How living near the Holbeck red-light zone turned us into activists against the sex trade

This is an edited transcript of Paula and Claire’s talk at the Experience of Prostitution webinar on Sunday 27 September 2020.

Paula and Claire are campaigners against the decriminalised red-light zone in the Holbeck area of Leeds. They are part of the Save Our Eyes community group.

Paula: Hello everyone. I am Paula from Save Our Eyes – which started as an offshoot of the ‘Save Our Beeston’ community group – Beeston being a neighbourhood next to Holbeck – so the name ‘Save Our Eyes’ was a play on that, while referring to what residents see every day.

Every day residents are confronted with evidence of street prostitution – used tampons, condoms and drug syringes – all discarded in the street. And every day we see women suffering. It’s all there for everyone to see, including children.

What is the managed approach?

There is some confusion about what exactly is the ‘managed approach.’ It is actually the Leeds-wide prostitution policy that covers the whole city. It’s meant to be about compassion to women, which of course we support.

But then they also put in what became the very controversial part of the policy, which is a dedicated area or zone for prostitution. It’s in a physical location, in Holbeck, a small part of the city. It’s specifically for street prostitution. There are no indoor facilities. There are no toilets or anything else.

The council don’t actually own the land. It’s owned by other people. But the council owns the road, and the prostitution is supposed to be kept to the roads.

Are exited women shouting in the forest?

We want to say what an honour it is to on the same bill as our hero, Rebecca Mott. Rebecca has inspired and informed our work for the last two and a half years or more.

The heading is, ‘Are exited women shouting in the forest?’ because I used to read Rebecca’s blog and you could tell that she was crying when she wrote it. It was as if she were saying, “Does anybody care what I’m saying? Does anybody listen to me, as someone who has survived this industry?” I used to leave her little comments, saying, Rebecca, we’re listening – we’re Save Our Eyes in Leeds.

And the other person who inspired and informed us at the start was Jalna Hanmer, who happens to live near us in Leeds. She got in touch with us when we first came to media attention. And it was Jalna who helped us see the other side of the story.

Two opposing arguments

There are two opposing arguments about prostitution which Linda Thompson mentioned. In fact, neither of us have ever seen anything by Linda until today. But surprise, surprise, after months and months of investigation, we’ve actually come to a similar point of view – completely independently.

The two opposing arguments can be summarised like this:

  1. The women choose to do sex work to supplement their income or replace missing benefits. Very few are drug users. We should all be empathetic to their wishes and help them work more safely. The punters are lonely single men who pay for a professional service.
  2. The women are victims of abuse (often from childhood) leading to long-term mental health and addiction problems which trap them in prostitution. The punters are men who pay to physically and mentally abuse them because their partners would never allow themselves to be treated like that.

When we started looking at the subject of street prostitution, we were very quickly informed by what I call the powers that be, of their view. They are educators. They taught us that the women choose to do sex work and it’s all the government’s fault. It’s to do with Universal Credit. We were told that before Universal Credit had actually been launched in Leeds.

We were told that very few of the women involved are drug users. We were told that we should be more empathetic – they said that we were very mean, us residents – and they said we should be more sympathetic to the women’s wishes and help them work more safely. We were told that the punters were these sweet, lonely single men who are paying for a service, pretty much like going to the barbers.

Any resident who deviated from that point of view was quickly shamed and told that they were mean, uncaring, and unsympathetic.

But then we started digging a little bit deeper… It’s easy to just accept the first argument you hear and not look any closer. But when we did start to look closer, we found things that we couldn’t reconcile – things that we saw that did not fit with what we were being told. Things like the suffering of the women and hearing them crying that they hated their lives and they hated their job. Those things couldn’t be reconciled with the first model.

We then discovered that there was another way of viewing this – which is that the women are pretty much forced into prostitution, often from childhood or their teenage years, and that most of them have addiction and mental health problems and are effectively trapped.

We also discovered that the punters are not these sweet, lonely single men. They were actually – I am sorry, I’m going to say it – perverts. I’m sorry… If you’re a punter… Yeah.

They pay to physically and mentally abuse the women. No way can it be compared to going to the barbers. No way.

And we discovered that many of the men are actually married or have got partners who don’t know that they are visiting prostituted women.

We want to make it clear that there are a small number of women engaged in sex work in Leeds, who are in Category 1. But what we’re talking about is the women who are prostituted on the streets of Holbeck – and they are really in a much more difficult position. They are in Category 2.

