It is famously one of the world’s oldest professions, existing in one form or another across almost every civilization. Sumerian records dating back to around 2400 BCE refer to it as an occupation, the Bible talks about it, and Ancient Greece pretty much invented the word: prostitution. Yet, despite being legal in the UK, prostitution is shoved into the dark alleys off Britain’s streets, ignored by the masses unless Jack the Ripper makes an appearance in a school history class. Not in Leeds, however. Nearly three years ago, the city began a pilot scheme to protect sex workers.
The groundbreaking scheme was introduced to make sex workers feel safer coming forward and reporting crimes or attacks to police. It was first trialled from October 2014, allowing women in the sex trade to work between 7pm and 7am within a specific, managed area of Holbeck, just south of Leeds city centre, provided they followed a set of rules. After 12 months, the scheme was made permanent, and is now set to continue indefinitely.
In some ways, for a city that worried about becoming a ‘new Amsterdam’, Leeds may seem an odd choice for such an innovative venture. Indeed, in 2015 a cap of no more than four strip clubs was applied to the city centre and several ‘sexual entertainment venues’ were closed.
Holbeck was identified as an area with significant issues relating to sex work and was therefore chosen for the trial. The managed area was drawn up, encompassing industrial premises, offices, shops and car showrooms – but away from residential properties. Within the supposed ‘red light district’, offences such as loitering, kerb crawling and soliciting are not enforced by the police as long as the agreed rules (no littering, drug use, sex work outside of 7pm and 7am) are met.
The fact that the temporary measure was made permanent would suggest that the scheme has been a success. The ‘positives’ recorded thus far have been an increase in sex workers in the area reporting crimes – which are almost ten times as likely to be reported in the area than previously – and residents’ complaints falling by around a third. In response to feedback, more bins were introduced for trade-related waste.
Professor Teela Sanders, author of Prostitution: Sex Work, Policy and Politics, was involved in an evaluation of the scheme in 2015. “After years of the revolving door of arresting and fining sex workers for soliciting on the streets… the scenario which the managed area presents is a much more civil and safe way for sex work to occur in a street setting”, she says. “A key part of this improvement has been the role of the Sex Work Liaison Officer… equally the presence of a legitimate, safer space for women to work gives off the very important signal to the community and potential offenders that sex workers are cared about and that their rights to protection are as important as all citizens.”
However, as expected for such a divisive scheme, not everyone is a fan. Unsurprisingly it is mostly local businesses in the area who feel that their businesses have suffered reputational damage. Sadly, the main reason for this reaction came from what most people against the scheme view as its greatest failure; the murder of sex worker Daria Pionko in December 2015.
Murder in the Red Light District
We do not know if the murder would have taken place without the managed zone, just as we cannot know whether the killer would have been tracked down without it. However, when contacted by Jericho, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) said: “We have the tragic murder of Daria Pionko in our mind because the managed zone didn’t save her… But we hope that the women who worked alongside her were able to come forward with information that helped find her killer, without fearing arrest for prostitution.”
The ECP have extensive knowledge of the women who work in the zone and are strong advocates of full decriminalisation: “A managed zone is no substitute for decriminalisation… What happens if you get attacked on the wrong side of the road, outside the zone, outside the designated hours? Does that mean the police don’t pay attention and continue with their campaign of harassment and arrest of sex workers, as they are doing elsewhere?”
Professor Sanders also feels that changes to the law are just as important to better protect the UK’s sex workers: “Ultimately until the UK has a legal system which prioritises sex worker rights to work, to be protected and work together indoors free from illegalities there will always be risks attached to sex work.”
There are fears that these risks are increasing too. Despite the managed safe zone, other external factors are beginning to affect the industry in Leeds and across the UK. The managed zone could even put specific sex workers at risk, according to the ECP: “Since the immigration crackdown, everyone is on edge and hiding from officials … Women feel that once again the police are prioritising criminalisation over protection and this is deterring them from reporting violence. This immigration swoop is part of a racist witch-hunt against migrant sex workers, which has got worse since Brexit, even though women have the right to be here under EU law.”
Pioneering or plundering scheme?
A recent government report estimated there to be some 72,800 prostitutes working in the UK, and that an estimated 152 were murdered between 1990 and 2015. Along with these managed zones, changes to UK laws surrounding sex work could be the next step to better protect such women on a nationwide scale. However, there are currently no known plans to expand the scheme across the UK.
Overseas, the likes of Germany and the Netherlands have legalised the sex trade, with before and after stats used to reinforce a number of agendas. Some claim that this has increased the frequency of attacks against sex workers in countries where prostitution is legal, while others use the same figures to show targeted schemes and legalisation are working, as more women are confident in coming forward with information relating to crimes.
“Local partnerships that work together to put in place a strategy around sex work need to consider the needs of their local area and how sex worker safety is being prioritised,” adds Professor Sanders. “It is very important that this model is considered alongside other policing strategies and that the local business and community are drawn into any process which considers alternative forms of managing sex work on the street. There is a clear template in Leeds to be considered elsewhere and the footprint has been made for others to take this forward within their local neighbourhoods.”
As such, it is widely accepted that a mixed approach that combines legalisation, schemes and ‘safe zones’ is likely to be the most appropriate in order to securely regulate prostitution. The UK has taken a bold step with its scheme in Holbeck, and expanding this approach to other cities must be a priority before legalisation finds itself on the agenda.