NS Internet column
Written 21 July 1999 for the New Statesman
Like the dialogue of George Lucas, there are large parts of the web that are quite beyond parody. Punter.net is a place for the customers of British prostitutes to get together and compare notes; and if web sites were eligible for entry to the New Statesman weekend competitions, this would win a Golden Philistine Haemorrhoid for the most anaphrodisiac writing in history. It's like watching a trade in Beanie Babies stuffed with real flesh.
Here, for example, is part of a "Field report" on "Emmalouise" of Leeds. "I used this girl because of the reviews here. I also visit Lisa of Leeds (see Brad review) Bearing in mind I could see Lisa 9 times for the cost of this visit I have to say this is very poor vfm. Emma is a nice girl but was in a rush and £200 for sex once and a rather uninspiring bj WITH was not good. This would have been fine at £80 but £200 is far too much for Emma. I won't be seeing her again at this price."
She also advertises on this site, and can presumably read her own reviews; it must be good to know that there are customers waiting if she decides to rebrand herself into a different market segment, though heavy, or at least bulky, capital investment in her chest must somehow be paid for.
I found Punter.net while looking for its opposite, a site where prostitutes could rate their clients; more precisely, one where they could warn each other about the dangerous ones. This also exists, though it is about a tenth the size and completely out of date, since the charity that funded it has stopped doing so, and there are not nearly enough web designers walking the streets.
Punter.net is run by an expatriate Brit working in America with a keen interest in prostitutes who calls himself (what else?) Galahad. The whores themselves are known as "ladies". I'm not sure about the legality of the thing: if anyone wanted to track them down, the women reviewed have their work telephone numbers and addresses on the board, and even details of the nearest car parking. The site itself is based in Northern California, at an ISP which hosts, among other things, the Oakland Freemasons Hall and a couple of family sites: while it is certainly legal there, it may be in breach of the contract about sub-letting space.
The posters are pseudonymous, but they really put a lot into their hobbies. 500 reports have been filed this year; one man seems to have filed more than twenty. In lots of ways, it's just like any other nerd site. In jaundiced moods, I think it is just the ultimate "web community" a place where people talk about what they like to buy in obsessive detail, and thus present themselves trussed and ready for basting (perhaps, here, literally) to eager advertisers. There are in fact a dozen or so prostitutes advertising on the site. There is a disclaimer to the effect that these are just escort services, and anything beyond that is a matter for private negotiation with the customers (or "gentlemen").
Perhaps this is the future of prostitution. No more junkies ranging the streets, no more kerb crawlers: just a set of hygienic screens, and a pseudonymous crowd of men swapping comments in offices all around the country. But I'd have thought that the whole business of prostitution depended on the illusion of exclusivity: on each client believing that he was somehow special, and nothing could more clearly destroy it than to be part of a queue of customers. Clearly, I'm wrong. In that case, there is clearly a fortune to be made by the first venture capitalist to called She-Bay: this would combine the only two types of web business that have actually make a profit from what they sell, rather than their share price: pornography and auctions. Instead of wasteful and inefficient fixed prices, there would be rolling 24-hour auctions of huge numbers of prostitutes, with customers bidding for their preferred time slots. Soon all human relations could be organised this way. If you needed a wife, a nanny, a friend or a landscape gardener, these could all be auctioned too. Imagine the convenience of a friend you never had to keep around after you were tired of them. There'd be He-Bay, a site for women, too. It must have been this that Swift foresaw when he asked "Why should we grieve that friends must die? No loss more easy to supply."