Who says decriminalised red-light districts are safer for women?

In my early 20s I lived for a while in a shared house in Spencer Place, then the heart of the red-light district in Leeds. I remember well the sick feeling whenever I went out and one man after another would drive his car slowly alongside me, keeping pace as I walked along the pavement, peering at me, sizing me up like a piece of meat.

It always provoked feelings of fear and confusion; an inarticulate struggle between my nascent feminist consciousness and the imperative my mother taught me to never allow myself to see uncomfortable truths and particularly not this one – that the men were treating me as a commodity and that they had full human status, but I did not.

I found I could endure it in the daylight hours but the terror was overwhelming in the dark. I’d beg my male housemates to give me a lift. They’d mutter contemptuously under their breath that I should start acting my age. “These streets are totally safe,” they’d say.

My daily reality was simply outside their comprehension. No kerb crawlers kept step with them as they walked those pavements. They had full human rights after all. They simply could not conceive that those rights did not extend to me.

That was a long time ago. Now the Leeds red-light district has moved to a commercial part of the down-at-heel district of Holbeck and it’s officially sanctioned by Labour-controlled Leeds City Council.

[Note: On 15 June 2021, Leeds City Council announced that it is to scrap the Holbeck ‘managed approach’ zone. However, this article remains relevant because it shows what happens when kerb crawling is allowed to run rampant.]

One must assume the councillors have never left their houses as a girl or young woman to walk along the streets in a red-light district. Because otherwise how could they declare, against all evidence, that the Holbeck ‘managed zone’ (now re-euphemised as the ‘managed approach’) makes ‘women safer,’ when in essence the approach simply means the police don’t pursue kerb crawlers or women loitering and soliciting during certain hours.

While no one wants the women to be arrested when what they need is drug and alcohol services, decent jobs and housing, and respite from predatory men, the approach gives an official green light for men to treat women as commodities, and to drive slowly round the streets sizing them up. And it gives an unofficial green light to the ‘boyfriends’ and pimps who freeload off the abuse endured by the women.

Local residents complain about the impact of the relentless kerb crawlers, and the used condoms and needles discarded in the streets and parks where their children play. And they’ve been keeping an inventory of the punters’ violence (three attempted murders so far this year).

But most councillors refuse to hear and recently they voted down a motion to suspend the approach while it’s investigated, and they repeated the mantra about it making women safer.

In what universe are any women safe when men have official sanction to treat them like pieces of meat?

In what universe is a woman safe when she must get alone into the car of a man, who is unimaginably richer and bigger and more powerful than her, and he drives off to some secluded place she knows not where, to use her body brutally as a masturbatory aid?

As prostitution survivor, Rebecca Mott, explained, the punter thinks his violence is not real, because in his eyes the woman is sub-human: It’s nothing happening to nothing.”

When officials sanction prostitution, they sanction this unequal relationship and by extension other similar unequal relationships, like child sexual abuse – where just like in prostitution, someone, usually older and male, calls the shots and makes the child submit to his will – no matter that it hurts and degrades and terrifies.

So it’s not surprising that within the last few months there have been reports of a kerb crawler attempting to pay a woman £10 to hand over her baby for his sadistic sexual use, and multiple others propositioning pre-pubescent girls. But even this has left most of the Labour councillors cruelly unmoved.

Reports of rapes and sexual assaults in the wider community have also soared and local men have been found not guilty of rape after claiming they thought the victim was a prostitute. These are further inevitable consequences of the official sanctioning of men buying sexual access to women. It legitimises male supremacy, entitlement, violence and predatory behaviour, and female subordination and second-class status. This runs counter to everything the socialist movement fights for.

But there is another way. One that was pioneered in Ipswich after a punter brutally murdered five young women involved in street prostitution. The murders were shocking and especially so because only three years earlier a man had murdered another young woman involved in street prostitution. Local people came to the conclusion that the only way to ensure there were no more such murders was to remove prostitution entirely from the streets of Ipswich.

They came up with a three-pronged strategy, very similar to the approach known as the Nordic Model. Firstly, they stopped arresting the women and instead provided them with substantial help to exit prostitution and rebuild their lives. Secondly, they used the kerb crawling legislation and number plate recognition technology to crack down on the punters. And thirdly, they worked with children at risk of being groomed into the sex trade to prevent them also ending up exploited on the streets.

An independent study found the approach had enabled the vast majority of the women to leave prostitution permanently and had eliminated kerb crawling in the town. The researchers also found that the approach had more than paid for itself – because of lower criminal justice and social support costs.

Prostitution is not inevitable and men’s predatory behaviour can be changed. Prostitution has always been used by the ruling classes as a tool to brutalise and buy off men and dispossess women. As socialists we must resist normalising and legitimising it.

Women and girls will never have full human status while men are allowed to treat them as commodities for profit and one-sided sexual use.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

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