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Someone who’s given the issue a lot of thought is Sam Roddick, a former prostitutes’ rights campaigner and owner of sex shops Coco de Mer. She also curated, with actress Emma Thompson, an exhibition about trafficking called Journey. “Trafficking is nothing to do with prostitution,” she says. “It is slavery.”
Along with many others with a close interest in the business – even police, off the record – Roddick believes the only way forward is legalisation. “It’s an extraordinarily complex issue. There are a lot of problems because it’s an unregulated industry with no ethic attached to it. We need to inject some expectations into it and it has to be run by the women who are providing the services.”
She also has a theory about the people who use prostitutes. “Who’s the punter? The punter is everyman. And why is it growing? Because they’re disassociating from themselves sexually, and from their emotions. It’s an expression of self-hate. Men who go to prostitutes, no matter how much they think they are functional, are people who can’t be honest with themselves about who they are. When you scratch the surface and start to ask questions about their emotional relationship to their own sexuality, you find big dark holes.”
If there are as many dark holes as Roddick surmises, society is in deep trouble. I went in search of some of these holes on the many websites where punters can find prostitutes, and vice versa. The internet is manna for the would-be john. It isn’t just a forum for tracking down prostitutes, there are handy guides and FAQs which tell you exactly what to expect (and pay) in brothels, saunas and on the street, and how to spot a rip-off. All this is on Punternet, where you’ll find detailed reviews of escorts, a tour calendar where women can post their whereabouts and when sex parties will be happening.
Captain 69, Craigslist (which has agreed to crack down on “erotic services” messages in the US) and Adult FriendFinder are other hotspots for punters and prostitutes. What is startling are the specifics: you can build your woman to order, stating the desired location, ethnic origin, hair colour, height, age and breast size. None will talk to me, though, only men who think my posing as a “journalist” is roleplay.
They are, though, discussing the proposed changes in the law with each other on message boards. A few declare themselves too scared of arrest to continue to punt, especially where it would involve putting their career and family life in jeopardy. A few others point out how unlikely it is much enforcement will ever be forthcoming. There is some sympathy mooted for the prostitutes working for a brothel or agent, who may be affected, but the overriding sentiment is that the move is a political scare tactic, and the sex industry will fit in with, or circumvent, any new rules.
A research paper, “Who Pays for Sex?”, by Dr Helen Ward, was published in the British Medical Journal in 2005. It pointed out that the focus of studies into prostitution are always weighted towards the sellers rather than the buyers, and found that the proportion of British men paying for sex had increased, from 5.9 per cent in 1990 to 9 per cent in 2000. And who were these men? Your partner, probably. The largest group of the men were in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties and living in London. “Some men seem to find it attractive to have sex without emotional commitment,” explained Ward at the time. “Others just like the excitement of paid-for sex. I hope that by showing how common this is, we can start to demystify commercial sex.”
With so many different types of men seeking to pay for sex, there is great diversity in the sort of sex for sale, and the women selling it. “You can’t treat a stripper in the same way you can a street hooker,” says Roddick. “And you can’t deal with an escort as you deal with a table dancer.”
The ECP might put up a united front, but a strict hierarchy and professional code exists within prostitution, and it is well explained by a scene from Secret Diary of a Call Girl, the ITV drama starring Billie Piper, based on the blogs and books of Belle de Jour, a high-class call girl whose explicit, honest, and apparently true writings sent ripples through the worlds of publishing and prostitution when they first appeared five years ago.
In this scene, Belle has just joined a “courtesan” agency. Courtesans are highly educated, polished and beautiful women who provide sex and companionship to a small number of clients. “Like most professions, mine has a hierarchy,” she explains. “The courtesans look down on the escorts. The flat girls get told that being an escort is dangerous and they should stay where they’re safe. The street girls say that the flat girls are too controlled and they’re better off staying in charge. And beneath all that there are women who are lied to, trafficked and forced to work debts off in squalor. ” On top of this, call girls look down on strippers (why work a man up if you’re not going to deliver?) and porn stars (acting is fake, as are plastic breasts and peroxide curls).
Secret Diary of a Call Girl has been criticised for glamorising prostitution. What its critics mean is that it is irresponsible to depict, on the television, women working in prostitution who are neither addicted to drugs nor in a controlling relationship, and who are making a very good living out of it. I wonder if these critics are afraid to accept we have prostitutes in our middle-class midst. Is it really possible a woman would choose prostitution not to escape poverty, but the grind and poor rewards of graduate employment?
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