VICE UK: The UK’s First Semi Legal Red Light District: Workers’ Thoughts

(Originally published on Vice UK)

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 7 PM and 7 AM, 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 and a black dress. 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 [$1,000]. 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* farther 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 gotten 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 meters away and flashes its lights. Erica stubs her cigarette out under her heel and gives me a brief nod, before lazily strolling over toward the car.

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