist Carol Leigh argued from her own experience that it could be both interesting and good fun. She wrote: “Sex in my personal life became very exciting. Sex with clients annoyed me sometimes and interested me other times.”

Several of the men with whom I spoke reflected the view that the financial transaction was beneficial to women as well as to men. Some went further and appeared to endorse the old myth that prostituted women somehow manipulate men, with their “biological” or “intrinsic” need and desire for sex, for financial gain.

Some women view the work of a prostitute as no different from other forms of exploitation entailed by a rapacious capitalist system, which they claim is itself inherently demeaning. In her book The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti (who blogged as Belle de Jour about selling sex) argues that sex work is no different from, say, deep-sea fishing in the Atlantic; both are physically dangerous, high-risk jobs. So why, the argument goes, view prostitution as a special case?

Certainly many punters offer justifications akin to that of a sweatshop boss: they hold the economic and social power, and they believe the exploitation of that power – using it over another person – is legitimate. If a woman is poor and “wants” to sell her body, they see nothing wrong with purchasing it for sex. As one punter says: “Some of them on PunterNet talk about women like they’re a commodity, that’s true. I don’t think it makes any difference as long as you treat the lady well. At the end of the day, it is a business.”

In August the Economist, usually better known for its sobriety rather than salacious­ness, splashed “The sex business” on its cover. The magazine examined the ways in which technology is “liberating” the cash-for-sex industry and it noted, “For many, both male and female, sex work is just that: work.” It argued further that prostitution looks “more and more like a normal service industry”. Decrying the ban on the sale and purchase of sex as “illiberal”, the Economist called for the legalisation of prostitution.

A society must determine its moral stance on selling and buying sex and whether it respects the rights of those sex workers who exhibit choice rather than coercion, and agency rather than victimhood, to sell it. The crucial question is this: is the commoditisation of sex merely the logical – and permissible – conclusion of capitalism; or is there something special about sex and related acts which gives us a duty to hold them above the bounds of financial transactions?

Obtaining sex by purchasing it is easy, convenient and relatively cheap (some prostitutes in London charge as little as £15, according to a 2008 report by the Poppy Project, the advocacy and support group for trafficked women; this was corroborated by Jessica, the sex worker I met in Tower Hamlets). But beyond that, there appears to be an intrinsic value to paid-for sex for some men, who are sexually aroused by the danger, thrill and power dynamics of an encounter with a prostitute.

This is especially true of men who engage with outdoor prostitution. Out on the night patrol with the vice unit in Tower Hamlets, Sergeant David Deal says: “You can’t imagine how unwell some of these women are and you can’t understand how men still take advantage of them . . . I think they like risky sex. Doing it in a car. Quickly.” He describes the wide range of punters his team frequently sees. “Blokes in suits, scumbags, rough sleepers. Most are 50 or over.”

PC James Coxshall adds: “The majority are white.” He also debunks the myth that prostitution is most common around midnight. Most brothels close by 10pm, and outdoor prostitution is common in the morning. “At 5am, when it begins to get a bit clearer, the cars begin to circle and circle. Many men use prostitutes on their way to work,” he says.

Patrolling in an unmarked police car, we stop a man in a silver Transit van after CCTV records him picking up Amanda, a 49-year-old street walker known to the vice team. Paul is 60, a slightly built south Asian Brit with sad, rheumy brown eyes, close-cropped grey hair and a beard. “I don’t have sex with her ever,” he tells me, motioning towards Amanda and acknowledging that he knows her well. “I picked her up because I just wanted to talk.” They also shared a wrap of cocaine, payment in kind for Amanda’s time. Paul admits that he pays to have sex with another street walker. “I wouldn’t know how to describe that relationship. She’s a liar and a thief, a very difficult person to be associated with . . .

“One of the things I get out of these women is just kind of a weird friendship. But these women are really disturbed socially. It’s quite a difficult thing. I don’t know why I choose to associate with her; I suppose it’s just habit. She’s attractive sexually.”

Exchanging money for sex is not illegal in the UK, although many activities associated with it are. Causing or inciting prostitution and controlling it for personal gain are offences. Kerb-crawling is technically illegal, but it must be shown that the individual was causing persistent annoyance. This month, MPs debated an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill that would have criminalised “the buying of sex acts”. The proposed law linked prostitution to slavery and was designed to “discourage demand” for trafficked people. But the amendment, which was brought forward by the Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart and gained cross-party support, was dropped following uproar from pressure groups. Women Against Rape and the Royal College of Nursing, among other organisations, argued that banning punters would drive prostitution underground and force sex workers to move to more dangerous, remote premises. Some women’s rights groups supported the proposed change in the law, however, including Women’s Aid and the End Violence Against Women coalition, and it is unlikely to be long until proposals to implement the so-called Nordic system, which bans the purchase rather than sale of sex, resurface.

The model was first implemented in Sweden in 1999. According to a study by the Swedish Institute, a state information agency that promotes Sweden abroad, the statistics for sex buyers decreased from 13.6 per cent of the active adult male population in 1996 to 7.9 per cent in 2008, suggesting it was an effective deterrent. The ban on paying for sex reportedly made it harder for customers to seek out prostitutes openly.

Norway and Iceland implemented the model in 2009, France made the first moves to copy it in 2013 and the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of it last month. Yet critics argue that the Nordic system requires excessive police investigation time to secure arrests and, worse, can increase the danger to prostitutes, as punters are more likely to conceal their identity from them. Others claim that the Nordic model is inappropriate in the UK, which has a far larger vice problem than Sweden and Norway.

In Sweden the National Police Board estimated in 2009 that there were 1,000 sex workers, down from about 2,500 before the Nordic model was implemented. In Norway, which has a population of five million, there were about 2,200 sex workers in 2010, according to Pro Sentret, a Norwegian government-funded organisation that collates information about prostitution. By contrast, the Home Office put the number of women working in on-street prostitution in the UK at 80,000 in 2004, based on an earlier Europap-UK survey. NGOs estimate that today there are between 60,000 and 100,000 sex workers in Britain. Recent studies show that 80 per cent of sex workers are female, while 15 per cent identify as male and 5 per cent as transsexual. Alex Feis-Bryce, director of services at the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, says: “The reason figures are so difficult to predict is that much of sex work takes place underground due to legislation and the numbers of sex workers in the trade are fluid. Some may have one or two clients a week or month, while for others it may be full-time work.” Feis-Bryce explains that the indoor sex work sector is “far larger” than that on the street. “Escorts, who work independently, make up the largest proportion of off-street sex work.”

Proponents of the Nordic model point out that whatever the challenges to implementation, criminalising punters, rather than prostituted women, sends a strong message. The human rights group Equality Now argues: “The commercial sex industry perpetuates the notion that the purchase of women and girls’ bodies is acceptable so long as a buyer can pay for it. The Nordic model challenges this construct and tries to redress these inequalities by promoting women’s and girls’ right to safety, health and non-discrimination, and by challenging men’s perceived – but non-existent – ‘right’ to buy women’s bodies for sex.” As Jessica’s story illustrates, sex workers in the UK often discover they can expect few rights to safety, especially on the street. Talking about the physical harm, fear and threats to her life in 24 years of prostitution, she said: “It’s just part of the job, unfortunately; there are some horrible men out there.” 

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

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Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars