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Media Spotlight on UK's Legal Red Light District Makes Sex Workers "More Hidden"

© AP Photo / Dita AlangkaraSex workers. (File)
Sex workers. (File) - Sputnik International
Britain's first official red light district has been pushed into the media spotlight following newspaper reports suggesting the 'managed approach' is a "disaster", despite evidence that a move to decriminalize sex work in one of England's biggest cities helps sex workers.

In October 2014 a 'managed approach' was introduced in a suburb of Leeds allowing sex workers to trade without fear of arrest on an industrial estate in Holbeck.

Between the hours of 8pm and 6am, there would be no police prosecution for soliciting or selling sex in Holbeck and a dedicated police sex work liaison officer was introduced to the area along with an increased police presence.

"Before the surge in publicity, we didn't have as many residents complaining about the women but the number of complaints has increased in the past year," Amber Wilson of Basis, a charity supporting women in the sex industry told Sputnik. "And with more publicity, more women want to hide away." 

"Sex work is legal, soliciting sex work is illegal. Women come here without fear of being arrested", Wilson explains.

However Councillor Mark Dobson, who helped to set up the designated decriminalisation zone in Leeds told London newspaper The Telegraph he thought the project was "failing."

"Unless the scheme is seem to work, it will fail and is failing," said Mr. Dobson. A senior police officer also reportedly told The Telegraph that West Yorkshire Police force had "given up."

"It was a disaster from day one. Other criminals came into the area quick as a flash. Drug dealers, pimps, even traffickers that brought the women from Romania," the officer told the newspaper.

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Since 2000, nine sex workers have been murdered by their clients in the Leeds Bradford area, however research carried out by Dr Kate Brown at the University of York found that current laws against sex work had failed to reduce its prevalence and issues associated with it in Leeds. Sex workers were too scared to report crimes to the police for fear of arrest.

As a result of the research findings and scale of serious violence going unreported, Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Police and Safer Leeds carried out a pilot project allowing sex workers to conduct their business subject to special rules, a 'managed approach.'

'Complex Needs'

"There's CCTV, PCSOs, a dedicated police officer and needles get picked up fairly quickly and extra cleaning is carried out in the area. I'm not denying the disruption is real," says Wilson.

"Around 70 or 80 women are working in the area over a course of six months. A very small handful of women have really complex needs — but that's a really small proportion and you can't blame the whole area on that," Wilson told Sputnik.

The History of Sex Work in Leeds has collated information surrounding sex work in Yorkshire from the 1800s. Evidence submitted by National Ugly Mugs to the British government's Home Affairs Committee on sex work examined the shift from law enforcement to the managed approach in Leeds.

"Between July 2012 and January 2014, only seven percent of sex workers were willing to report victimisation to the police," the evidence submitted to the British government's Home Affairs Committee on sex work said. After the managed approach was introduced in Holbeck, just over half of all sex workers reported crimes to police.

"Following the implementation of the 'managed area' for street sex work and the posting of a sex liaison officer, 52 percent of sex workers who experienced victimisation reported their issues to the police, "the highest level of reporting in the UK," the written evidence stated.

'More Hidden, More at Risk'

An update on the project published by Leeds City Council included the sentencing of of a violent offender to ten years in jail but Wilson fears that the reignited interest in Holbeck, the UK's first official red light district, will force sex workers underground and back into residential areas.

"It becomes more risky for everyone involved if it's more hidden," she says. "Before, when there's been a serious issue quite a few of the women would report it but if small things start to build up and they're missed, then that puts women more at risk."

"Arresting kerb-crawlers makes it less safe for the women. If you arrested the men, the men who don't respect the law would likely ignore a kerb-crawling law as well — possibly not just about kerb-crawling — so it's important the women aren't forced to hide," says Wilson. 

"History tells us it doesn't go away, it'll just be displaced and a return to women hiding in residential areas and therefore more at risk."

There are also concerns about thee rise in vigilante groups patrolling the streets and filming women on their smartphones and posting the footage online.

"The group cordon off local parks with signs reading 'no prostitutes here', and take to Facebook to lose a stream of thinly veiled hatred and misogyny for the 'whores' they have filmed," academic Kate Lister writes in an article for iNews in January 2018.

"Making the managed approach work is an extremely delicate process that continually has to balance the needs of vulnerable people, the rights and concerns of residents, and the interests of local authorities," Dr. Lister writes. 

"Press intrusion, and even unethical documentary crews paying cash to vulnerable women in the managed area to appear on film, has seriously jeopardized the scheme through imbalanced sensationalist reporting."


A recent survey carried out by Basis with the sex workers in Holbeck suggests 70 percent of sex workers said the managed area was working for them and they feel "more protected." Amber Wilson revealed the comments in an interview with Sputnik.

"I feel much safer with more police but as people have become aware due to publicity that can cause trouble," a sex worker surveyed said.

"I know that I can stand my ground. Punters used to say who's going to believe you? I can now reply that the police will believe me."

For Amber Wilson and Basis, the approach in Holbeck is about "pro-choice."

"It's about the right to health and safety like everyone else, whether you're a sex worker or not. You cannot forget the other residents, we're not trying to, but the sex workers are also residents of this city and should have access to the same services as everyone else."

"But if you think women shouldn't be selling their bodies you'll look at it differently. It's a pragmatic, compassionate approach by police, the council and charities," Amber Wilson told Sputnik.

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The recent article published in the Telegraph about Holbeck prompted reaction on social media; quick to set the record straight was Whores of Yore.

"Since the managed approach has been brought in, reports of violent crime from sex workers to police has tripled," and since the managed approach was brought in, five times the number of condoms and sexually transmitted infection tests have been offered to vulnerable women," was published on Twitter. 

Amber Wilson is aware there is disruption to residents and unease felt by the people living nearby but in response to the recent negative press attention and articles suggesting the project was a "disaster", Wilson admits "it's not perfect. But it's better than before."

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