A Fragile Sanctuary: England’s ‘Legal’ Red Light District

By Francesca Roe

Leeds is a quintessential northern English city; a sprawling, red-brick place born of the Industrial Revolution, with an ornate Victorian core that gradually gives way to light industrial units and tangled motorway intersections. To walk through the city center is to be confronted by northern civic pride: the stone lions of the Town Hall looming over the traffic, the grand dome of the Corn Exchange, a center of agricultural trade, and the elaborate spires of Kirkgate Market, the largest covered market in Europe. As elsewhere in the North, these buildings were intended as a show of economic strength — Leeds was booming, and all thanks to industry.

But like so many other northern cities, Leeds experienced a painful industrial decline in the decades after World War II, suffering heavily under the government of Margaret Thatcher, whose cuts to welfare benefits and traditional industries deepened the existing rift between North and South. 

In the mid 80’s Thatcher’s government began closing coal mines throughout the North, sparking a year-long conflict and violent confrontations with police. In 1981, inner-city Leeds saw race riots that were exacerbated by unemployment. Even today, West Yorkshire towns that were once reliant upon coal mining experience high unemployment rates and deprivation. When Thatcher died in 2013, some citizens of Leeds and other northern cities threw street parties.

In my lifetime, Leeds has fought hard to shake off its post-industrial slump and re-assert itself as a vibrant, modern city. Whilst neighbouring Manchester capitalised on its music scene, Leeds re-branded itself as a shopping mecca, the “Knightsbridge of the North.” Gentrification moved apace: in the mid-noughties the ex-industrial area of Holbeck, just south of the city center, was re-imagined as an “Urban Village” complete with a craft brewery, co-working spaces and gastro-pubs. Sitting outside the brewery on a summer night, it’s easy to forget that Leeds could be, for want of a better term, a bit rough. 

Walk away from the “Urban Village” though, and that old roughness begins to show. The new builds stop abruptly, replaced with light industrial units, disused railway bridges, and, eventually, the dense knots of red-brick terraces that make up Holbeck proper. I’ve always said you could draw a line in chalk dividing the “Village” from the other Holbeck. Set foot over that line, and you’re in a different city. 

Outside the gentrified district, Holbeck remains among Leeds’s most deprived areas. A 2012 report found that whilst one in five children live in poverty across Leeds; in Holbeck, the figure was almost double in 2017. 

But there is another aspect of life in Holbeck which resists gentrification: street prostitution. Since the 90’s, Holbeck has been home to Leeds’s main red light district. Driving away from the “village” you hit the red light district within minutes. The first time you see women standing on street corners in the middle of winter, it can be jarring. The fiftieth time, not so much. 

I’ve been familiar with the red light district as long as I can remember. Growing up, we played games — the first to spot a “prozzie” wins, which one is the most attractive, which one has the best outfit. If anti-prostitution campaigners have one thing right, it’s that places like Holbeck are places where women are routinely demeaned and dehumanised — not just by punters, but also by curious onlookers. 

Not that the jokes are always malicious: it’s been argued that northern humour is distinct from that of the South, mining tragedy for comedy. A cliché, perhaps, but not entirely untruthful. I once wore a miniskirt to work and was roundly mocked: “If it doesn’t work out here, you can always get a job down Holbeck!” 

Far from holding sex workers in contempt, the joke-teller was an ex-social worker and defender of the managed zone. Dark humour, after all, is a way of negotiating unpleasant realities. But sex workers have also reported other kinds of “jokes”: abuse and objects hurled from cars, men requesting selfies, and uploading degrading phone footage onto the internet. Not everyone in Leeds is sympathetic. 

“Ultimately, it was hoped that the zone would help to restore trust between sex workers and the authorities. “

In 2014, Leeds made a bold decision — one that was unprecedented in the UK: to stop arresting sex workers and punters in Holbeck. (UK law does not explicitly forbid the exchange of sex for money, but it does prohibit the advertising of sexual services, effectively rendering street prostitution illegal.)

At the time, local police and the city council had become tired of arresting sex workers only to release and re-arrest them, deciding instead to launch a dedicated zone where women and punters could operate without fear of arrest. 

The “Managed Zone,” as it’s called, is located in the light industrial area between the Urban Village and Holbeck’s residential center. (Leeds City Council, it should be noted, is at pains to point out that Holbeck is “categorically not a legal red light zone” — after all, neither the City Council nor the police have the power to change UK law. But the decision not to arrest for kerb-crawling or soliciting, provided that these transactions take place within agreed boundaries and hours, means that sex work has effectively been decriminalized within the area, regardless.) 

