Prostitutes who use a website to advertise their services to punters have thanked Harriet Harman for giving them a free publicity boost when she called for the site’s closure earlier this week.
During her speech to the Labour Party Conference on Wednesday the equalities minister challenged California’s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to shut down Punter Net, a US-based website that allows British prostitutes to advertise themselves and the men who use them to rate their experiences.
Her calls received thunderous applause from inside the conference hall but some organisations that represent sex workers, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, have argued that any attempt to ban such sites would simply push the sex industry further underground and make the buying and selling of sex more dangerous.
Now a number of independent escorts who use Punter Net – which is one of just a many online forums for prostitutes and punters – say they have been inundated with new requests from clients who were previously unaware of the site’s existence until Ms Harman publicly named them.
Laura Lee, an escort who works out of her flat in Glasgow, was just one of a number of sex workers who said the call to ban Punter Net had actually led to an increase in business. Speaking to the Independent today she said: “Harriet Harman has managed to do in one day what I’ve been trying to do for six months, which is increase the traffic to my personal website. Normally I would expect about two to three hundred hits a day but now it’s more like 820. The vast majority of gentlemen contacting me had never heard of Punter Net until this week.”
Another escort, who goes by the name of Dollymopp and entertains clients at a luxury flat in the Borough area of London, wrote on one of the Punter Net forums: “Just back from a [shopping] trip…logged in to mail, was wondering why I had so many hits, requests to meet up, and definitely more than my usual. Fabulous. Thanks HH!”
The creator of the website, who uses the name Galahad and is thought to be a British expat living abroad, also said Punter Net had benefited from the deputy leader’s comments.
In a statement posted on the website he wrote a personal letter to Ms Harman which ended: “I would like to thank you for the huge influx of traffic to my website which your actions have caused. I am sure that the ladies who are a part of the Punter Net community thank you as well, as they will no doubt benefit financially from the many new clients who might otherwise never have found them.”
He also said his forum encouraged punters to report underage or trafficked women to the authorities. “One of the missions of PunterNet is education - to provide information and guidance in hopes that the commercial sex scene is limited to consenting adults and those who choose of their own free will to engage in it,” he said.
The Minister for Women and Equality, however, firmly disagrees, calling Punter Net a “sinister” and “truly degrading” website which represented the “ultimate commodification of women”. Because the website is hosted on an American server based in California, she has turned to former Hollywood actor turned state governor Schwarzenegger to close it down – although bloggers have questioned whether he would be able to or even whether the site is breaking US or British law.
A number of sex workers writing on the site have also defended online forums, which they say have allowed working girls to advertise without the need for pimps and allow sex workers to warn each other about abusive clients operating in their area.
Inna Suomi, a Finnish escort who works out of her home on the outskirts of West London, said: “[Punter Net] actually enables women to work without pimps because we can make ourselves available without having to use an agency or club. We control where and when we work and we control who we agree to see. Without PN and sites like it we would have to use systems and environments that lend themselves to abuse and exploitation.”
Laura Lee added: “I think what Ms Harman has found particularly objectionable is the way our clients are able to review us. But what she has failed to understand is that these reviews are incredibly useful to the girls. A good review on a website like Punter Net results in a marked number of people requesting our services. It is to working girls what a Michelin Star is to a restaurant.”
Other working girls, however, are critical of Punter Net and chose not to post on the website. One professional escort who contacted The Independent but askled not to be named said: “Quite a few of us simply won’t use Punter Net, there’s a lot that goes on behind closed doors on the website that we don’t agree with. I would also question how seriously they really take the whole “report a trafficked girl” ethos.”
Last night Ms Harman said she remained determined to try and shut the website down. “I am against exploitative websites such as Punternet,” she said. “They should be ashamed of themselves for boasting about how they degrade women and I am determined to shut them down”.