The primary reason driving prostitution in Holbeck and nationally is actually that there is a high demand from men for the sale and purchase of sex and it is all part of commercial sexual exploitation.

What do victims have in common?

We found a list of what women involved in prostitution typically have in common on the NHS Glasgow website. This is what it says:

  • Childhood neglect and familial domestic abuse.
  • Direct emotional, physical and sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse.
  • Experience of statutory residential care.
  • Early entry into homelessness services.
  • Experience of addiction to substances by self and/or carer/partner.
  • Experience of domestic abuse by partner.
  • Poverty and financial pressures are also contributory factors.

We’ve interviewed many of the women on the streets of Holbeck. We’ve also been fortunate to work with women who have exited street prostitution in Holbeck. They corroborated what we found on the NHS Glasgow website – that they’d experienced abuse in their past, including child abuse.

One very brave woman, called Jenni, who we worked with for a long time, said that in talking to the others she had not discovered a single one who hadn’t suffered sexual abuse as a child or in their teenage years.

Some are homeless. Some ended up moving out of their home onto the streets because their addictions were so out of control, that was the only way to fund it.

Basically, they had fallen off the bottom of the ladder of life.

We came to see that prostitution, rather than being a choice freely made, is survival behaviour. We also came to believe that it could not be described as work. We could not find any women we could legitimately describe as undertaking it as ordinary employment.

Not fringe views

We want to make it clear that the views that we’ve come to, which you could describe as abolitionist, are not fringe views.

For example, Manfred Paul, a senior police investigator in Germany said:

“What we call freedom here is a total lack of freedom for countless women – this is sex slavery.”

To my surprise, Pope Francis, speaking to the United Nations in 2015, said something similar:

“… human trafficking and its related systems of exploitation, such as prostitution […] and forced labour are crimes against humanity, as they violate the dignity and the integrity of the human person. These crimes must be recognised and penalised as such to be definitely, and as soon as possible, eradicated from the face of the earth.”

We are not a religious organisation. There’s nothing to do with religion at Save Our Eyes, but it is interesting that even the Pope says that it is a crime against humanity.

What’s going on in Leeds?

Claire: I am going to explain from a resident’s point of view the experience of the migration of street prostitution across south Leeds.

It’s quite often claimed that street prostitution has been in south Leeds for all of history. And although there are pockets of Holbeck and Hunslet where street prostitution and brothel houses have been present for many years, the problems that inspired the managed approach weren’t prevalent in this area 20 years ago.

The majority of street prostitution in Leeds was then based around a park in the north of Leeds. But because of the problems it caused, community leaders there joined forces about 20 years ago to eradicate it from that area. They were ultimately successful but it then popped up again in the centre of Leeds, around the Corn Exchange.

As Leeds slowly redeveloped over the following decade, the street prostitution that had been in the dark car parks around the Corn Exchange started to migrate south along the river. Then it crossed over the river into industrial Holbeck. When the financial crash happened, the area was left fallow for quite a long time and street prostitution was able to embed itself there.

But then development projects started up again and Holbeck Urban Village and Bridgewater Place were built – meaning the street prostitution industry was pushed into a smaller area and, as street lighting improved and security cameras went up, punters wanted to go to the more dark and desolate places. So there was a natural migration through industrial Holbeck – except that the next area you come to after that is the residential area of Holbeck, which you can see on this map if you look below the blue circle. The dense terraced houses make up the residential area of Holbeck.

The blue line designates the managed approach zone. Within that there are a lot of businesses that are mainly running during the day – although some have deliveries through the night. It is an industrial zone and it never completely closes down. The companies and businesses in that area have had to learn to live with street prostitution and the detritus that is left behind.

Once the managed approach zone began, it legitimised street prostitution and commoditised the women and we went from approximately 40 prostituted women in Holbeck in 2014, when it started, to what we have now which is about 140 prostituted women.

As a result, the designated zone became too small to accommodate so many punters coming into the area and the yellow pins on this map denote where sex and drug litter has been found. Punters pick women up within the blue circle of the zone but are not able to find anywhere to actually complete their transaction and therefore travel into residential areas to actually have sex, in front of people’s houses, in parks, cemeteries, all over the place. Therefore, the community were not only witnessing sexual and violent acts towards the women, but also in the morning taking our children to school, we were having to step over used condoms and needles.

