The Holbeck red light zone: condoms, sex offenders and cars full of jeering men

There was something about the way the cab driver said, “Holbeck” when I gave him the address that concentrated my mind. I was on my way to join a small group walking round the red light district in Holbeck, Leeds – what’s officially known as the ‘managed approach’ and locally as the ‘zone.’ It consists of designated streets in a commercial district next to a working class residential neighbourhood of mainly run-down Victorian terraced housing.

The zone was originally introduced quietly in October 2014 as a pilot scheme. Women can solicit to sell sex there and men solicit to buy sex (on foot or in cars) without fear of arrest between the hours of 8 pm and 6 am – provided they stick to the rules, which include disposing of litter responsibly and not engaging in public indecency.

The scheme was declared a success and went permanent in January 2016. Quite what criteria were used for declaring it a success is unclear. The insistence that it makes the women safer is hard to reconcile with the horrific murder of a young woman, Daria Pionko, by a punter in the zone during the trial period.

The current Holbeck ‘managed approach’ or zone

There have been endless violent incidents in the zone since then – including three attempted murders of women by punters last summer. One of those women was so badly injured, she spent months in hospital.

The group on the walk includes two Conservative Leeds City Councillors and two local businessmen. We are led by Sarah, a local resident, and two members of the Save Our Eyes (SOE) campaign group. We meet outside a community centre and set off towards the zone. We take an alleyway that local children use as a shortcut on their way to school. Even though the entire area now has seven-day a week street cleaning, we see used condoms discarded on the path and a used tampon in the grass at the side.

Matthew explains that he got involved with SOE when he realised his son could look out of his bedroom window and see people having sex in plain sight. That can’t be right can it?

Before the daily street cleaning started, he says there’d be dozens of used condoms on this path of a morning, and hypodermic needles too.

The name of the group, Save Our Eyes, was a response to this assault on the senses with a nod to ‘Save Our Beeston’ – a community group that SOE grew out of.

Over time, many SOE members have developed a sophisticated political analysis. They now see the women as victims of pimps and drug dealers, domestic violence, poverty, and trafficking. And there’s a palpable disgust at the men, the punters, who use and abuse these women, and at the authorities, who are allowing all of this in plain sight, with no consideration of the consequences for the local community, and their ludicrous proclamations that it makes the women safer.

If the group were starting out knowing what they know now, no doubt they’d have chosen a different name. But they’ve gained a public presence, website SEO, and they hope it’ll be a short-lived campaign.

Local residents have talked to many of the women soliciting in the zone and not a single one they’ve talked to wants to be there. Of the approximately 140 women engaged in street prostitution in the area, about 95% are addicted to class A drugs.

We hear about a local woman who volunteers with two different charities doing street outreach. She’s done it for two years now and hasn’t met a single woman soliciting in the zone who wasn’t addicted to drugs.

The women give their earnings to their pimps and drug dealers and many are left with nothing for food or housing. “That’s why we say it’s modern slavery,” says Sarah. “We see the women looking for scraps of food and cigarettes in street bins. They earn a fortune but within hours the pimps have taken it. The charities feed them and give them drinks every night on their outreaches.”

There are three organisations providing services to the women – Basis, the Joanna Project, and Teen Challenge – but only Basis gets funding from Leeds City Council. One of the Basis trustees, Dr Kate Brown, an academic at the University of York, wrote the paper that convinced Leeds City Council to adopt the zone in the first place.

Local residents are exasperated with the service – or lack of service – that Basis provides. Originally when they found prostituted women on the streets in distress, they’d contact Basis and ask them to provide help. But it seemed that Basis could offer little more than tea and condoms, which in the context of the depth and complexity of these women’s problems, is no real help. So now residents call Forward Leeds, the Leeds City Council addiction services, who have been brilliant.

Basis are pushing a political agenda – the full decriminalisation of the entire sex trade – and it seems that’s what they’re really concerned with and somehow they’ve lost focus on the welfare of the women.

Some residents are angry that Basis, an organisation that promotes the idea that a blow job is just a regular job, has the contract from Leeds City Council to provide services to girls in the area who’ve been affected by child sexual exploitation (CSE). How can an organisation with such attitudes help girls who most likely have already been forced to give blow jobs to adult men? Why would that suddenly become a job on their 18th birthday?

“So what do you think the solution is?” Adam, one of the businessmen asks.

“The Nordic Model, as they implemented it in Ipswich,” Claire replies without a moment’s hesitation.

