Would closing down sites like Punter Net really make the sex industry safer?

Posted by Jerome Taylor
Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 03:24 pm

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman called on California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today to close down a website where people who visit prostitutes in the UK can rate their experiences.

Other than the slightly crass nature of the headline grabbing soundbytes that she used (“Surely it can’t be too difficult for The Terminator to terminate PunterNet” was just one), there’s something else that bothers me about her demands.

At first glance her call for Arnie to shut down PunterNet (which I understand is hosted in the US but written by UK punters) appears a worthy cause.

“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 on line,” she said. “It is PunterNet and fuels the demand for prostitutes. It is the ultimate commodification of women and puts women at risk. It is truly degrading.”

Punter Net, of course, (which I doubt many people – myself included – would have even heard about till today) are no doubt loving the free publicity. But if you look more closely at the website and what it does, you realise that it not just a meat market for punters to boast about their financially acquired “conquests”.

In the end it is not websites like Punter Net that are fuelling the demand for prostitutes. Like it or not there will always be men willing to pay for sex and a small number of women who are willing (or forced) to accept their money. What a site like Punter Net does do, however, is take a small step towards making the buying and selling of sex a slightly safer and more transparent transaction.

The Government, of course, should be doing that but they’re far too terrified of thinking outside the box when it comes to prostitution – so instead punters and sex workers are using the internet to regulate their own industry.

First of all it is clear that Punter Net is very much a website created by and for people who buy sex – and there are a number of very disparaging comments on there by some rather sad, misogynists. But many of the comments also act as advisories and warnings to fellow punters, some are even touchingly sweet remarks about the women who provide them with something they cannot ordinarily get without paying.

And while the prostitute visiting male is not exactly the most sympathetic of creatures, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to advise others whether a massage parlour or brothel is clean, safe, above board and good value.

Sex workers are, of course, the people who are most likely to be on the receiving end of often profound, disturbing and unacceptable violence. But punters need protection too from violent pimps or rip-off merchants who operate in a virtually unregulated industry. If they can warn each other of the pit falls, surely that can only be a good thing?

There is also a section on the website which prominently encourages people who visit sex workers to report any place that they think is selling sex with trafficked or under age women. Whether the punters do that or not, who knows, but at least the site is telling them to do so.

There is also a forum which is used by sex workers to warn each other of violent or abusive customers. One of the threads that has lots of traffic at the moment is about a man who often phones up for a “foot fetish” session and then violently robs the girls. He seems to have hit a number of places in the south east very recently and, according to one thread, has been caught thanks to the fact that various sex workers were able to warn each other online about where he had hit and when.

Of course, if prostitution was fully legalised, regulated and taxed punters and sex workers alike would not have to be forced to self-regulate and warn each other online about the darker sides of the trade. But unfortunately there are very few British politicians willing or brave enough to make such a radical suggestion.

But say you closed down all sites like Punter Net, what happens next? Inevitably punters will be forced to go back to reading anonymous adverts for massage parlours in the back of local newspapers and phone boxes or go curb crawling. And the sex workers will also have no way of warning each other about violent customers other than through word of mouth.

If you really want to stop the dark side of the sex industry then you need to crack down on the traffickers and pimps, while giving punters and voluntary sex workers support and help in setting up a fully regulated and transparent industry.

Good looking sound bytes will never be enough.

See original at Minority Report

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