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An English Town's 'Prostitution-Free' Zone Isn't Going to Stop the Sex Trade

The residents, sex workers, and activists I spoke to told me it's only going to force illicit activity to a new area.
December 8, 2014, 6:28pm

"Sam," a sex worker on Hull's Hessle Road

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

​ Last week, Hull City Council ​won a landmark ruling to create Britain's first "prostitution-free zone." The new orders mean that any sex workers or curb crawlers caught around the impoverished Hessle Road area—where 70 women are known to work—can be arrested and forced to appear in court. City Councillor Daren Hale said one of the reasons the zone was created was to give "a positive view of Hull," the 2017 UK City of Culture.


Problem is, the ruling isn't guaranteed to change all that much. Sex workers, activists, residents and even Councillor Hale have said the moves will simply create a red light district in another area. And despite pledges of a multi-agency harm reduction approach that will run alongside the injunction, the city's only sex worker outreach charity was "disappointed" local authorities had failed to inform them the new measures had been approved.

Sam (not her real name) was offering sex at the side of Hessle Road late on Friday night. The 23-year-old Hullensian has been a sex worker for two years and, along with two other women I saw that evening, has decided to ignore the new law.

"They've only started bothering [to crack down on the sex trade] since [Hull] got the City of Culture," she told me. "People have been doing it for years and years round here, and they've never done nowt about it. Now the City of Culture's here and that's it, they want to stop it. All [the injunction] will do is move people to a different place; I don't think they'll ever stop it. They've done town, they've done Hessle Road… it'll probably be further out on Anlaby Road next."

As a couple of menacing-looking men walked up and down the opposite side of the road,  Sam shrugged off the dangers of working the street.

"It's all right," she said. "The main problems are people trying to do business with you and not paying. There's all sorts of problems, really. Most of the [sex workers] do drugs. There's the support there to get off them, but it's a long process—most of them aren't going to do it. They should just make one place where they can put people so they can do it legally. That way they know where everybody is and there wouldn't be people complaining that they're stood all over."


The complaints are understandable. Residents are fed up of finding used needles and condoms outside their homes—or actually witnessing sex acts and drug-taking in public—with  ​some complaining that the rights of sex workers have been prioritized above their own. So, unsurprisingly, the local community is largely pleased with the crackdown. However, there is acknowledgment that the move is a quick-fix attempt to plaster over deeper issues.

Forty years ago, Hessle Road was a prosperous stronghold of trawlermen and their families. Now, it's one of the poorest areas in  ​one of the poorest regions in all of Northern Europe. There are plenty of proudly-kept homes and pretty gardens in the housing estates at the back of the road, but the proliferation of discarded scratch cards, lager cans, and cigarette packets bang outside tell a different story.

A collage in Rayner's pub

Rayner's pub is in the center of Hessle Road, exemplifying an area both beloved and vilified. One half of the interior is dedicated to the heroes of the now-defunct fishing industry. Pictures of old trawlers adorn the walls: the Arctic Viking sunk in 1961, the St Romanus sunk in 1968, the Ian Fleming sunk in 1973. Black-and-white collages of fisherman on leave—most of them looking a bit like northern Goodfellas—stare out from beneath the glass of the tabletops.

These days, people prefer to gather in the other side of the bar, which has a rather less commemorative air. When I visited Rayner's one night last week it was full of lairy teenagers playing pool and listening to dance music, while the fishing bar was deserted. At around 9 PM, seven police officers filed into the pub, looking for a suspect. They were greeted with jeering and a collective chorus of: "It wasn't me."


Graeme and Tracy, both 47, were drinking in the pub the following afternoon. Bar a small group of old fisherman recalling better times, the commemorative bar was empty again, while the other side of the pub was busy. However, the drinkers represented a much wider spectrum of residents than the night before, and the atmosphere was openly communal.

Tracy said the sex workers are "proper Hessle Roaders and you'll never get rid of them," but admitted that she'd been attacked by a sex worker and didn't walk in the street at night any more.

