When I began campaigning against domestic violence 35 years ago the perpetrators were invisible. The victims were pretty much all we heard about, and the perpetrator was the invisible man. This was the same with rape, and with child sexual abuse. Female survivors of these atrocities were often wheeled out to talk about “their recovery” or how they had helped other women get through their ordeal, whilst the elephant in the room was visible only to some.
This is why I decided that one of my chapters in my forthcoming book on the global sex trade would be about the sex buyer – this enigma, the puff of smoke, the pixelated face, the man who is rarely named.
During my conversations with the 50 sex trade survivors I interviewed for this book, I have heard much about the punters. None of it is good, unless you class the odd comment such as, “at least he had a shower”, or, “he didn’t rape me that time for which I was relieved”.
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My friend Emma Humphreys, who died in 1998, first opened my eyes to the abuse at the heart of the encounter between the punter and prostituted person. “Why does he do it?” she asked me. “His dick won’t fall off, and he’s the one choosing to do it, not the woman. She’s just desperate, or on drugs, or scared of her pimp.”
Emma is saying what all women in prostitution know very well. The punter has the most choice, and women have the least. They are paying for sex because without the money the woman would not consent. What else do we call sex without consent?
I have been interviewing sex buyers since 1999 when I, with sex trade survivors and other feminist activists, set up a re-education programme for men who pay for sex in West Yorkshire. In 2009 I was a researcher on a major, six country study on men who buy sex. I was part of the team that interviewed 103 sex buyers in London. Over 50 per cent of the men, who were interviewed at length and face-to-face, admitted that they knew the women they bought were trafficked, pimped, or otherwise coerced. Not one man chose not to have sex with the women upon realising this.
The men, mainly white British, spoke of how they decided which woman to have sex with, often based on how he perceived her ethnicity, or her compliance.
“I made a list in my mind. I told myself that I’ll be with different races, e.g. Japanese, Indian, Chinese…Once I have been with them I tick them off the list. It’s like a shopping list,” one punter told me.
“Selecting and purchasing has something to do with domination and control,” said another.
The women are nothing but, as one prostituted woman said to me, a “spittoon for men’s semen”. This is borne out by what the men tell us.
“A prostitute is like an outlet to a pressure cooker”, said one. “You pay for the convenience, a bit like going to a public loo,” said another of the charmers.
My book explores how and why wider society both buys into and perpetuates the mythology about why men pay for sex. Even amongst leftist men, who claim to be pro-feminist, there is a view that men have “need” for an “outlet”. Owen Jones for example, writing about a case of three judges being sacked for watching porn whilst supposedly deliberating in court, mused, “None of it was illegal, but they were still publicly embarrassed and dismissed…Who knows, maybe an otherwise tense judge seeking a quick bit of relief will concentrate better.”
The idea that watching pornography – which is filmed and photographed prostitution – can relieve tension is a classic punter justification, as illustrated in the above comment.
During one of my book research trips to Holland, where the sex trade was legalised in 2000, I met a punter who told me that prostitution “prevents rape”, and, conversely, if men, were prevented by nasty feminists from puntering, they would be driven to rape “real women”. This is one of the most pernicious of all the myths about prostitution. In the first place, it is an abhorrence, and should be an anathema to all feminists, that men are programmed to rape if they do not get their rocks off. It is one of the most pessimistic and inaccurate views of male sexuality I have heard.
But equally as dangerous is the view that some women should be made available to men to be sexually violated so that “other” women can be safe from rape.
Buying sex is neither a need, nor a human right. But it is a right for women and girls to grow up in a world where prostitution is an ancient relic.
Julie Bindel’s book on the global sex trade is published by Palgrave McMillan on the 27th September, 2017