Advocates hoped establishing the safe area would offer sex workers at least some measure of sanctuary; police would work more closely with sex workers to identify violent punters, and the council would work with non-profit organizations specializing in addiction, poverty, and mental health issues — obstacles faced by many working in the zone. Ultimately, it was hoped that the zone would help to restore trust between sex workers and the authorities. 

That trust has historically been in short supply. Relations between sex workers and police are rarely exemplary, but Leeds, and West Yorkshire more generally, has had a particularly troubling history when it comes to the treatment of sex workers.

Before Holbeck, Leeds’s main red light district was located north of the centre in Chapeltown. But many of the women who worked there were displaced during the 70s and 80s, during the infamous Yorkshire Ripper murders. 

Between 1975 and 1981, thirteen women were killed in Leeds and surrounding areas by a man named Peter Sutcliffe, who claimed to have heard the voice of God telling him to “clean up the streets” by killing prostitutes. At the time, harsh moral distinctions were made by the police between “innocent” victims and sex workers, who were deemed to have brought about their own demise. 

In 1979, senior detective Jim Hobson declared at a press conference that while “many people” hate prostitutes, the Ripper was “now killing innocent girls” — as if Sutcliffe had only crossed a line when he began straying out of the red light areas. 

Relationships between sex workers and police were further strained by the fact that 1970s Leeds offered no amnesty, despite the dangers. Whilst police publicly warned sex workers to stay off the streets, they continued to issue fines for prostitution even at the height of the murders, increasing the financial burden on them — many of whom were struggling to provide for their families — to go back onto the street to work off the debt. 

More recently, too, violence against sex workers in the region has raised questions about the effectiveness of a zero-tolerance approach employed in the West Yorkshire region. 

Bradford, a city lying just seven miles from Leeds, forms part of the same continuous urban zone. Between 2009 and 2010 the city, which had been quietly recovering from a devastating series of race riots in 2001, made national headlines again when three women were murdered by a man named Stephen Griffiths. 

Griffiths was a former public school boy and a postgraduate student at the University of Bradford who, disconcertingly, was reportedly researching serial murders in the city during the Industrial Revolution at the time of his arrest. He was also reportedly known to frequent the red light district and had been on the police’s radar for several years after neighbours reported that he had made threats to women in his block of flats. Police monitored Griffiths and warned female housing staff not to approach him alone, but did not have sufficient grounds to arrest him. 

In May 2010, a caretaker at the housing complex had been checking CCTV which had been installed to keep closer tabs on Griffiths, and discovered footage of him chasing a woman named Suzanne Blamires from his flat, shooting her in the head with a crossbow, and dragging her body back inside. Before calling the emergency services the caretaker contacted the newsdesk of The Sun, a popular tabloid newspaper, and sold the footage.

“For many, the zone provided a much-needed sanctuary.”

Since 2000 nine sex workers have been murdered in West Yorkshire, the vast majority in Leeds and Bradford. In 2019 West Yorkshire was named as the most violent county in the UK. Police have argued that the statistics reflected a rise in reporting rather than actual crimes, but also conceded that they were struggling to keep their heads above water financially: “We have experienced some of the worst cuts to our budgets when compared to other forces nationally,” temporary assistant Chief Constable Mark Ridley said in February, per Examiner Live.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the managed zone was ultimately introduced in Leeds, where a painful history of violence against sex workers collided with a glaring gap in police and council budgets. 

This was not an entirely new idea, however. There had long been calls for sex work decriminalisation in the region. In 1975, the year of the first Yorkshire Ripper murder, a group of sex workers founded the English Collective Of Prostitutes  — effectively a union — and demanded better treatment by police and the authorities, as well as decriminalisation. The Collective remain active today, and has been a vocal defender of the managed zone. 

After the Bradford Murders, too, there were renewed calls for the laws around prostitution to be re-examined; even the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of a party not generally known for its social liberalism, stated publicly that it was worth “looking again” at the laws around sex work (although he later backed away from the suggestion of decriminalisation). In this context, the managed zone felt like a logical step: cheaper to run than the revolving door of arrests and re-arrests, with the potential to increase women’s safety after decades of murders and violence against sex workers. 

The managed zone went into effect on the first of October 2014. The boundaries were drawn up to exclude Holbeck’s residential core, centering instead around the old industrial estates and alleys. The zone was in operation between 7pm and 7am (later changed to 8pm and 6am), and anyone conducting business outside the boundaries or hours of operation could face arrest. The scheme, initially lasting for one year, was made permanent in 2015. 

For many, the zone provided a much-needed sanctuary. Many sex workers have been vocal about its benefits: in 2019, several women appeared on UK daytime television to defend the zone to the general public. The women stated that “the girls feel a lot safer” and that police were taking a more proactive role, warning them about “problem customers” and dodgy cars. 