Adam looks at her. “You’ll never stop men buying sex. It’s been going on for centuries.” He thinks the women’s problems are similar to those of the homeless male drug addicts in the city centre. “It’s all caused by adverse childhood events,” he says. I wonder if he’s considered the key difference – that the homeless men are not enduring being raped several times a day, every day, or else risking something worse from their pimps.

Adam expresses surprise that Claire and Matthew are so calm, knowledgeable and intelligent because he’d heard something very different from those who promote the scheme – that all the SOE members are vigilantes and NIMBY-ists.

“But no one should have this on their doorstep,” Matthew said. “This is not a reasonable environment for anyone to raise a family in.”

We walk on and I talk to one of the Conservative councillors. “It’s totally unacceptable that men should be allowed to buy sex like this,” he says. I agree and tell him how research shows that when men see there’s a genuine risk of being caught, they do change their behaviour.

It was starting to get dark now and we’d reached the zone. We walk past several women. Lovely young women standing alone on bleak, isolated corners. Some have a man – probably her pimp – hovering nearby.

“These are Romanian women, almost certainly trafficked,” Sarah says. “The official line is that there aren’t any Romanian women out here any more. But you can see them for yourselves and the punters discuss them on their forums. Their pimps are the most ruthless of all and won’t let any of the British women on this stretch.”

A car with three men inside pulls up beside one of the Romanian women. She refuses to get in and the car zooms off. Perhaps seeing us on the other side of the road made them decide not to push their luck.

The cars are nearly nose to tail now, mostly with just one lone male driver, but some with two or even three or more – the latter with their windows open so we can hear their jeers.

We walk on. Ahead of us is Holbeck House – a probation hostel for dangerous male offenders out on license from prison. We see the men chatting on the patio. Across the road is a car park where a man and a woman can be clearly seen engaging in sexual activity.

We look aghast. “There’s a hostel for sex offenders in the middle of the zone?”

Sarah nods. She tells us that one of the hostel residents was recently linked to a series of attacks on women in the area, one a woman engaged in prostitution, the others local residents.

What kind of message are these men receiving? Men, who we would hope are learning about respect for women and the meaning of consent. What message are they getting when they see well-heeled men in swanky cars buying the consent of these vulnerable and often drug addled women? What is Leeds City Council thinking?

A bit further on there’s another men’s hostel run by St George’s Crypt. It’s a ‘wet hostel’ which means the men are allowed to drink. And they do. They tend to sit around on the paths and wasteland drinking all day – and the women sit with them.

“I understand that if you’re in that life,” Sarah says, “that numbing yourself with one substance or another is probably the only way you can get through the day. But it doesn’t help the women move on, having these men hanging around drinking like that. It keeps them stuck. And of course the men use and abuse the women too.”

One of the bizarre things is that there’s not meant to be any sexual activity in the zone itself. That goes against the rules. So if the punter’s in a car, after she gets in he drives off to a car park or other secluded place, often closer to the residential area. If he’s on foot, they look for a quiet spot nearby – like the alleyway at the start that children go down on their way to school. That’s why the zone affects a much wider area than just the designated streets.

Not long ago, a retired woman heard scuffling at her front door. When she opened it, she found a couple having sex on her doorstep. It’s incidents like this that have led local residents to ask British Telecom to remove a phone box because of the sexual activity that takes place inside it in view of local children. And just as the activity is not confined to the zone, it’s not confined to the designated hours either. Kerb crawlers are out 24/7, which of course impacts every single woman in the area.

Leeds also has a booming indoor sex trade – most of which operates in plain sight of the police. But today we’re focusing on the zone and we hear how the City Council is throwing vast sums of money at it: the seven day cleaning schedule; the money for Basis; four extra dedicated police officers; a data specialist to keep track of activity and the street cleaning stats.

Local residents seldom see police in the zone, in spite of the promised extra ones. But they’re expecting to see more soon because an official evaluation has just started – and it’s clear that Leeds City Council is desperate for the scheme to be judged a success.

Apparently the police have recently arrested several of the more troublesome women, and there are rumours that some have been sentenced to three months in prison, which might conveniently coincide with the length of the review.

Quite a number of the women have had ASBOs* or cautions for breaking the rules, and if they breach the stringent conditions that are often attached to the ASBOs or are caught soliciting outside the zone, the police can arrest them. Generally they get a fine but if they’ve been caught several times, they might get a short prison sentence.

