On a semi-industrial estate in Holbeck, on the edge of Leeds city centre, an experiment in tackling the problems of prostitution has just been given the green light. For the last six years, a mile-wide zone — which creeps across both residential, industrial and derelict wasteland — has provided legal amnesty for both kerb crawlers and the women they buy. The Managed Approach costs Leeds taxpayers an estimated £300,000 annually to maintain and, following the publication of a new report, it is set to become a permanent fixture.
Set up by West Yorkshire Police (WYP) and Leeds City Council (LCC), the rules look simple: women can ply their trade within a certain area, between the hours of 8pm and 6am, without fear of arrest. Men can openly solicit sex from cars or on foot, so long as they stay within the boundaries of the zone. The area is policed, and a well-funded service provides condoms, tea and support for the dozens of women who are probably prostituting in order to buy drugs, whether for themselves or their partners.
Several security cameras cover the area, and a number of yellow bins are visible, in which the women and their punters are encouraged to drop used condoms. Every day, cleaners arrive to remove last night’s debris — which usually includes needles and other drug paraphernalia, empty booze bottles, vomit and items of women’s clothing.
There is ample evidence from residents and other sources that prostitution has bled outside of the zone and into surrounding areas, and that a number of houses on the outskirts have become brothels. There are regular sightings of punters having sex with women in public, including in residential gardens, and women are often heard screaming while being attacked. I have spent time on the zone since 2014, and have spotted pimps, traffickers and drug dealers in and around the area. Many of the zone’s residents, including some of the women who work there, disagree with the recent report that the Managed Approach has been a success.
Campaigners against the zone believe that police and other agencies care little for the safety of the women, now they are supposedly “contained”. Speaking to residents, police, the women and the punters, I have developed a bleak impression of the situation. The punters, many of whom travel from outside of the city, are able to buy a woman with the same ease with which they might pick up a burger, often treating them like meat. “Because they can’t get arrested, they think they can do anything they liked,” says Angel*, a woman who sold sex on the zone during 2018. “I’ve been raped, and one man pissed all over me once and took a photo.”
Sammy*, who was pimped on her 17th birthday straight into the zone by her “boyfriend”, tells me that the police “don’t give a fuck about the women”. She says: “One night I was screaming my head off when a nasty punter got really rough with me, but these two coppers just walked past. All they want is to shove us away from the city centre so we don’t put off the tourists and those going out for meals.” Established local business owners in Holbeck have reported that trade is down because many potential customers avoid the area.
This zone came into being because pressure was mounting on the police and local council to do something about street prostitution in the centre of Leeds. Residents and workers, sick of stepping over used condoms and fending off harassment from kerb crawlers looking for business, had filed enough complaints to make the problem a headache for the authorities. Arresting the women was counter-productive: all that happened was that the courts would fine them, which led to the “revolving door” situation of the women going straight back on to the streets in order to pay up, because they had no money.
But LCC and WYP had a choice: the money spent on containing the problem could have gone into exiting and drug rehabilitation services, for instance. Instead, the authorities have made it easier for pimps and punters to exploit the women, abandoning the prostitutes to a life of hell — and making residents feel unsafe.
There have been a number of rapes and sexual assaults within the zone, and in 2015, a few months after it became operational, Daria Pionko was murdered by a punter there. Pionko’s murder thrust Holbeck firmly into the national spotlight and saw serious questions being asked about the long-term viability of the experiment. And yet it continued. A few years later, in 2018, a Holbeck woman was raped on her way home from work by a group of men who assumed she was a prostitute.
My most recent visit to the Holbeck zone was in February. I arrived at its border around 10am and saw several women braving the cold and looking for business, despite it being hours past curfew time. Walking around, I saw carnage: dozens of used condoms and some blood-specked needles, as well as human faeces and empty bottles of spirits.
One group of local feminists, including sex trade survivors, set up Campaign to End Leeds Sex Trade (CELST) in 2018. They roundly reject the conclusion of the recent report, saying it reads “like a fairy tale” to those living and working in the area. “Criminal gangs will be celebrating if this zone is maintained,” says CELST founder Fiona Broadfoot, who escaped prostitution in the 1990s:
“The vast majority of women on the zone don’t even speak English and could well be trafficked. Drug dealers peddle their goods openly with impunity. The punters use their privilege and entitlement to pay a pittance to the most vulnerable women in society.”
I spoke to Paul* who lives next door to three young Romanian women. He said: “Men come to the house all hours of the day and night. I have only seen one of them leave the house in months and she was accompanied by a man. I worry that they are being trafficked.”
The report failed to mention that the sex trade has expanded in Holbeck as a result of the zone. Meanwhile complaints of sexual assault have doubled, and rates of gonorrhoea, syphilis and chlamydia have risen significantly in Leeds.
Leeds Councillor Sarah Field is one of the most vocal critics of the zone within LCC. Field is furious that the authors of the report have recommended that the zone continue and, like me, believes that the only possible way to reduce the harm of the sex trade is to help the women exit and to deter the punters from buying sex by threatening arrest.
“Once again we see academics enthralled by what they call ‘sex work’ while they would never live in Holbeck, nor entertain the idea of their daughters or wives ‘working’ there. Adequately funded exit strategies remains the only way to stop vulnerable women being sold by men to other men on the streets of Leeds, with our council calling it success.”
The founders of the Holbeck zone should have seen the warning signs coming from countries such as the Netherlands. Having set up zones in a number of areas since legalisation, Dutch politicians have since admitted defeat and closed down every single one.
The first tipplezone (tolerance zone) opened in The Hague in 1983, with eight other cities following suit over the next three decades. As with the Leeds experiment, the aim of tipplezones was to deal with complaints of residents in the areas frequented by street prostitutes, and to ensure safety for the women. But the tipplezones did not deter violence from the punters, and trafficking, including of underage girls, increased, as did rates of HIV.
In 2004, Job Cohen — the then mayor of Amsterdam, which is known as “the vagina of Europe” for its highly visible sex trade — announced: “We’ve realised this is no longer about small-scale entrepreneurs, but those big crime organisations are involved here in trafficking women, drugs, killings, and other criminal activities.”
While those selling sex should be treated as victims, not criminals, decriminalising the pimps and punters is not the answer. A number of other states, including Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, France, Sweden and Israel have adopted the Nordic Model, in which the pimps and punters are criminalised, while those selling sex are decriminalised and offered support to leave the sex trade.
That might include drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes, counselling, access to safe accommodation, and, where necessary, parenting skills. Training and re-education can give some women the confidence and ability to access gainful employment — and because prostitution is not criminalised, those who exit it aren’t automatically hindered by criminal records in seeking other work.
The Leeds zone has been thought up and maintained by those who see “the oldest profession” as an “inevitability”. But the women of Leeds deserve better than a strip of industrial wasteland and a few condoms. They deserve jobs and a future. The Managed Approach is an open invitation to the most disenfranchised women with the least choices in life, to enter a life of hell; there is no justification for leaving these women to die of drug overdoses, HIV or even murder.
The legitimisation of prostitution, often referred to by the women involved as “paid rape” is morally reprehensible. And as for the men that fuel this vile trade: it’s high time they were given a loud and clear message that women are not for sale.
*These names have been changed.