Sex Workers in the UK's 'Legal Red Light District' Tell Us What It's Like to Work There

Has the pioneering scheme in Leeds' Holbeck district actually made sex work safer?

by Georgie Darling, Photos: Jack Wright
25 May 2016, 11:42am

"Anna", a sex worker in Leeds' Holbeck industrial estate

Leeds is the first city in the UK to allow sex workers to do their thing without fear of arrest. Trialled in 2014 and made permanent in January of this year, the pioneering scheme has seen sex workers able to operate in an industrial estate in the city's Holbeck district between 7PM and 7AM, and so far seems to be working out pretty well, despite calls for better street lighting, more CCTV and extra policing.

I visited Holbeck to ask a few of the area's regulars if and how the scheme has affected them – if they actually feel safer working there, and how much their relationship with the police has changed.

Anna*, 27, is dressed in black boots, a black dress and little else. She's only been using the Holbeck estate for a couple of months – a newbie compared to some – and worked all over Leeds before the scheme was started. She considers the area to be the safest place to work in the city, but says the police presence does little to reduce the crime rate in the area.

VICE: Do you feel safer now that the Holbeck area is regulated?
Anna: I don't think it's made much difference, really. The only thing I've noticed is that the drug situation is more secretive than before – but it hasn't been reduced at all. The police are round here most evenings but they can't do much. Selling sex is still illegal, but they're letting us sell it here. It's a bit confusing for everyone involved.

How did you end up in this line of work?
It was never going to be a long-term thing. The place I used to work at got relocated and I couldn't afford to get there every day. I tried my best to find a new job, but I have two young kids and I couldn't afford a babysitter either. I know a girl who does this, too, and I was shocked by how easy it is and how much money you can get from it – on a good night I can make about £700. I've been doing this for a few years now and it's more difficult to leave than you'd think.

Do you think the relationship between sex workers and the police around here has changed?
It's all very tongue in cheek. They know exactly what we're doing and we know that they know. Their main job now, I think, is to crack down on the other parts; I've been stopped and checked for drugs more times than I can count. They're also quick to stop us working in clients' cars – we're supposed to do that "off site", at their place or something. I feel a lot safer if they just drive round the corner, because I know where I am still. Another girl who works round here was taken to the middle of nowhere and just thrown out the car.

We meet Erica* further down the road. Dressed in black jeans and a jacket, it's obvious she's more prepared for the weather than some of the other women nearby. Taking a drag on her cigarette, she talks without really looking at us: "I usually stick to regulars now," she says. "I work here because we're not allowed to anywhere else, but that doesn't mean it's safe here. At least with regulars you know who you're with and what their intentions are. I mean, I don't think many people would have the balls to punch us up on the street, but it has happened. There's a lot of violence."

Do you think the police presence has made a difference to business generally, though?
Erica: Not at all. You get a lot of lads driving round here, just eyeing us all up, and that's gone down a bit since the police presence has stepped up. But it hasn't stepped up – not really. There are two officers who cycle round here a few evenings a week, but what can they do on a bike? If they see something going on, by the time they've got over here it'll have moved on. The police cars have died down loads recently, but I think they were only really here to say they'd visited in the first place. There's a big problem with language, too; a lot of the girls here don't speak a word of English, so if the police speak to them they don't have a clue what's going on.

We've only been talking a few minutes before a car pulls up a few metres away and flashes its lights. Erica stubs her fag out under her heel and gives me a brief nod, before lazily strolling over towards the car.

We bump into Kate* on the outskirts of the estate, climbing out of a car that speeds off as soon as we're in sight. She raises her eyebrows at our approach, but stops to talk to us, on the condition that we stay under the bridge. "It's only a job at the end of the day, isn't it?" she sighs. "I have a place to sleep and I can pay for food and other stuff, so that's all that matters. I've been doing this for long enough now that I can't really imagine a nine to five job – it might even be too boring in comparison."

Do the police talk to the workers much?
Kate: I've never spoken to them myself, but I think some of the women here have done before, once or twice. They've given up with controlling it, in my opinion. I'm not surprised, to be honest; nobody really wants to spend their evenings wandering around Holbeck, do they? It's not a nice place to be, and they know that the problems here are too well hidden to be stopped. There's so much violence that nobody really sees, unless you're here every night, all night.

How do you think the area could be improved?
We've heard this and that about number plate recognition and stuff, but it won't be enforced. So many men who come here like it because it's shit, it's seedy, it's anonymous. There's little to no chance the details will get back to their wives or friends. They can just come here, pay £50 to one of us and go back home after. It would make the area a lot safer, yeah, but it would also make it a lot harder for all of us to make a living – it's already a stretch because there are quite a few of us.

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While Holbeck is undoubtedly the safest place for sex workers in Leeds, and a great example of a progressive approach to a complicated issue, it seems that not a huge amount has changed for the women working there. While they might not be arrested for doing their job, they don't feel that they're being offered the same kind of protection as they say they were promised.

"We have been exercising some strategic enforcement with a lower likelihood of arrest if sex workers stick to set rules, but there have been arrests and action taken against sex workers and their customers during the period the initiative has been running," said Tony Tierney of West Yorkshire Police. "The initiative is currently under an ongoing review, and consultation with all involved parties is being carried out and will be reported back to the Safer Leeds Executive later this year."

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