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.”