Alice Glass, survivor of ten years in the sex trade, reflects on punters (prostitution-buyers), why there is no organised punter movement, and their apparent absence from the prostitution debates. She goes on to ask why many women in prostitution support a cause that does not further their own interests (or women’s generally) and attack the Nordic Model approach that would decriminalise them and provide much needed services.
The question is usually asked by radical feminists, and often there is no answer, or an answer that seems logically unrealistic or insufficient. How important are punters in informing the prostitution culture and ergo, the culture at large? Why are they so often silent in populist realms or debates? Bar of course, the occasional cycloptic fella with some ostensible measure of practised eccentricity, such as the guy who graced Rupert Everett’s flimsy shocku ‘Love for Sale’ to tell of his shrugged belief that a prostitute shouldn’t enjoy the sex, if she is getting paid for it. Or George Mccoy, the man who tramps around brothels in search of freebies, in exchange for a section in his weather worn ‘guide books;’ lazy grey face, slicked with sleaze and topped off, like a rotten cherry, with his flat cap. These men are so beyond the social expectations that they seem to have nothing to lose by being openly vile; they may even imagine themselves to be mavericks.
But silent of course, does not mean inactive, they scurry around quite enthusiastically, and like rats, are never more than a few feet away. OK that is probably an exaggeration, a thread from a spectral yarn. Punters, or Johns, are the sex industry’s largest component, its most thriving eco-culture, and in this respect most appropriately to be likened to pond life. Their punters’ forums – spilling what would embarrass even the most prolific of back room bar banterers and locker room fabulists – are their breeding ground, where they learn how to be good at renting women.
You’ll notice, if you have the requisite stomach to trawl through their darkened corridors, dripping, as it seems to me, with the viscous goo of thousands of women forensically dissected (there goes that yarn again) that they are seldom frequented by disabled men, or happy, sexy couples, or vibrant young women who enjoy renting vagina… just as much as the next middle aged, married, middle class man. Other than the odd woman long entrenched in the game and daily asking herself the questions, how low should I stoop, and how many of these digital feet should I kiss to cream off enough business to stay afloat? Or: how long have I been so enmeshed in this wacky and unedifying imbroglio that I cannot see myself as anything other than in relation to it? I am what the punters want, I am what they don’t want… what else am I?
I can’t be a kind feminist and ignore these posturings so as to avoid infantilising or drawing attention to the rituals of humiliation that are required of prostitutes who use punter forums as a form of advertising, because it is an archetypal aspect of the industry. A salient example of what the punters want; slavish servitude. Often entailing ‘calling out’ other prostitutes for being ‘bad’ at service, and back patting the punters during their relentless and petulant tantrums, wailing that they didn’t get what they thought they deserved. The women that are not good enough for these man children are as equally enthusiastically torn to smither by their fellow ladies; “Look how on board I am fellas!”
Is it just for the money, or is it also the yucks? We are taught to see our value in terms of how men see us, and in relation to other women. Good old prostitution; providing a breeding ground for our most neurotic of gendered complaints.
Yes as ‘service providers’ they are often compelled to give wholly of themselves; their bodies, their appearance, their political enthusiasm, even sometimes, their outlook. I recall once writing on an ‘escort forum’ (more of this later) that though I would never behave indiscreetly with regards to a punter and his personal life – if for example an irate and hurt wife called me to invoke that I spill the beans – it would of course not mean, that I wouldn’t judge him on my own time. I was lambasted by another prostitute who said she was being paid to not judge her punters. When I tried to tell her that I didn’t believe that any amount of money could be enough to own my thoughts and my intellectual autonomy, she said, quite proudly, that she provided the Full Girlfriend Experience. And she was almost entirely agreed with by the rest of the thread. It was one in a line of muscles snapped in my wanting to leave this horrendous industrial affair; I could fathom my body being rented, but my troth bought? Now, of course neither.