In 2017 there was a real flashpoint where we saw women falling into moving traffic in the mornings and it seemed that the drug use changed. We were having to pick women up from the roadside and phone charities and phone the police and try and get things sorted out for them.

The yellow pins on the map give an indication as to how far street prostitution has proliferated outside the managed approach zone.

Back to back terraced housing in Holbeck, Leeds

Paula: And just to point out as well that it is a relatively impoverished area and these houses are largely back to backs [meaning they have no front or back gardens] – so the children don’t have anywhere to play other than the parks. But because of the drug litter and the needles in the parks, the parents can’t let them out on their own. They have to go and check the children’s play areas first.

The rules of the managed approach zone

The rules of the managed approach zone are:

  • No offences will be tolerated at any time within residential areas;
  • No offences will be tolerated between 6 am and 8 pm;
  • No offences will be tolerated outside businesses which are operating;
  • Business premises will be respected and litter disposed of responsibly;
  • Drug use, trafficking, organised crime and coercion will at no time be tolerated;
  • Crime, public order and anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated;
  • Indecency will not be tolerated at any time.

On paper it looks like something that could have worked – but in practice it doesn’t work because the drug addiction rates are so high that the women can’t get it down into the opening hours.

It has been impossible to keep it under control, either in the designated area or the hours it’s supposed to be. There’s no aspect of it that really works now.

We have many photos on our website showing what it’s like. For example there’s one of a woman walking out in among the traffic at the roundabout near St Mathews church in the centre of the residential area. Sometimes they jump out and sometimes they even try and get into the cars as they pull up at the roundabout – because they are so desperate for money to buy their next lot of drugs.

How the Holbeck red-light zone affects local residents

Two men followed a 12-year old girl wearing her school uniform as she was on her way to school. They followed her under the bridge and then asked her whether she was working.

You would be shocked to know the number of schoolgirls who are approached. And quite young children too. The youngest on record is actually a grandmother who was asked to hand over her four-month old grandchild to a punter.

Just two weeks ago, a 14-year old boy was propositioned when he was going to the corner shop, which is in the centre of the residential part of Holbeck, a good way outside the zone. A mum asks her son to go and get some milk and he’s stopped and offered sex for a fiver.

One of the most shocking incidents that really spurred the residents into action happened when a resident in the Balms (which are quite close to the zone) took his dog for a late evening walk with his 15-year old son. He walked past a punter and a prostituted woman having sex on the floor of a fire escape near his house. When he asked them to move, she threatened to cut his throat, kill his dog and children, and rape his wife. Apparently he was the pervert for shining his torch on them. When he got back to his house, she was outside and said she’d smash his windows in and burn his house down.

For the last nearly 18 months we’ve had a ‘punter of the week’ series on our website, each with a photo or video a local resident took on their phone. One shot on a residential street was of a man having a blow job in his car outside children’s bedroom windows in the early evening. So they’re not finding discreet locations.

Another one was outside the primary school. Literally. The woman who took it had just walked to the school to collect her child and this punter is in his car having sex with a woman at 3.10 in the afternoon.

It’s entitlement. It’s legitimised by the idea that they can do whatever they want to whatever woman they can find. If you’re an average Holbeck resident, like Claire is, you get kerb crawled when you’re walking your kids to school at 9.30 in the morning. If you’re a woman and you’re out in the streets, you’re fair game.

They kerb crawl all women, of all ages. Men also face abuse when declining offers of sex and that can actually be quite scary. You can read an account by a man called John on our blog who was followed by a whole troop of people for turning down an offer of sex.

We have many accounts on our website of the general abuse that residents face. We’ve spent three years gathering accounts from the children and women of Holbeck.

Sex and drug paraphernalia

The condoms come in various colours – the blue and yellow ones look like balloons. You can imagine the look on the mothers’ faces when their children pick them up – as they do – and say, what is this, Mummy?

There are hundreds and hundreds of them but the sex industry advocates try to minimise that and tell people that it’s not true that there are so many. They say the photos on our website show multiple images of the same condoms and needles taken from different angles.

But that’s not true. Bill, who is one of our committee members, used freedom of information requests to find out what the council themselves were collecting from the vicinity. And the numbers are huge – about a thousand items a month.

This image shows stats from last year. You can see there were loads in the residential areas, littering the streets. Holbeck Working Men’s Club is not even in the zone and there were 28 items found there in a three-month period and there were 112 at the doctors’ surgery – which is at Beeston Hill, a mile away.


