An online site advertising prostitutes received an unexpected boost from the minister for women and equality this week – is all publicity good publicity?
On the final day of the Labour party conference Harriet Harman gave a rousing speech where she attacked businesses that exploit women. Chief among her targets was a website called Punter Net which allows prostitutes for advertise for business and their ‘clients’ to rate their services which Harman called the “ultimate commodification of women”. However, drawing attention to the website had an unintentional effect – publicity.
After the minister for women and equality mentioned it, traffic to the website received a massive boost. So much so that its owner published a letter on the site thanking Harman for “the huge influx of traffic to my website which your actions have caused”. The tactic of “name-and-shame” unintentionally became the sort of publicity which money can’t buy (ironic for a website which would have you believe that even people’s bodies can be quantified in monetary terms).
Now here’s the rub – I consider myself a feminist and I abhor the commodification and objectification of women (and men). I’ve seen the dark side of prostitution – the drug addled, hollow-eyed teenage prostitutes on the corner where I used to live. I know that Pretty Woman and Belle du Jour are bollocks. Most women who become prostitutes do so not because it’s empowering but because they have terrible personal circumstances.
However, I’m also a journalist and it’s my belief that you should never attack something without learning about it first. To criticise this website without viewing it would make me no better than all those Christian Voice people who wrote in to complain about Jerry Springer the Opera without having seen it – wouldn’t it? And yes, I’ll admit, there was an even less noble part of me which also wondered what the website might be like. Would it be like Compare the Market but with hand-jobs? I was curious.
Even more of a moral dilemma was the thought that, in writing about it, I would be guilty of giving the site the same (albeit smaller scale) oxygen of publicity.
The site’s owner justifies its existence on the grounds of freedom of speech and also in the ‘belief’ that providing a forum for prostitution puts it in the open and prevents it being driven underground – the old prohibition argument. It’s a compelling and lazy argument which has been used to justify far too many things.
So here it is. I did look at the website. What I’m going to tell you is what Harriet Harman should have said – something that would have put me off bothering to look at it. The website is in equal measures tragic, depressing and dull. The reviews are like a series of “mystery shopper” field reports but written by extremely sad delusional men with a vested interest in believing in the product. They all write about how sure they are that these women enjoy themselves, how they felt a real ‘connection’ with them.
There’s nothing funny about this website, it doesn’t blaze a trail for freedom of speech – it’s just a bunch of men in denial about the sometimes terrible ethical consequences of their actions.
I still believe that inciting social pressure is one of the most powerful weapons we have – and in that I think that Harman was right to voice her disapproval. However, it’s not enough to tell people something is wrong, sometimes you need to give an argument. Otherwise, in the same way that an “explicit lyrics” tag persuades a teenager to download a song, disapproval can become a perverse incentive.
I hope that in writing this article I can somehow prove that not all publicity is good publicity. It’s worth a try. Because for every bad review you write that may draw attention to the very thing you disapprove of, there’s another person who may see the one star review and not bother.