Don’t be fooled by those who say at least prostitutes don’t barter with their minds, it is one of the reasons, I believe, they are often so convinced of the definite wrongness of the Nordic Model. Why the dogmatic belief that to criminalise punters is to criminalise them. Punters, collectively, are our husbands, our patriarchs, our patrons. Like our pimps, they are our Daddies. We are in their favour, not merely for the hour that they pay. [ I recall an incident wherein a prostitute was ‘caught out’ by a punter talking to other women on a parenting website, about how escort directories work and how to work out if their husbands may have used them. She, and her reputation, were dragged roughly through a popular punter forum; her personal advertising was attacked with negative reviews, personal details about her life revealed. It was the most virulent attack I ever saw from this baying mob; worse than that dealt out to prostitutes who ‘thieved’ or ‘clipped’ or gave ‘bad service’. She had broken her vow to, not only the punters who she herself ‘serviced,’ but punters everywhere. By, and on principal. Out of hours we belong to them, we ought to protect them, dignify them, stand behind their line. We don’t get overtime. ]
But this social and political commitment? It is not reciprocated. You may also notice how lacking in organised support punters are for this ‘sex workers’ movement’ we keep hearing about. The one that seemingly would defend punters and the industry until it is Scarlett in the face, and would happily extirpate any – even weakened ex-hookers – that stand in the way of its ignoble defence of the pimps and the paymasters of the trade in women.
Where is the punter movement? Why doesn’t it speak its name? Why does it leave the task of battling against the Nordic Model and it implementation to ‘sex workers’? Of course, most of the actual workers (prostitutes) just try and get on as best they can, but if they are jobsworths they will shine their name placard and iron their gaudy work shirts and go out there and fight for the lobby like a good ’un. Sympathy for the devil and all that. And then of course, there are the pimps and madams who have benefited by the goalpost shifting that has been enabled due to the popularisation of the term ‘sex worker’ itself. Me, the boss I give 50%, the punter who rips me apart and then goes home to wife and child… we are all in this together.
So these enthusiasts for jeering on the industry (and jeering off dissenters) are doing the job for the ‘consumers,’ so they can just stay in their hovels, rubbing their grit stained fingers with glee, like the husband who licks his lips as his wife chases his mistress (or vice versa) down the garden path. Got away with that, he says.
No, when the Nordic Model has been organised or suggested, punters have not rallied around each other and defended, openly, their right to rent women. In France there was small murmur from so called ‘male intellectuals’ who signed a letter saying ‘keep your hands off our whores.’ Of course it wasn’t quite the message the ‘sex workers’ movement’ had in mind; Selma James, former agitator for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) wrote an op-ed for The Guardian, at once trying to criticise the Nordic Model as well as this small, unusual display of punter will. She couldn’t quite fandango it. She wrote:
“The men, in the usual self-referential terms, defend their own rights as clients, not women’s rights as workers. Nevertheless it’s about time men admitted to being clients. But next time they should first check with the workers they are claiming to support, what they are proposing to say.”
It hadn’t occurred to her, seemingly, that punters of all stripes couldn’t give a tiny, tangerine toss what hookers think or feel. As one punter notes, charmingly, on a popular forum,
“(The Nordic Model) is perverse. And interesting that it’s mainly women who promote this idea. More evidence that the female brain doesn’t have much logic about it. Nor do they have much idea about the opposite gender – no surprise there. If paid sex wasn’t available, then there wouldn’t be any consumers. So the logical thing is to go for the source of availability. Especially because that is where the money is being made i.e. incentive. So why criminalise the consumers and not the suppliers?”
