(Top image: A stock photo, not of a sex worker, via Pixabay)
Anya likes to watch other girls squirt and make herself come. She's also not so keen on anal or being tied up, but will pole-dance, piss on you or tie you up for under a grand a night. I know this before we've even spoken, thanks to her profile on AdultWork, a website where sex workers can outline their rules of play before being booked for a job.
Each profile has a "FAQ" which gives explicit answers to most potential requests from clients: everything from barebacking, to showering, to outcalls, to smoking, to hagglers looking to lower her fee.
AdultWork is the industry standard and has become a lifeline for sex workers, most of whom want a safe online community where they can reach clients. The site is funded by sex workers themselves, who pay to have their profiles displayed. It's not water-tight, but it's relatively safe compared to what else is on offer: here, sex workers get to lay out their rules and can get an idea of what clients are after before meeting them.
But AdultWork is not the only sex worker site online. If AdultWork and Punternet (another site funded by sex workers' adverts) comprise the Gumtree of sexwork, then UKPunting.com is the industry's TripAdvisor. Here, sex workers don't get a say in what's said about them. Instead, commenters – referring to themselves as "punters" – can discuss the etiquette and knack of picking up and using "service providers", share tips and review the "prossies".
The language of UKPunting is, in some ways, similar to that of other online review sites: contributors will gripe about a disparity between the appearance on the marketing shots and that of the actual product – the woman:
"Didn't bother me but if you require perfect teeth this is not your girl," says one. "Her areola are extremely discoloured. Almost like vitiligo/albinism isolated to her areola! Never seen that before. Definitely was not a turn on for me," says another. One woman is awarded a negative review on the basis that her face "has some horrible scarring and spots on it".
Chantelle, a sex worker I speak to for this piece, tells me: "If you choose not to offer services like kissing and oral then they will slag you off until the cows come home."
Those bad reviews aren't just mean, they can really affect business. "I don't have bad feedback on UK Punting," says Salina, another sex worker. "It's a blessing, because people will put bad feedback up for no other reason than to spite you. I'm astonished that some girls are able to keep working considering the bad feedback they have."
Even positive reviews on the site can have a negative impact. "There was one punter, who is relatively new to the whole escort scene, [who] got torn apart because his reviews of me were too nice," says Clara, a sex worker: "They thought he was working with me or that I was lying and putting it up. They were like, 'Keep it factual – we don't need to know if she was nice or this or that.'"
Fairly recent statistics show that over half of all "service providers" of this sort are not British. Unsurprisingly, the commenters of UKPunting have a lot to say about migrant workers:
"She's a typical eastern european (i think bulgarian) punt…she would only let me fuck in doggy which is bound to make you cum in 3 seconds. She didn't let me touch her nor kiss her. Terrible punt." says one
"All you've heard about Romanians in the flesh," says another: "A residential address which was little better than a squat...Greasy skin, spotty, miserable."
I was unable to talk to non-English speaking sex workers for this article, but UKPunting has a posting policy on discrimination, reading "Anti-immigration and bashing of religion / culture / nationality is allowed, however extreme racial comments and racial slurs are not tolerated."
This might seem like a good thing, until you see a concurrent rule applies to those who are too vigilant about the latter part. "Complaining about the lack of 'political correctness', accusing the site moderation of being biased for / against something or throwing accusations of racism / xenophobia or similar will equally not be tolerated."
This means a sex worker or an offended poster could complain, but only in a way that doesn't challenge the status quo here, which is vehemently pro-"punter". Basically, punters can post offensive, libellous content with impunity.
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Bad reviews can affect business for sex workers, but mostly those newer to the industry. Shanice tells me: "If you're not an established escort with regulars that provide 90 percent of your business then I guess their spiteful comments could put a dent in your business, but if you're long in the tooth then it doesn't really make any difference."
Additionally, several sex workers tell me that UKPunting's posters use the site as a price-check and then have unrealistic expectations. They say that clients who use UK Punting "always barter about money", "go for the cheapest they can find" and "are all tight bastards who want to do things to girls that girls aren't comfortable doing".
The language on the board is gross, but no grosser than that of 4Chan, 8Chan or certain subreddits. The difference here is that each and every review relates back to a woman and her day-to-day life and work. What gets written on UK punting can put sex workers in danger.