We know that fining women in this situation inevitably traps them in prostitution. How are they supposed to pay the fines if they don’t go back on the street? And short prison sentences compound their problems as they generally come out with nothing and lose their housing. And a criminal record makes it harder, if not impossible, to ever get another job.

As to their troublesome behaviour, they have been failed over and over and over – by society, by men, by the pimps. With even a modicum of empathy and dispassion, it is easy to see that they are trapped in a living hell. Of course they are troublesome.

This is why the Nordic Model centres their welfare, repeals all the laws that target them and puts high-quality, non-judgemental, holistic services in place to help them rebuild their lives away from prostitution.

The ‘managed approach’ may sound great on paper – why should the state intervene in adults having consensual sex? Except it’s not consensual sex when women are coerced by pimps (whatever you call them), extreme poverty, a terrible drug habit, or a lack of alternatives. In fact can sex ever be considered consensual when money changes hands?

Clearly the ‘managed approach’ is not decriminalising the women in practice.

But what about the pimps? Every four weeks, Safer Leeds collates data about the zone into a report. According to the last three reports (May, June and July), there have been no arrests of pimps in the zone – but police have served 30 warnings, 10 cautions and one ASBO on prostituted women, and they have arrested 23 punters for not complying with the rules.

When the punters get arrested for breaking the rules, they have to attend the police station where they get a talking to before being released without charge. As a rule, they don’t get ASBOs, fines, or a criminal record.

To put the numbers in context, there are many times more punters using the zone than there are women engaged in prostitution. So the police target a much higher proportion of the women than the men and penalise them much more harshly.

So to suggest that the ‘managed approach’ decriminalises the women involved prostitution is misleading. It is in fact the pimps who are decriminalised along with the vast majority of the punters – even though it is the punters who drive the whole shebang.

If there were no punters, there would be no prostitution, and there would be no pimps. And that is exactly why the Nordic Model approach makes buying sex per se a criminal offence – not because we want to fill the jails with men, but because we want men to change their behaviour. And as I explained to the Conservative councillor, there is strong evidence that men do change their behaviour when they know there’s a real risk they’ll be caught.

We continue onwards, passing several businesses that have recently closed. People stopped coming to the area, because of its reputation – so the people who ran these businesses retired early. We hear about a local dressmaker who’s also struggling, because women don’t want to come for a fitting once they realise where she is. I think of the cab driver’s face when I told him I was coming to Holbeck. “It affects local residents too, when they apply for jobs and what have you,” Claire says.

I ask who in the controlling Labour group on the City Council is pushing the scheme. No one seems to know. The councillors in the local ward were elected on a ticket of opposing the scheme, but once in office they changed their tune. When the opposition Conservative group forced a debate at Leeds Civic Hall in October 2018, those same councillors spoke and voted in favour of the scheme.

Other women I’ve talked to in Leeds have told me they know some women Labour councillors who have said privately and in confidence that they oppose the zone but they too never say anything against it in public and voted for it in the debate.

“I put it down to Basis,” says Sarah. “They’ve brainwashed them all.”

I think of all the money the City Council is pouring into the scheme and all they could achieve with that money. They could invest it in zero tolerance of the kerb crawlers, using CCTV and number plate recognition technology like they did in Ipswich, and real services for the women, helping them rebuild their lives – as they’re crying out for. And they could go after the pimps and the traffickers.

This is what they did in Ipswich – where they were successful in eradicating street prostitution in the town and helping the women out. An independent evaluation found that not only were they successful in these aims but also that the money was well spent. In fact every pound spent on the scheme saved the public two pounds, because there were lower criminal justice and social services costs.

The residents of Holbeck don’t deserve this mayhem in their midst and nor do the women who are directly caught up in it. Holbeck has so much to offer – a close-knit community, parks and green spaces, some lovely historic buildings, and it’s close to the centre. But instead of being a great place to live, it’s a magnet for creepy men from all over the Midlands and the North of England.

There’s official denial about the distances punters travel to come to the zone. The police claim they’re all local men. But the women tell a different story, as do the punter forums where men boast about making regular trips from as far away as Birmingham and even Hampshire.

As we say goodbye, Matthew says, “It’s not safe here for women. Not for the prostituted women and not for the local women. It’s not safe for them to go out at night alone. How can that be right? How can the council think it’s right for men to prey on women like this?”

“And it hurts seeing so many women suffering so terribly,” Claire says. “We want Leeds to show it loves its women.”

Some names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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Further reading

* ASBOs have been replaced with criminal behaviour orders but we have referred to them as ASBOs because that’s how they are typically known.

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