Another stitch-up for women in Leeds

“I’ve never felt so unsafe in my life,” Jackie said. “I was staying in a hotel and the first evening I was restless so I thought I’d go for a stroll before bed. I didn’t know the area, so I just started walking fairly randomly.

“When I was some way from the hotel, the cars passing me kept slowing down when they came close, the drivers peering at me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I realised I was being sized up. At first, I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t wearing any jewellery and had nothing worth stealing.

But then a couple of guys approached me on foot. They’d clearly been drinking. I could smell the alcohol on their breaths. One of them said, ‘Alright darling. How much then?’ And then I realised what was going on.

“It was dark, the nearby buildings were all abandoned and there was no one else around. Literally I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in all my life.”

Jackie had stumbled into the decriminalised red-light zone in Holbeck, a down-at-heel area just south of Leeds City Centre, which is euphemistically referred to as the ‘Managed Approach’ by Leeds officialdom and as the unmanaged approach by locals.

I told Jackie that a so-called ‘Independent Review’ into the zone commissioned by Leeds City Council had just published its report and had declared it a resounding success.

“A resounding success? How could they?” she said. “That’s appalling.” She was quiet for a moment. “I can’t imagine how angry the women who live and work round there must feel. What a slap in the face for them.”

The report noted that women and parents of children have grave concerns about safety. The reviewers seemed bemused by this and didn’t appear to recognise it as a real and significant problem but rather viewed it as an issue of perception – because their only recommendation for resolving it was a grotesque public relations stunt – the hosting of a ‘We love and respect Holbeck’ month.

Another key recommendation was that the local community should ‘share responsibility’ for the scheme. However, it was imposed by Leeds City Council on the community without its consent, and residents have been vocally campaigning against it for years.

When I asked local resident, Jenny,* what she thought about this, she exploded, “They want us to take shared responsibility for organised crime!”

She said that most of the women have pimps – you can often see them lurking nearby. And there are many Romanian women who are clearly human trafficking victims – and whose traffickers are utterly ruthless.

“How dare the reviewers suggest that we share responsibility for this? How dare they?”

Sam,* another local resident, told me there was evidence of men bringing a van-full of Romanian women to the zone of an evening, and coming back in the small hours to pick them up again – with one or two male minders standing nearby to ensure they didn’t escape.

Although the rules of the zone state that “trafficking, organised crime and coercion will at no time be tolerated,” in practice they are tolerated and allowed to thrive – while simultaneously their existence is denied by officialdom.

The academic experts in criminology from Huddersfield University, who conducted the review, failed to even register this reality, let alone investigate it with any sort of rigour, revealing a complacency that borders on negligence.

Like all public bodies, Leeds City Council is required under the Public Sector Equality Duty to consider the impact of their policies on certain disadvantaged groups (known as people with protected characteristics). They must also consider the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment against those groups, to advance equality of opportunity, and to foster good relations between individuals in those groups and everyone else.

Prostitution is an extreme gendered phenomenon. Although some men are involved in prostitution, in Holbeck men don’t, as a rule, solicit on the streets – only women do – and all of the prostitution buyers are male. This means that the impact of prostitution on women and girls is significantly different from men and boys. Similarly, the impact on children and young people is different than for older people. There’s also a racist dimension to prostitution.

Research has shown that prostitution feeds men’s entitlement and contempt for women – exactly the attitudes associated with men raping, harassing and sexually abusing women and girls – so of course, these attitudes and behaviours proliferate when prostitution is tolerated.

When formulating and evaluating policy around prostitution, Leeds City Council therefore has a legal obligation to consider the impact on women, children and racialised groups, to consider how to correct their historic inequality, and at the very least to ensure that the policy doesn’t make things worse. Clearly it has abjectly failed to do this.

The report didn’t give any serious consideration to the devastating impact on the women who are trapped in on-street prostitution by pimps, traffickers, extreme poverty, drug habits, and the very existence of the zone, nor the impact on the women in the local community who are menaced by creepy men sizing them up as commodities, nor the impact on relations between women and men, and between adults and children more generally.

The ‘Independent Review’ has been trumpeted widely as proof that the ‘Managed Approach’ is a success. But many of its headline claims are simply not backed up by compelling evidence.

For example, the report claims that the “health and safety of on-street sex workers has been greatly improved,” and that the prevalence of on-street prostitution and its impact on residents have both reduced. But when you read the small print you find no robust evidence whatsoever to support these claims and considerable evidence that points to the opposite conclusions.

Perhaps the most bizarre claim is that a “systematic review of the research literature and conducting of a survey of police forces in England and Wales, did not identify any more effective interventions or ways of reducing the problems associated with on-street sex work within the parameters of existing UK law.”

This is doublethink. Leeds spends at least £200,000 of public money every year to maintain the ‘Managed Approach’ even though it’s a magnet for human traffickers, drug dealers who double as pimps, and cruel men from all over the north of England who come in droves to exploit, and sexually use and abuse some of our most vulnerable and traumatised women, casualties of our brutal and systemically unequal society. And while they are at it, these men relentlessly harass and terrorize the women who live and work there.

This is not effective use of public money and is misapplication of the law. The English law is far from perfect but it does have offences of human trafficking, modern slavery, pimping, and kerb crawling – none of which are rigorously enforced in the Holbeck zone.

More women involved in prostitution have been served with ASBO-type orders, cautions and even prison sentences in Holbeck than kerb crawlers, perhaps more even than kerb crawlers, pimps and traffickers combined. While the ‘Managed Approach’ claims not to target the women, in practice that’s where most police enforcement is directed, while the men without whom this mayhem would not exist have impunity.

In summary, far from being a success, the ‘Managed Approach’ is a misogynistic sticking plaster over a cancerous lesion of male violence, organised crime, exploitation, and female suffering.

Would it not be a better, more ethical and humane use of public resources to instead use the CCTV cameras along with number plate recognition technology to crack down on the kerb crawlers, to plough resources into helping the women kick their drug habits and to find genuine routes out and alternative sources of income, and to introduce zero tolerance for pimping and human trafficking? All of this can be done within the constraints of the English law as Ipswich has clearly demonstrated.

Leeds City Council and Huddersfield University should hang their heads in shame.

* Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

This article was first published on 20 July 2020 in the Morning Star.

Further reading

Leave a Reply