George McCoy has been releasing guidebooks to the UK's brothels for over a decade. We spent a day with him visiting knocking shops around Sheffield.
*Some names, including those of brothels, have been changed.
Wearing thick-lensed glasses and a tweed flat cap, George McCoy picks me up at 9.30AM. He has the oppressively loud voice of a horse-racing commentator.
"Before I did this, I had my business in the record industry," he tells me. "My business failed, my ex-wife died. Before she died, she divorced me and took all the money she could. I'd used prostitutes before when travelling with work, and decided to make my hobby into a business."
The heating in the car is cranked beyond 30 degrees and I already want to get out.
Born in 1948 in Malvern to two Cambridge physics graduates, George has always been entrepreneurial. Selling mail order records by the likes of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Donna Summer, in 1990 he was turning over £2 million. By 1995, he'd lost it all. And so began his next crusade: to deliver the first comprehensive guidebooks to the UK's brothels, ranking prostitutes on a five-star scale, listing specialisms, working hours and charging policies, and inciting the fury of people who don't want to see human beings rated for how good they are at blowjobs.
Sex work brought in an estimated £5.3 billion in the UK last year, and while statistics suggest that one in ten men have used a prostitute, George suggests that the real statistic might be as many as one in three.
"Clients include barristers, accountants... you name it. I know of a former foreign secretary who enjoys dressing up in women's clothing and having his bottom smacked. I know of another who just went for regular sex with lots of different women."
In the UK, selling your body for sex isn't a crime, but soliciting in public is. Working in a brothel isn't illegal, but running a brothel is. For customers, soliciting someone for their sexual services is illegal in public, but fine in private. Therefore, George isn't technically committing a crime – and besides, he doesn't have to actually buy the sex; because he's reviewing, he usually gets it for free.
"Occasionally the girls will say, 'Let me show you how good I am,' and it would be impolite of me not to let them demonstrate their prowess," George says. "If you think, 'That was bloody good, I'd see her again,' she'd get a five-star rating. If you think, 'Dunno why I bothered,' that would get one star. They generally do their best because they know who I am."
At 10.30AM we reach our first appointment: *Bentley's in Dewsbury. It's set within an office block, neighbouring a number of totally unsuspecting businesses. George tells me the landlords know and are happy to maintain the brothel on the premises, as long as there's no "funny business". Bentley's has been established for over 25 years and is officially licensed as a sauna. It's open seven days a week, employs six women and averages 10 to 13 clients a day. "Dangerous Love" by Fuse ODG (ft. Sean Paul) is playing on the radio as we walk in.
*John, the owner, takes us on a tour. Bentley's is light and clean but has the kind of musty smell that makes you inhale a little lighter than normal. George had given it a four-star rating in his guidebook, noting the staff as "versatile" with "plenty of young beauties".
Here, George's celebrity status becomes more pronounced. Grey stickers reading "Recommended by George McCoy!" peel from parlour doors, assuring his seal of approval.
Anna, the manager for the past three years, greets George like an old friend. They know each other very well, judging by the four-star review he gave her, but isn't involved in that side of the business any more.
"I found it horrendous – simply because I think you need to be quite a strong person emotionally to be able to perform in that way," she tells me. "The customers were always nice to me, but on a mental and emotional level, I was unable to handle it."
Besides the physical health risks involved, 73 percent of sex workers also suffer from anxiety disorders, and 46 percent develop depression. George seems unperturbed by this.
"Why would they be suffering?" he asks. "Once you get in that position, maybe it's time to call it a day. The parlours don't want unhappy girls or girls on drugs, because you get unhappy clients and they don't come back for more business. It's bullshit when they talk about people being forced to work against their will. Is it not better that they do that than live off the state?"
Back in the car, we move on to another appointment in Dewsbury, this time at "Sandra's" – but they fail to arrive.
"Owe me money for an advert," George grumbles.
Instead, we take a pit stop in a car park somewhere near Sheffield and pick up a salad from Morrison's.
Yes, if a lady is prepared to let me enter her anally, then so be it.
George tells me that this is a full time job. When he isn't on the road visiting brothels two days a week, he's in his office analysing data on the internet. He's written 32 guidebooks on British brothels, with detail so exhaustive he claims that the Home Office looked to them to tally up official UK brothel figures. He tells me that he's sold around 100,000 books online, for a tenner each. As I start to do the maths, he informs me that he's actually yet to break even. So why does he do it?
"I enjoy being given an oral session by a lady and then regular intercourse thereafter – nothing out of the ordinary," he says. "Yes, if a lady is prepared to allow me to enter her anally, then so be it. But I wouldn't ever want to insist a woman does anything."
