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Prostitutes worldwide were this weekend congratulating Women’s Minister Harriet Harman on a job well done – as remarks she made to last week’s Labour Conference have dramatically increased business for sex workers using online site PunterNet.

A press release put out by the owners of the site pointed to a doubling in site traffic on the day of the speech, while some sex workers point to a near trebling of business since then.

Critics claim this is not the first time that gung-ho initiatives by the Women’s Minister have had the opposite effect to that intended.

In the course of her speech on 30 September, Ms Harman informed delegates of "a very sinister development which we are determined to stop".

She then explained: "There is now a website... where pimps put women on sale for sex and then men who’ve had sex with them put their comments online. It is 'PunterNet' and fuels the demand for prostitutes. It is truly degrading and puts women at risk."

She went on to observe that the site included the details of many UK-based women and that she had asked the Governor of California, where punternet is based, to "terminate" all this depravity or else, she added – in predictable sound-bite mode – "I’ll be back".

Like many similar pronouncements on sex work, Ms Harman’s views seem to be based more on thinly veiled distaste and a desire to do all she can to stick an oar in – irrespective of the consequences for the women (and men) involved in it – than any informed response to the issues.

The implication that this site is new is factually incorrect, not least because PunterNet itself claims to be now in its tenth year of operation.

Far more serious is the suggestion that it facilitates pimping when, in fact, it tends to do the exact opposite. As a detailed deconstruction of the site by leading political blogger Alix Mortimer argues: "In short, though it’s not immediately obvious how this site makes the lives of prostitutes as a whole any better, it’s certainly not obvious how it makes them worse, and it may even make the odd life here or there quite dramatically better if and when the police do have occasion to intervene on the basis of information they read there.

"This being the case, since no harm is being done and possibly a small amount of good may be being done, Harman’s posturing completely and comprehensively fails the liberal test."

This closely matches the views of organisations that represent sex workers: that any technology that allows prostitutes to control their own direct access to clients tends to reduce abuses, while abolishing such channels of communication has the opposite effect.

Thus, Catherine Stephens, an activist with the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), was scathing of Ms Harman’s campaign against home-based sex workers using small ads in local newspapers to find clients, since one effect of this measure was to push those women with little technological nous – and therefore unable to move their businesses online - into the arms of agencies and managers. Less self-determination; more potential for abuse.

Similar criticisms have been levelled at other government initiatives in respect to sex work, including measures in the current Policing Bill to attack demand for prostitution by introducing draconian new laws targeting clients, leading Ms Stephens to conclude: "Talk to us, not at us."

As one individual posted to a discussion of Ms Harman's remarks on PunterNet itself: "The bit HH seems to be missing, is that sites like PunterNet ENABLE women who want to advertise the selling of sexual services independently, WITHOUT the need for a pimp". ®

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