And Basis Yorkshire, a local charity which works with female sex workers, reported a significant increase in the willingness of sex workers to report violent attacks — from 7 per cent before the managed zone to around 50 per cent in the past two years. 

But the praise has not been unanimous. Some Holbeck residents strongly oppose the zone, complaining that the hours of operation and boundaries are not respected. With some justification, residents have asked whether the Council would ever have dared set up the zone in a more affluent area of Leeds rather than Holbeck, where there are fewer middle-class residents to kick up a fuss.There have been reports of children witnessing sex acts in residential areas, and drug paraphernalia being left in streets and playgrounds

Some women living in Holbeck have also complained of being kerb-crawled by men on their way to work, despite being outside the zone’s boundary and operating hours. Girls have reported being harassed on their way to school, and there was also a story of a local woman who reported being approached by a man who wanted to have sex with her young child. 

In 2018 a number of Holbeck residents launched a campaign group, Save Our Eyes, advocating the closure of the zone, which they claim is failing to keep women safe and negatively impacting the lives of local residents. Those who believe that the zone was failing to protect women cited devastating proof in the 2015 murder of Daria Pionko, a young woman who was working within the managed zone when she was kicked to death by a punter wearing steel-capped boots.

Of the nine murders of sex workers that have been recorded since 2000, Daria is the only woman to have been killed since the introduction of the zone. In turn, its defenders are at pains to point out that the zone cannot guarantee women’s safety, but nevertheless represents an improvement on what went before. But the killing has certainly made it harder to argue in favor of something which was sold to the public as a way to improve women’s safety. 

It is hard, too, to ignore the findings of a report authored by Dr Teela Sanders of the University of Leeds, published in September 2015 — just before Daria’s murder. The report found that women working in the zone felt that there had been a reduction in police presence after the initial trial period, “leading to less improvements in feelings about safety as fear of crime and violence remain high.” 

Sanders found that although sex workers felt that relationships with police had improved and that they were more able to report violent attacks, there were concerns about working in isolated areas at night: “Unlike some managed area models on continental Europe [the managed zone] did not include a designated safe space where women could take clients to safely do business.” 

It is not difficult to understand why the police presence in Holbeck has declined, or why the additional resources required to set up a designated safe space have not materialised. By 2016, austerity cuts enacted by the ruling Conservative party had resulted in a forty per cent budget cut for Leeds City Council. In 2018, a UN report authored by Philip Alston found that eight years of “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity had inflicted “great misery” on the UK’s citizens. As under Thatcher’s government two decades previously, the North saw the greatest cuts

“Nationally, it has become a flashpoint for bitter conflicts between those who believe that sex work should be regulated and legalized, and abolitionists who believe that sex work is inherently exploitative and unsafe for women. “

I left Leeds in 2009. When I returned in 2019, it was a different city. I didn’t remember that much homelessness, and I didn’t remember tent cities set up on the fringes of the city center. Two months ago, the central government cut Leeds City Council’s homelessness budget by more than a third. Good luck finding the spare cash for police patrols in Holbeck, or safe spaces for sex workers to do business, when the Council predicts a £30.5 million spending gap between 2019 and 2021, and West Yorkshire has reportedly lost 16 per cent of its police officers since 2010. 

Since the Brexit referendum, there are troubling signs that police are returning to a more authoritarian approach in the zone: women from the EU who have been found working in the managed zone have been detained at Yarl’s Wood, the UK’s most notorious immigrant detention center, for example. Whilst the Home Office does not comment on individual cases, the likelihood is that the women have not been able to provide payslips or bank statements to prove that they are financially eligible to remain in the UK.

Daria Pionko was a Polish national. Were she alive today, would she have felt able to report attacks to police in the face of increased immigration crackdowns? 

For now, the managed zone struggles on. Nationally, it has become a flashpoint for bitter conflicts between those who believe that sex work should be regulated and legalized, and abolitionists who believe that sex work is inherently exploitative and unsafe for women. 

After the death of Daria Pionko, the British feminist Sarah Ditum wrote that “the death of Daria Pionko shows that there is no ‘safe’ way to manage prostitution.” This is plainly true: even in Holland, where sex work is legal and working practices are regulated, women have been murdered and trafficking is far from being eradicated. But the reality is that an abolitionist approach hasn’t stopped women from being killed, either. 

