The website PunterNet, which provides a forum for sex workers and clients in the UK, was singled out for a slapping last autumn by Harriet Harman. Naturally the site saw its figures rocket as it was brought to wider attention. The government is now gunning for it again, but who'll benefit this time?
It's not hard to see why the site is a target. PunterNet says it "aims to promote better understanding between customers and ladies in hopes that everyone may benefit, with less stressful, more enjoyable and mutually respectful visits", but the escort listings, reviews of working girls' performance and handy primers including "The beginner's guide to saunas and massage parlours" may be considered a little tacky.
What is not on the site, however – unless one assumes that a very high proportion of those posting do so under duress – is much sign of "prostitutes being offered for sale". Regardless, this does not wash with government.
The Deputy Prime Minister's very public attack on it at the Labour Party Conference in 2009 described the site as new, when at that time it had been in operation for ten years: the following days saw site traffic rise by around 200 per cent. Last week it was the turn of the Solicitor General Vera Baird to have a go, taking a similarly inaccurate line.
Taking part in a Westminster Hall debate on Violence against Women, Baird said: "A well-known website called 'PunterNet' has been mentioned, where not only are prostitutes offered for sale, but there are comments about how they have performed. We want to close that down as quickly as we possibly can."
The difficulty of obtaining such a closure has already been addressed: as the main site is based in California, this would require agreement from the US authorities, who are quite wedded to the whole free speech thing. Harman has already been on the Governator's case about it, to no avail.
We asked the Office of the Attorney General, to whom Ms Baird reports, whether it was right that such a senior law officer should mislead when it comes to serious matters such as individuals being offered for sale. They declined to answer, but referred us to the Equalities Office, where a spokeswoman told us: "The Government is committed to reducing the demand for prostitution and tackling sex trafficking, which is illegal, exploits women, and is connected to serious organised crime.
"PunterNet is a website which provides a discussion forum and user 'reviews' of prostitutes in the UK - websites such as this normalise and promote payment for sex, thereby hindering the Government’s work to halt human trafficking."
In other words, in order to disrupt an illegal activity, it is OK to clamp down on a legal one. In so doing, organisations such as the International Union of Sex Workers have frequently accused government of doing more harm than good: by disrupting safer means for sex workers to deal with clients, they force them into more dangerous situations.
The PunterNet message board currently carries a forum specifically dedicated to alerting sex workers to known dangerous clients. A "sticky" thread on the main UK/Ireland forum provides advice on what individuals should do if they suspect an underage or trafficked girl.
Still, if Harman's foot-shooting is anything to go by, that thread and the site itself will get another slew of visitors in the wake of Baird's comments. Progress or what? ®
Ms Baird is no stranger to controversy. In December 2009, she was cleared of all charges after her puppy left a deposit on Kings Cross station, and Ms Baird failed to clean it up. A female passer-by took issue with Ms Baird’s actions and a row ensued: a PCSO intervened to calm the two women.
Ms Baird claimed she had been unable to clean up the mess, had asked cleaning staff for help, and had absolutely not uttered the immortal words: "Do you know who I am?"
After a six-week investigation, British Transport Police decided to take no further action.
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