Or another, concerned about the calamitous workings of the (non)prostituted [ Of course because if she were to be so cunningly willing to trip him up, he would not have her loyalty, as much as anything else. ] mind,
“Another unwelcome consequence of this legislation, if it is introduced, is that punters will suddenly become sitting ducks for blackmail. Of course, they are potentially vulnerable now – greedy prostitute discovers where punter lives and that he is married, and threatens disclosure to the wife. In practice this is pretty unlikely. Why would a prostitute want to kill the goose that is laying golden eggs? I suppose high profile celebrities are marginally more vulnerable to blackmail now, if they use prostitutes. But if this Nordic model is introduced where to punt is to break the law, many a prostitute and/or her pimp will be unable to resist the temptation to threaten disclosure to the police unless money is handed over. The consequences of being turned over to the law could be horrendous. If found guilty, a substantial fine, no doubt or even prison. The marriage destroyed. Possible loss of job. Many a punter, faced with this situation, will pay up rather than face the consequences of exposure.”
Poor punter. Indeed men’s right to rent women is so important, that women’s political emancipation should be taken very seriously lest it laces the debate, as another opines,
“I’m all for equality, but this does go to show that if you give women too much power they come up with some crackpot ideas.”
You see Selma? Not a tangerine toss. That punters don’t feel remotely as if they owe anything to prostitutes in terms of support for their rights or safety, shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone with half a cent of sense and not entrenched in absolute denial or high faluting hokum. They have paid for what they have wanted and they have gotten it! You have already given away your chips! You have nothing more to bargain with!
Indeed, as most are so bloated with misogyny and whore hatred, if they did deign themselves to organise they would be nothing but an impediment to the happy hooker cause, as Selma discovered. But if they are lacking in cunning and politically inclined (or simply cannot help themselves) they might slink about betwixt the legs of the damsels of the Twitterati, proclaiming their unerring belief in women’s volition whilst fervently denying having ever paid for sex. Even these hapless Geres cannot bring themselves to a place of honesty, so they flounder about.
So how do we explain all this? Some ‘Sex workers’ unrequited loyalty to punters? Low expectations?
Prostitutes, and most certainly those women who, for whatever reason, have decided to support a cause that in no way furthers themselves other than in their own minds (superficial empowerment, intemperate volition, presumed social status) like many of us, often suffer from cognitive biases, such as anchoring. Anchoring occurs when humans develop a specific focus on one aspect of information with regards to a subject, that is often developed initially and is subsequently difficult to shift. We often decide that punters are Not Bad People, but we do this on shallow grounds. Even not especially decent, empathic, considerate, moral people have the capacity to be polite, even convivial. I recall a Louis Theroux documentary when an active, virulent leader of an acutely racist subculture of America, had a ‘pleasant’ domestic attitude to his Latino neighbour; a man who unfortunately regarded this deeply corrupted, evil – not to mention spineless man – as a good friend.
Indeed, though prostitutes can be victims of violent attacks, it is in the most case, the average married, middle aged, occupationally successful man’s interest to at least be passingly courteous to prostitutes, because they want to get what they want without too much bluster and fuss. Or risk. Even a wife beater or a bank robber will be occasionally soothing to their victims if they think it serves their purpose. And unlike these, punters already have prostitutes by the scrap of the neck; unless they have an overt desire for performative sadism, managing a smile and having passing conversations about the weather, or some such, is no great shakes.
This is the first thing we see in punters and the thing that we hold on to as the centre ground of our focus. I recall speaking to another prostitute who shared with me a ‘client’ who we both thought to like, as he was especially adept at surface layer warmth. One day she said, “Oh isn’t he so very nice?” And I thought, is he though? Really? He smiles, he has the countenance of someone who couldn’t seem to kick a chicken, but these things are cosmetic. He rents women, on the regular, who are not attracted to him and either he knows this on some level and doesn’t care, or he is fundamentally deluded to the level of unacceptable in a functionally intelligent adult. Added to which he is a middle management administrator on a not especially high income, spending at least several hundreds pounds per month, whilst his wife tends to his child at home. One would imagine either in utter ignorance, or silenced by suppressed anxiety. Very nice indeed.