For all George's politeness, it suddenly dawned on me that I was sat in a car park in the middle of nowhere with a man who's built his life and career upon rating women in bed. He tells me that he doesn't think women "appreciate the sexual longings that exist in men". Men view sex as an experience they enjoy, he says, "not the procreation aspects of it".
Throughout the course of the afternoon, we visit a few more spots on George's itinerary. One is an immaculately clean Thai-run parlour, and another called *The Retreat. The two places were in stark contrast with one another, the latter boasting a sign warning us to "beware the trap door".
George greets the owner, a man in his late sixties with gnarly fingers and a grisly smile, and we start talking about trafficking.
"It's mass hysteria." George barks. "Politicians love to scare us, trying to paint a country which is rife with trafficking. Because if we're scared, we will vote for them to keep us safe. That's all they're fucking interested in. If it suits them to worry us, they will worry us."
He's careful to differentiate parlour workers from those working on the street, where he admits drugs and trafficking issues might be more of an issue. "I'm not saying that there's no girls in parlours who take drugs, but so does Nigella-bloody-Lawson!"
Our penultimate viewing of the day was *Infinity, a four-roomed parlour in the outskirts of Sheffield. Complete with a gym, pool table and dungeon, it receives anything between eight to 38 customers in a day.
I was shown around by the owner, David, who says that his establishment is one of the only places he knows of designed to be disabled-friendly. "There's a guy coming today. He comes every week. He's only 21. His father brings him. He comes in his wheelchair and he speaks through a computer. And we've got ex-soldiers who've had their limbs blown off. They know when they come here, it's comfortable."
By 5PM we're making our last stop, this one slightly different to the others: a work alone dominatrix. George assures me she's a "bunny rabbit" compared to others, as we ring the bell of her semi-detached. There's a small child peering out the bottom floor flat, and I think about the slaves being ball-gagged and pissed on metres above.
Inside, George greets "Mistress Lola" with affection. He clamps his pudgy hands either side of her corset. "George!" she exclaims. The longer I stay, the more I realise that she only speaks in exclamation marks.
We are invited into the living room, which looks relatively normal apart from a huge golden throne. Two men – slaves – are occupying each sofa. One is clean cut and suited, the other is Comic Book Guy IRL. "After a good session," the latter says, "it feels to me like falling head over heels in love for the first time, again. Who wouldn't want to keep getting that feeling?"
"I fell madly in love with a lady once," George says. "When I was 19, after I spent a weekend with her minding some poodles. But her parents insisted on breaking it off. After that I decided that getting involved with people is more trouble than it's worth."
George waltzes around the dungeon, gleefully demonstrating the knives and dildos. "There, you have a cross, the idea being you are tied to it spread eagled, and you can be whipped or have your bottom-smacked. Or, alternatively, you can be round the front and have some cock and ball torture," he grins. "You can be locked in that cage and left like a puppy for an hour or so. The mistress will often sit on the throne there. They've got various clips, which you can put on your nipples and other parts of your anatomy."
I was disappointed to hear that George isn't very experimental himself. "I'm quite prepared to be restrained and mistreated, so long as I don't get bruised," he stipulates. "But that's about as far as it goes with me."
"Believe it or not, there are women who enjoy it," says George. We're back in the car now; we've finished our visits. I'm ready to end the day and hop out at the next red light.
I agree that it must be pretty exhausting for those few women happily employed in sex work to constantly feel that they need to defend their desire to sell sex. But that doesn't justify overlooking, as George seems to, the many others who are bound by financial and familial dependencies, who suffer the physical and emotional tolls of performing sex acts on upwards of three strangers a day.
George may spout about trafficking and depression being fabrications of authority, but one thing he has brought to my attention is how tolerated brothels are within British society. Every parlour we visited claimed the police knew exactly what they were doing, and let them get away with it. This does suggest current frameworks might be outdated: implementing new perspectives or even regulation of the industry might help us to paint an honest picture of what is going on, because currently, George's guidebooks could be the most comprehensive source of information we've got.
George isn't in the right, nor is reviewing women like a product in a magazine. What has become clear from spending a day with him, though, is that his intent is not malicious. His actions seem governed by emptiness and loss, his job giving him a sense of purpose and status.
"Not all men are secure," he tells me. "But if everyone was, we wouldn't have any decent bloody literature. We need people who are a bit bizarre to be the Mr Rochesters or Heathcliffs."
Clearly, to George, men who use prostitutes are the tortured heroes of romanticism. I revolve back into the normality of the Sheffield evening, but George slips back off into the underworld, where there, at least, he is king.
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