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The people who pay for sex are, unsurprisingly, loath to admit to doing so. Everyone seems to know someone else who has visited a prostitute, but no one is quite sure who, or where, or why, or how much they paid, and they certainly can’t go and ask them about it.
One person who is honest about his use of prostitutes is writer and artist Sebastian Horsley. He has worked as an escort and run a brothel, andtalks candidly about his love of and appetite for prostitutes, estimating he has paid for sex with more than 1,000 women at a cost of more than ?100,000. Horsley also admits he is chasing the libertine lifestyles of the artists he grew up in thrall to – Edvard Munch, Van Gogh and Gauguin, Oscar Wilde. His romanticising of the practice is wildly indulgent and no doubt has little relevance for most prostitutes. He has said he is against legalisation as that would remove the excitement of the forbidden fruit element, but is no longer sure about this: if it improved safety, he says, it would be a good thing. One thing he is certain about rings true with the opinion of every prostitute I have spoken to: they are not victims.
"Contrary to what those foul feminists will tell you, the prostitute is not a victim," he says. "If you talk to them, and I’ve met thousands, they don’t often find themselves victimised and exploited, but the middle-class intellectuals who formulate their opinions for them tell them that they are. There’s a whole rescue operation going on at the moment made up of social workers, community leaders and politicians, and it’s in their interests to find suffering. There is exploitation, but there is exploitation in all industries."
Horsley is the product of a privileged and eccentric background, and he makes a living out of his outrageous behaviour and utterings. His attempt to recreate the depraved Parisian existence of his absinthe-fuelled artistic heroes makes him an easy target for derision, and, in fact, anger: only a poor little rich boy could play at being a prostitute and a heroin addict, and base a life philosophy on it. But he is up-front about his behaviour, unlike the rest of those one in 10 men who must feel there is something wrong with using a prostitute, or they wouldn’t be so keen to hide it. "Who are we to tell someone what parts they can and cannot sell of themselves?," he asks. Prostitutes are not stupid, but they have different skills. You don’t get prostitutes telling the politicians how they should be earning a living, do you?"
Jacqui Smith believes demand dictates supply, an argument with a clear logic, and if there weren’t so many men like Horsley willing to pay for sex, women would not face the choice of entering an industry in which exploitation is rife. The oft-cited example is Sweden, where the buying of sex was criminalised almost a decade ago. In Lithuania and Finland it is already illegal to pay for sex with someone acting under coercion, as will happen here under the new legislation, and Norway is set to follow Sweden’s lead. But Sweden is the example cited by those who support the Smith reforms. When the law was passed there were around 2,500 sex workers; now there are just 500, and Sweden is the least popular human trafficking destination in Europe.
Making it an offence to pay for sex with anyone acting under coercion and where ignorance is no defence, even when the party paying for sex has asked and been lied to, is intended to scare a large sector of punters away from visiting prostitutes, not just trafficked workers. "It is middle-class people with jobs trying to control deviant behaviour," says Horsley, dismissively.
As it is, it’s very easy, and often very cheap, to find paid-for sex. Every small town has always housed a brothel of some sort, where regulars would find sex and companionship in the arms of reliable women, but now you can go online and pick women like sweets. If it becomes less socially acceptable – because men are forced to assume most prostitutes are working under duress – and trickier in practical terms to find sex, the theory is that, as in Sweden, the industry will shrink.
The English Collective of Prostitutes, and Samantha, do not agree. "Where have those prostitutes in Sweden gone?" she asks. "They still need the money. They’ve gone underground. Or they’ve gone to work in other countries. There is still the same number of prostitutes around. If you don’t want to be found, you won’t be. They still have to pay the bills or feed a drug habit. The reasons they are prostitutes are still there. The further they crack down, the more underground we will have to go. So streetworkers will take more risks to earn the same amount per night, which is horrendous. You’re making yourself more vulnerable."
Samantha no longer needs to work as a prostitute. She says she began out of necessity to support her family, though it was her husband who suggested it. He supported her during the rape trial but later turned violent and she fled the marriage. Does she regret starting? "That’s the sting in the tail. Obviously, if I could have my time again there is no way I would do it, but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been raped and the private prosecution wouldn’t have been forthcoming. I had the support to do that and other women didn’t. I wouldn’t change that for the world." Would she be happy if her kids did the same? "The only reason to do that type of work is money. I would be concerned if I was not supporting them."