Wilma McCann; Emily Jackson; Irene Richardson; Tina Atkinson; Yvonne Pearson; Helen Rytka; Yvonne Fitt; Rebecca Hall; Susan Rushworth; Shelley Armitage; Suzanne Blamires — all were killed in West Yorkshire before the introduction of the managed zone, when police adopted a zero-tolerance approach to street prostitution. In the case of Rebecca Hall, murdered in Bradford in 2001, the police’s refusal to grant an amnesty from prosecution was criticized for making sex workers and clients too afraid to come forward with information

It’s easy to take an abolitionist approach to street sex work, or to advocate a “Nordic model,” maintaining that street prostitution subjects women to horrendous violence and that society should channel its efforts into prosecuting male customers whilst helping women to exit the sex trade. It’s harder to adopt this approach, though, when you know that Leeds’s council budget continues to be cut and that austerity has disproportionately impacted women, who might exit the sex trade only to find few employment opportunities and a reduced welfare safety net. 

The English Collective Of Prostitutes, like many sex worker advocacy groups, strongly contests the effectiveness of the “Nordic Model.” Whilst this model is often touted as a feminist approach because it criminalizes male punters rather than female sex workers, the Collective argues that the approach has led in Sweden to the increased police surveillance of women, the eviction of sex workers from their homes, and a reluctance among authorities to provide basic safety measures such as rape alarms and safer sex guides on the basis that it encourages prostitution. 

In the UK context, they argue that the best way to help people leave street prostitution, if that’s their goal, would be to roll back austerity: 86 per cent of austerity cuts have fallen hardest on women, and some northern cities have seen an increase in street prostitution which has been attributed to welfare and social service cuts. 

You don’t have to be an abolitionist to believe that street sex work carries significant risks, and that it is often hard to speak of a meaningful choice when so many of the women involved have arrived in the managed zone as a last resort. But I believe it is unlikely that street prostitution will ever be fully eradicated, and certainly not in the UK’s current political climate. 

In the US, too, legislation intended to combat the dangers of sex work can have unintended consequences: in 2018, the SESTA — Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — and FOSTA — Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act — bills were signed into law, targeting websites that hosted adverts for sexual services. The aim was to curb trafficking, yet sex worker advocacy groups have argued that the new laws have simply taken away sex workers’ ability to advertise their services, driving them offline and onto the streets, where they are less safe. 

Ultimately, the question is a pragmatic one: what will ensure the greatest safety for the greatest number of women? No approach is perfect. The Nordic Model has been lauded for its commitment to providing exit strategies for women rather than criminalizing them, but has been controversial in practice and does not address the day-to-day threats for women who remain on the streets, providing no safe spaces for the selling of sex — the place where women are at the highest risk. 

In Leeds, despite the charities offering support to women in the zone, there is little spare cash to offer real alternatives. Many of the women will have criminal records which make it difficult to find employment, even without the added pressure of an economic slump driven by a decade of austerity in an area of the country where unemployment is already higher, on average, than in the more affluent South. 

The ideal solution, I think, would be a legalized and regulated district, with safe spaces to meet punters, good street lighting, security patrols, and well-funded support for women who want to leave street prostitution. But this is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon, given recent patterns. The Leeds managed zone is, at best, an unhappy compromise — an attempt to improve women’s safety in a country where soliciting remains illegal and funds remain stretched. For all the criticism levelled at the zone, it represents an attempt to break the fruitless cycle of arrests and re-arrests, stigma, and mistrust. For that, at least, Leeds should be commended. 

“These days, I don’t find much to laugh at when I drive through Holbeck.”

Growing up, all I really knew was that Holbeck had been a red light district ever since my grandad talked fondly about the woman with the miniskirt and tattooed knees, who used to work the roundabout before I was born. It was the source of funny anecdotes, and that was it. I don’t know exactly when things shifted, but the Bradford Murders had a lot to do with it. I was studying at university hundreds of miles away in the South when the news broke. I saw stills from the CCTV footage in which Griffiths chases Suzanne Blamires down the corridor. After that it became harder to laugh. 

Some years later, I read Blake Morrison’s 1986 poem ‘The Ballad Of The Yorkshire Ripper,’a work in Yorkshire dialect that chronicles the murders and the casual misogyny levelled at sex workers at the time. One stanza stood out:

‘An I don’t walk appily out no more
now lasses fear lad’s tread
an mi mates call me a Bessy
an ah dream of all Pete’s dead’.

The narrator is a local man who is deeply discomforted by the murders and experiences a loss of innocence, beginning to criticize the way his friends treat sex workers and women more broadly. The point Morrison is making is that it’s difficult to see the issue clearly when you’re enmeshed in it, when the problem has become normalized. These days, I don’t find much to laugh at when I drive through Holbeck. I can’t help thinking about the number of women who have been killed in my lifetime and before, when a woman was murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper walking from my town to the next one along, when police refused to stop issuing fines and blamed sex workers for bringing the violence on themselves.

Francesca Roe is a researcher and writer with a particular interest in gender and cultural history. She’s previously written for CityMetric and The Conversation, and also writes about the culture and history of Northern England on her personal blog.

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