Her partner Graeme was also conflicted about the situation, saying: "It is terrible, but I've naught against them. It's just the times and where they do it. When it starts getting dark early they're out earlier. Sometimes it's teatime—half four, five o'clock; not nice if you're out shopping with the bairns. They need an area like they have in Amsterdam. They also need help with the drugs. My brother died of a heroin overdose, so I know. People in those situations need more help. Not just round here, but most places."


The Criterion pub is at the end of Hessle Road nearest to the city centre, just next to Constable Street, which is known as the area's most popular place for sex workers to take their clients. Leo, 75, was at the bar the afternoon I walked in. He's lived on Constable Street for over 40 years and says that some of the sex workers live there, too.


"I was at the top of the stairs the other night and I could see some tart giving a fella a blowjob out the window," he told me. "We've had ten years of it. It's time for someone else to get it for ten years. What I mean is it's alright shifting them, but they're only being shifted to somewhere else. They should make it legal so there's no problems on the streets."

Debate continues to rage over whether the buying and selling of sex should be decriminalized and regulated, as it is in New Zealand; or whether selling sex should be legal, while buying should be illegal, as is the case in Sweden.

Two groups with often bitter ideological differences have been united because of the situation in Hull, with both camps pointing to root causes of poverty and deprivation, and decrying the criminalization of incredibly vulnerable members of the community.

On one side are the Christian charity Lighthouse Project, which favors an eradication of prostitution, but is still the only organization to provide an outreach service in Hull. The charity is worried that "the women will either be pushed to work off-street in more dangerous situations or move to other streets where the same problems will occur."

On the other side are the English Collective of Prostitutes, who lobby for the decriminalization of sex work. They said the zone will drive women into "more isolated streets where they will be more vulnerable to rape and other violence."


Local councillor Daren Hale said an "olive branch" had been offered to the women in the form of an industrial estate at the back of Hessle Road, which is deserted at night, but conceded that this perhaps wouldn't be a good enough substitute for most.

"Often the women want to ply their trade on well-lit roads or major thoroughfares, where they feel safer, and I can understand that," he said. "I do have sympathy for the women, but first and foremost I've got to have sympathy for those who live in my community, which is suffering because of this issue. I also accept that there's a risk [that the sex workers will move to other deprived residential areas]."

Councillor Hale said planned City of Culture events along Hessle Road were being affected by prostitution, adding that the prostitution-free zone would help to solve that issue. "We want people to have a positive view of Hull," he said. "But I'd hate to think people are thinking we're gentrifying just because of the City of Culture. It's not just about that; it's linked to regeneration."

The docks near Hessle Road

There's evidence to back up Hale's claim; Hull is going through a period of major regeneration, with council-backed schemes being implemented around Hessle Road to renovate the dilapidated housing stock. The Humber region in general is also experiencing  ​an economic renaissance as a mecca for renewable energies. And, of course, the City of Culture title—which ​promises to bring $286 million worth of investment—is another massive boost for Hull. These achievements are undoubtedly helping the city's struggling communities.

However, to the women leading a life of desperation and danger on the streets of Hull, regeneration will not provide the immediate assistance they need. As a City of Culture, there is perhaps a responsibility for Hull's leaders to come up with more imaginative ways of dealing with the complex issues these women both bring and face. Instead of relying on a tactic that will inevitably just push the problem onto others, there could be provisions introduced to safeguard street sex workers and the communities they often work and live in.

In Zurich, "a sex drive-in" supported by the Swiss authorities has been  ​hailed as a success at protecting both street sex workers and the general public. UK laws might not allow such innovative schemes, but it's clear that sex work already exists in a grey area that the authorities and public are happy turning a blind eye to when possible. Hull's leaders have the chance to carve out a better way within that grey area. If they're brave enough, they could make the city a beacon of forward-thinking British culture, rather than a reflection of the mistakes we've made in the past.