Leeds has made headlines this week after it was announced that a pioneering scheme to address Holbeck’s sex work problems with a ‘managed area’ will become a permanent fixture. The scheme, which was quietly launched as a 12-month pilot in 2014, permits sex workers in Leeds’ red light district to work in a designated area between 7pm and 7am without fear of harassment from police, and has recently been hailed as a success by Leeds City Council members and police chiefs.
A quick Twitter search reveals that the news is not being welcomed by all. Many are suffering a knee-jerk reaction that could be best summed up as disgust, or in the preferred word of the Daily Mail, ‘outrage’, based on an uninformed and judgemental attitude to sex work. Of course the scheme is not without its problems; local business owners have been reported as complaining that there have been instances of outdoor sex, public drug use, and employees being solicited on their way to and from work. Obviously this is not a pleasant environment to be in, but I would argue that the new scheme is not to blame for these issues, and actually has the potential to reduce them if there is a consistent presence of police who sex workers feel are working with them rather than against them.
Let’s be pragmatic for a second. Prostitution is known as ‘the oldest profession in the world’; it has existed since the beginning of recorded history and probably always will, unless they’re rendered obsolete by those creepy new sex robots. Whether you personally would be a sex worker, whether you would hire one, whether you support it morally, is irrelevant – the fact is that it happens, whether it’s legal or not. We can’t stop it, but what we can do is make sure that it’s as safe as possible for the workers and has the smallest possible negative impact on local residents. Police have admitted that the hard line approach of imposing fines and anti-social behaviour orders on prostitutes has failed to curb the soliciting or the problems associated with it, so the only logical progression was to try something else. This is it, and it seems to be working.
Police and council chiefs claim that since the introduction of the scheme there have been fewer resident complaints (due to the managed area being set up in a more business-orientated location) and sex workers are more likely to report crimes committed against them. This isn’t about validating or turning a blind eye to crime, it’s about accepting that there’s a problem traditional methods aren’t fixing and being proactive in finding new ways to solve it. Prostitution will never be a safe profession and in an ideal world we’d do away with it completely, but in the real world where people, for whatever reason, find it necessary to turn to prostitution, enabling better communication between sex workers and police could be the best move we can make towards deterring would-be attackers and decreasing the risks.
Clearly there are flaws to be addressed – the scheme can hardly be described as a ‘success’ when sex worker Daria Pionko was murdered in the managed area less than a month ago – but the early signs seem encouraging and I’m proud to live in the city that’s pioneering the scheme. Prostitutes are an extremely at-risk group for abuse, rape and murder and we have a responsibility to do all in our power to prevent this from happening. The most vulnerable people in our society deserve to be protected without judgement or prejudice, and Leeds’ managed red light district seems to be aiding that. So instead of jumping instinctively to moral outrage, consider taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture of the potential this scheme has.