And as is consistently demonstrated by punters forums, the guys are able to smile, and say hello and use base level manners when with prostitutes, but often revert to calling us fat, ugly, stupid whores who, being intellectually, morally and temperamentally faulty, are their rightful resource, as soon as they are amongst themselves. Heck, even Ted Bundy could be amenable when he needed to be.
Yes, just as the wife who clings to the memory of her husband back when he bought her gifts and sung her praises – before he began carpentering the shape of his fist in to her face – prostitutes often choose to see the vague friendliness over the unwanted pulling of the hair, the thwacks to the buttocks and the nasty reviews they receive when they are not ‘up to scratch.’ Indeed, over the missing voices of punters, as they clamour for social respectability, or the very occasional outings from men who make it clear that their rights to fuck are what they really care about. Not our safety or the soundness of our security.
We go to bat for them because they have the capacity to be cordial to us. Are these our terms? Perhaps it is the effect of mere exposure; we know these people, so, like loyalty to a cruel and selfish family member or a corrupt nation, we see them as our duty to defend. It is prostitute to punter Patriotism. If someone attacks our nation, we are similarly attacked, even if our nation does not care for us at all.
There is one further cognitive bias that prostitutes often bring to dinner, and that is that all men buy sex. Or at least that the numbers are incredibly high. And why wouldn’t they think that? They see hundreds of such men a year; these hundreds of passably polite men, wanting to do sexual things to them without their reciprocal desire. Of course study after study seems to show that the numbers float more around the one in five mark, but these are sometimes dismissed as some punters must hold back their truth in the face of potential stigma (that old walnut), but one wonders how great that deficit could truly be – given that they are only confidentially telling an academic, not declaring it to the world. And in any case, it is pure speculation. Indeed, if in the UK there are about 80-100 thousand prostitutes to about thirty one million men, prostitutes are either seeing gargantuan numbers of punters, or punters indulge themselves very infrequently, neither of which seemed to be true from my experience of the industry. Most of the men I met engaged at least semi regularly in their little ‘hobby’. My personal experience seems to fit the research, so I am going to give it a cautious validity.
In any case, it is a powerful, latent reasoning for wanting to reject the Nordic Model, and the thinking behind it. If most men are punters, how can we criminalise them all? You don’t have the man power, feminists, apart from anything else.
But there were two different psychological reasons why prostitutes I met liked to grip to this idea, that men were de facto punters. One was, after years in the industry and having the full sprawl of denial and self repression begin to fall, prostitutes I knew just saw man after hoggish man cheat on his wife, use women and engage solely in their own gratification. And they began to hate them, or at least gather a dusty mistrust of them. Indeed like rapists or con artists, punters don’t wander around town wearing a special kind of shoes or a specifically furrowed brow so that us ladies can spot them. They look like a cross section of every kind of man (with enough money) you could imagine. But added to the wife beaters and child rapists and cheating bastards, best just put all men in the box marked Toxic and close the fucking lid. History, and my experience, is littered with prostitutes and ex-prostitutes who swear off men, move towards lesbianism or even become the occasional Buddhist nun. It is just easier that way, than trying to differentiate between the rocks and the alligators when crossing the tempestuous river. Best not cross it at all. Who can blame us? Especially when it is so easy, as I say, to appear ‘nice.’
Of course many prostitutes distort in the other direction. Some women – like me, shamefacedly – when new to the game, were high on the quick money and fickle, slippery validation and began to engage ostentatiously in fanciful ideas about themselves and the world. That we were the secret confidants to punters, and therefore, to men in general. That we know them more, understand them better, than their wives, daughters or colleagues. What power! What insight! If you have ever seen the grotesquely tedious film A Dangerous Beauty, you will know what I mean. But punters seldom actually confide in us, and all we really know about them is that they are capable or orgasming with a woman who is only doing it because she needs the money. And that they don’t give a fuck.