For example, some members will use the site for blackmail, as one sex worker tells me: "I have personally been the victim of two members of that site trying to blackmail me for a free fuck. When I tell them to do one they go on there and write shit about you."
UKPunting also demands that "Reviews must contain either a link, contact details or address," meaning you find examples like that of one reviewer recommending a "punt" on the basis of free parking nearby, posting her address, revealing her location and identity, and potentially putting her in serious danger.
Sex workers also tell me UKPunting is "demeaning to women", that its posters will treat them "like a piece meat", or will "abuse escorts". One sex worker explains: "The same guys also stalk you, send you horrible emails, try to threaten you and all sorts."
Most worryingly, some posters on the site openly describe situations where consent is questionable. "She kept her legs straight so I had to work hard to enter," writes one, continuing: "I grabbed her tits and pumped away while she looked away and closed her eyes, completely silent like a dead fish throughout. No doubt this wasn't a great turn on and I just wanted to come and get out as quick as possible."
Another explains [sic]: "Three strokes in she said 'have you cum'. Told her don't be silly and carried on. 5 strokes in she says I'm too big and go slower. 1 minute later she asked if i had cum yet. Furious with her antics I go limp inside bur carry on…FUCK THIS. I wank myself to get hard put on a condom and buried her for 5 mins blocking out everything shes saying and cum."
Sex workers aren't explicitly banned from UKPunting, but several others tell me they have been after posting: "I was banned from the site for defending myself when I changed my prices," says one. "I was sworn at and called names."
"They think they're always right about everything and theirs is the only view that matters," says another sex worker, Charlotte: "So they can say what they like about anything because they're hidden behind their IP address, then when a girl does challenge them on this she's a 'stupid whore' for what, standing up for herself?"
At a conservative estimate, for every sex worker in the UK, there's a guy who's used UKPunting.
I wanted to know why such a site even needs to exist, so I got in touch with Nik, who founded UKPunting in 2010 "as an alternative to the existing sites", to ask him why he wanted a site where sex workers didn't have a voice.
He told me via email: "All existing sites were funded by advertising from service providers, therefore they had, and still have, vested interests in portraying a favourable and often false image of the paid sex scene. Negative reports were often suppressed and people like myself who told the truth were hounded and eventually banned. A number of like minded punters suggested I start an alternative."
Nik, who self-published a book called Not a Neanderthal, But Never a Fluffy: 30 Years Of Paying for Sex, no longer owns UKPunting, but says those who do "developed the site in a way I never dreamed possible; we said initially we would be lucky and happy to attract 50 to 100 members". The site now has 118,793 members. When I check in at 5PM on a Monday, 586 members are online, with a further 1,307 unregistered visitors browsing the site.
It's impossible to correctly gauge what proportion of British buyers of sex work use the internet, let alone UKPunting, as a resource, but according to recent Home Office figures 72,000 people in England and Wales are sex workers. Therefore, at a conservative estimate, for every sex worker in the UK, there's a guy who's used UKPunting.
I logged on to UKPunting under an alias, posting in a thread asking members to comment on the sexism, racism and descriptions of sexual assault as detailed above. I was blocked. The message I now get reads:
"An Error Has Occurred!
Guest, you are banned from using this forum!
This ban is not set to expire."
The Home Affairs Select Committee is continuing its inquiry into sex workers with a mind to assessing whether criminalisation should be pushed onto the buyer, rather than the seller. In its first sitting there were no mentions of sex buyer forums. Will there be next time? A spokesperson did not return my request for comment.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), which seeks to protect sex workers and their rights, tells VICE: "If men are threatening rape and violence they should be prosecuted. But people who use this sexism to justify criminalising men who buy sex are being disingenuous. Our campaign for decriminalisation would get the laws off our back and allow sex workers to come out of the shadows and fight back against all the stigma, discrimination, insults and stereotyping that we face."
The ECP do important work in fighting for sex workers' rights, but they should speak to their members about whether or not UK Punting is becoming a problem. Because on the site it's not the law that's stigmatising, discriminating, insulting and stereotyping sex workers. It's the punters.