We see a lot of abuse and as Linda was saying, there’s a lot of silencing – of both the women who have exited and of residents who have witnessed anything. It’s as if any truth must be silenced.

For example, Charles Hymas, the Home Affairs Editor at The Daily Telegraph, travelled to Leeds to interview Jenni, and he posted an article on Twitter about a teacher seeking refuge from domestic violence who says she was raped after being mistaken for a prostitute in Holbeck. He got replies claiming it was a “hoax” and that it was “just anti-sex work propaganda.”

One of the residents witnessed Romanian women who have been trafficked to the United Kingdom pimped in a house in her street. If you look at the online punter forums, you’ll see references to the ‘roms.’ These are Romanian women – the punters know they are trafficked slaves.

Claire: They are actually being kept in houses around Hobeck. So, the Holbeck on-street industry pulls the punters to the area and then they are redirected to indoor brothels, as well as being able to purchase women directly from the streets. A lot of houses in the Holbeck area have been rented by traffickers and pimps to be used as indoor brothels.

Paula: You’ve got the English women and then you’ve got what are now mainly Romanians and they really are trafficked slaves. They’re held in custody and they’re brought into the zone in a minibus.

The very brave Jenni taught us so much about what was really going on behind the scenes. We did an interview with her a couple of years ago and she reckoned that there were around 40 to 50 trafficked migrant women – out of the 140 women altogether.

What aspects of the zone have been successful?

Some aspects of the policy have been successful. We’re not saying that the whole policy is a disaster. There are positive aspects – like women are more willing to report crimes and they’ve got to know the police better. There are better relationships between the police and the women. Women are more willing to engage with support and health services.

The dedicated street cleansing team has been a huge success with the community. We’ve also had better communication between the residents and the police since Save Our Eyes started, and that led to the creation of the Voice of Holbeck.

But despite this, the residents and the businesses feel that the managed approach has not worked. Some of the businesses in the zone have to let their female staff go home at 4pm in the winter so they don’t have to go to the bus stop alone in the dark.

Why didn’t the Leeds Managed Approach work?

When thinking about why the approach didn’t work, you have to think about the beliefs of those who promoted the zone at the beginning. These beliefs included that most of the women were not on drugs. They clearly underestimated the addiction rates. According to Jenni, addiction rates are at 100% and one of the agencies has corroborated that. There are three different agencies dedicated to working with the women in the zone and one of them reckons that there is a 100% addiction rate.

Because of the level of drug abuse, which is often out of control, the women can’t stick to the agreed hours. So, it might have sounded like a great idea, but it doesn’t work for the actual cohort of women that the zone applies to.

There are some that abide by the rules, like Jenni did. But those women are still drawing in punters from up to 100 miles away – so it caused a huge rise in on-street prostitution in the Leeds area.

We can’t contain the hours, we can’t contain the area, and we can’t contain the punters – who are both in cars and on foot.

Then there was a sex work advocacy charity housing women in the area. The women are given a house. Their pimp moves in and then they’re forced to work 24 hours a day. One of our residents was next to a property like that. So that policy backfired. Instead of setting her free, the house trapped her.

The zone has been portrayed as ‘legal’ in the UK media, which it’s not. They underestimated the demand and how far men would come and they underestimated the number of women who would be drawn from neighbouring cities and be trafficked to fill that increased demand.

Claire: This is evidenced by the fact that in 2014 when the managed approach started, there were approximately 40 women involved in street prostitution in Holbeck and now there are 140. So the numbers have tripled.

Paula: And 140 are what we know about because the trafficked women are never allowed to engage with the agencies – so they are pretty hidden.

What do Holbeck residents want?

Save Our Eyes represents about 500 families in the area and our members are clear what they want. They want: an exit strategy for the zone with an end date set so that it can be planned; a ban on kerb crawling and punters on foot because they present a huge risk to the women and children of Holbeck; and help for the women. They’re not asking for the women to be criminalised or anything like that – we do see them as victims – they desperately need addiction services.

One of the things that Jenni said that I’ll never forget is that “there isn’t a woman working in Holbeck who wouldn’t take off her right arm for a place in rehab.” And in fact, Jenni’s only way out was through rehab.