Some prostitutes who stay in the business after years, grip onto this mythology of the industry like a flailing and torn ligature or like the washer woman who daily thanked the Catholic nuns for her incarceration. They cannot escape, so they cannot bring themselves to hate it, to hate the punters. We instead, see all men as punters, because then what we are doing is just some essential expression of human will, like our inherent gluttony or our shyness about our bowel movements, or our desire to touch ourselves in the bath. I used to say, “A prostitute is a feminist who does not believe the world can change.” Of course with the scours of suffering that I have since unearthed in my consciousness – in me, in others, in the world of enslaved Syrian women in brothels and families stuck in cycles of mutual pimping – I have no such tolerance any longer with this kind of namby pamby, pseudo intellectual, self indulgence.
Indeed, there are a small number of women in prostitution who seem to take pleasure in this vision of the world, as at least, in their minds, they triumph in it. If all men are punters, by their nature, then all women are either prostitutes or some other oppositional feminine necessity, and it behoves of us to place ourselves within that structure as we feel comfortable. But the prostitute, the one who is not selling herself via marriage or for free dinners or some such (they don’t seem to notice, those who spout this stuff, that many women have careers and are single and are quite capable of buying their own dinner and – although abstractedly enmeshed in this capitalist patriarchy propped up in part by prostitution – are finding their own, safe as possible, little corners of it) is the cleverest, because she is not racked with self denial. When a partnered punter visits her, she triumphs, as she and the punter are the ones who know the full truth, they are compadres in the knowledge of the Nature of Things. As one says to the escort forum I spoke of earlier,
“(If a wife tries to contact you) Block and ignore, it’s the only language these deluded wives and girlfriends understand in my experience. Every woman thinks their partner is faithful but if that were true there would not be enough clients to go around all of us, most of my clients are attached. The figures don’t quite compute do they?”
There is an obvious logical distortion here; a belief that goes: all punters are attached men, ergo all attached men are punters. There is a coldness here too, a distinct like of empathy that arrives out of the other distorted belief that ‘wives’ bask in ignorance and whores gain power through knowledge. Neither of these things are quite true; a wife might feign ignorance or self repress out of fear or social disenfranchisement. A prostitute may shake her head as her poor sorry punter trudges back to his car and say, “That poor man, his wife sounds like a terrible person, no wonder he wants to come to me.”
So, punters are all men. All men are punters. Punters are decent, ordinary men. Decent ordinary men are all liars and cheats who see women as utilities, do not require sexual reciprocity and are ‘rightfully’ mistrustful of women’s political empowerment. Thus, seeing women as utilities, not requiring sexual reciprocity and being ‘rightfully’ mistrustful of women’s political empowerment, is decent. And ordinary. See the conundrum? The ‘sex workers’ movement grows out of this context, this thinking; its rallying cries and habits are so close to that of so called ‘men’s rights activists’ because the understanding about the extents and textures of male and female’s social capacities are equally problematic. Not in the belief that women’s empowerment arrives out of sexual objectification (punters and men’s rights activists –MRAs – of course don’t believe this, they just don’t care if women do, for obvious reasons) but in the belief that men are limited to their desire to limit women. To hide from us, to lie to us, to ill consider us.
Yes, punters will not move, when they can sit quietly whilst women raise their head above the parapet to ‘fight’ for their ‘right’ to be paid or unpaid servants to the male cause. They don’t need to risk their power, the comforts of social respect and the domestic buttressing of their wives and families those women will do it for them.
Even now, as the married British MP, Keith Vaz, stands accused of being a renter of young men – despite, his previous position as the chair of the committee that makes parliamentary recommendations for policy on prostitution – they still go to war for him. Declaring him objective in his consumption of the evidence, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Not asking him, why did he sit in silence, atop his high chair of middle class comfort, and drag them – and ex-prostitutes – through the discomfort of having to declare their rights or needs so publicly, whilst he basked the comforts of the shadows. Why, indeed.
With the exception of the photo of Keith Vaz, all photos are mugshots of punters arrested in Houston, USA.