Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman called on California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today to shut down an American website that allows British men who use prostitutes to rate their experiences.
During her speech at the Labour Party Conference she called on the former Hollywood strongman to close down the site which is hosted in his state but is filled with information on British sex workers.
Harman described the site as “sinister” and “truly degrading”. But tonight at least one organisation which campaigns for the decriminalisation of prostitution said announcement was simply an extension of the equalities minister’s “moral crusade” against sex workers.
Challenging Mr Schwarzenegger to close the site, Ms Harman said: "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. 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."
The Labour deputy leader, who in 2007 said she wanted to make it illegal for men to pay for sex, said she had raised the issue with the American ambassador but was now calling on Mr Schwarzenegger to intervene.
“Surely it can't be too difficult for The Terminator to terminate PunterNet and that's what I'm demanding he does,” she said. “And if he doesn't, I've got a message for Arnie: I'll be back."
But Carrie Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes dismissed the calls. “Anything that forces sex work underground will only make it more dangerous for ordinary women who sell sex. Once again, instead of prioritising dealing with rape and other violence, Harman is prioritising censorship and repression. It is women trying to support families in the recession who will be first to suffer."
There was no response from Punter Net’s webmaster last night who describes his site as an “online community for patrons and providers of adult personal services in the UK”. But a statement on the website says punters are encouraged to report any sex worker who may be working against her will: “This webmaster will cooperate fully with the authorities in any matter regarding under-age persons or those forced to work against their will,” the statement reads.
The site is used by thousands of people who visit sex workers and then rate their experiences. While many of the comments centre on the sexual services or derogatory comments, a number of clients also use the site to warn each other about how clean and safe various brothels and massage parlous are. There is also a discussion forum created by sex workers to warn each other about potentially abusive clients.
After receiving a warm applause for her call to close the site down the equalities minister also launched a scathing attack on the Sun newspaper for switching to the Tories after twelve years of supporting Labour. “I am speaking to you this morning about something the Sun knows absolutely nothing about: equality,” she said. “The nearest their political analysis gets to women's rights is Page 3's News in Briefs. We are all angry about the Sun this morning but I say to you: don't get bitter, get better.”