And finally, we want the truth to be told – not hushed up. We shouldn’t be silenced in the media. We shouldn’t be made out to be unsympathetic. We are sympathetic. And it’s because we’re sympathetic that we want justice for all the women of Holbeck not just a few.

The mystery of the missing attempted murders…

There’s a mystery about some attempted murders that are missing from the official data and therefore from the data reported in the media. We know that there were three attempted murders in the summer of 2018. We put in a freedom of information request about how many murders and attempted murders had been reported between January 2014 and August 2019. The response was that there had been only one murder and no attempted murders. The murder was the well-known case of poor Daria Pionko who was murdered by a punter in December 2015 when the managed approach was still a trial.

So the three attempted murders the previous summer have all somehow disappeared from the official record. You have to ask why?

The pandemic changed everything

Claire: So I’m going to just say a bit about what happened during lockdown – because I believe it was a unique opportunity for us to really press the pause button on what was happening in Holbeck – both for the residents and for the women trapped in the managed approach. It was a gift really – not COVID obviously – but the opportunity it gave us to press pause on the managed approach.

As lockdown happened, Leeds City Council issued a press release saying that men were no longer welcome to visit the zone. Because of the risks and social distancing, it would not be safe for the women or the punters.

For the first month of lockdown especially, the men didn’t come to Holbeck at all, which was partly due to the fact that a lot of their businesses were shut down so they didn’t have an excuse to sneak away from their homes and visit Holbeck. But I think also people genuinely had a sense of the need for safety.

A lot of the women without accommodation were offered temporary accommodation and there was also wrap-around care and rehabilitation on offer to keep them from going out on the streets to earn drug money. So, there was extra intervention put in place for them.

After lockdown lifted, a lot of women that we know well returned to the streets looking quite obviously much, much, healthier. They looked like they’d had sleep and food and rehabilitation during that time.

Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to the main addiction charity in Leeds who reported that they saw an uptick in women signing up to their services and interventions. As a result, several of the prostituted women in Holbeck were able to make the choice to walk away from street prostitution once and for all.

During the time of lockdown, the community felt much safer – because we didn’t have punters constantly circling the streets.

So we had the unique opportunity to see what would happen if street prostitution was paused in Holbeck. The evidence to me personally was that a lack of punters inspired the women to take up a lot more of the services that were offered to them and that resulted in some of them choosing to exit. And simultaneously we had a community that felt safer.

How dangerous would it be to have Nordic Model approach in Leeds?

What we essentially saw during lockdown was the Nordic Model approach within Holbeck. We asked for that policy to be extended because we felt that it had been very beneficial for the women who were able to accept more help and those that were able to exit. But it was also beneficial because the community felt safer, and there was less litter and all of those things.

Unfortunately, since lockdown has lifted, the men have flowed back, more desperate than ever, and residents are back to being kerb crawled regularly. Unfortunately, the women who appeared on the streets after lockdown looking much healthier are already looking less healthy and their demeanour has declined – because of the level of demand from men returning to Holbeck.

We’ve asked Leeds City Council to reissue their press release telling men they must not come to Holbeck and reminding them that the managed approach has not been reinstated because social distancing rules mean that it is still unsafe for women to mix with men from all over Yorkshire who might potentially be bringing COVID.

In fact, we were locked down again from last Friday evening, but there were still men buying women in the area. Men who’ve come from all over who might be bringing COVID to the vulnerable women in our community.

That encapsulates what I feel was a really good opportunity to look at how the Nordic Model approach would benefit Holbeck if we stopped punters coming in and we gave the women proper help.

Paula: We’ve recently had an independent review – you can find more about that on our website – and last night I was just reading our response to it. The last point we made bears repeating:

“We have witnessed the harmful effects of prostitution on the women who live immersed in it. We believe that prostitution is not like other jobs and can never be made safe.

The demand from male sex buyers must be addressed by tackling this issue in schools from the teenage years upwards. Paying to abuse a woman should not be seen as normal or as something she enjoys.

We have noticed that punters on online forums often have distorted beliefs about the women they buy, such as, ‘She must be a sex addict,’ or ‘She does it for fun,’ or ‘I’m showing her a good time.’

Tackling misconceptions about sex work is essential for British society to gradually move on from it.”

Finally, here is an artwork of Claire’s. When we have charities going out and supplying women with the tools of the masters’ trade, who are they to call us uncompassionate?

Further reading

How a Nordic Model approach to tackling prostitution was implemented in Ipswich

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