On an ordinary winter day in 2014, Mary Honeyball led her colleagues in the European Parliament to pass a groundbreaking resolution urging member states to examine their policies on sexual exploitation, prostitution and its impact on gender equality. The purpose, the report describes in detail, is to tackle sex trafficking and its end goal, the sex trade, by targeting those who purchase sexual acts while solely decriminalizing those who sell their bodies.
Some elected officials in the United Kingdom were either asleep or disregarded their compatriot’s call. Case in point, the Leeds City Council recently made permanent a twelve-month pilot that established a “managed area” for street prostitution making it the UK’s first “red light” district. The City Council’s decision is particularly troubling since it was finalized after a so-called “client” beat Daria Pianko, age 21, to death. The brutal murder occurred precisely in the new sex trade zone, meticulously delineated in the low-income neighborhood of Holbeck.
Mark Dobson, the City Council’s executive member for Safer Leeds acknowledges that prostitution (or “sex work” as he calls it) remains an “extremely dangerous and fraught occupation.” Despite this declaration, he and his colleagues found no better tool to shield prostituted women from violence than to legalize the sex trade. The City Council is instead handing over the keys to pimps, brothel owners, and buyers of sexual acts – a cruel solution that, alas, human rights organizations like Amnesty International have proposed as a distorted way to protect the exploited.
Mr. Dobson rattled off the usual myths to bolster his decision: the inevitability of prostitution, the characterization of opposing voices as moralistic, and the promise of police security for women who stay put in the quartered area. None of it is based in reality.
“Leeds made the ‘managed area’ permanent three weeks after a murder in Holbeck and following reports of rape and assault,” says Janie Davies, press officer for Feminism in London. “Also, a recent press investigation reported that no police cars were seen in the neighborhood for several hours on two consecutive nights in January, raising fears that this policy has created a zone where pimps and punters are free to violate women, or even kill them.”
What the Leeds City Council should know is that the sex trade was intentionally designed to commercialize sexual violence and legitimize control over vulnerable human beings for profit. Even if prostitution were as old as time immemorial, as our Western culture believes, so are murder, rape, and domestic violence, crimes political representatives would presumably never assign to designated districts. So why would we allow our governments to deliver disenfranchised or trafficked women to buyers of “sexual access” – as author and survivor Rachel Moran describes it – with special appetites for sexual harassment, dehumanization, or worse?
After legalizing the sex trade, Germany witnessed an increase of unspeakable violence against prostituted women at the hands of buyers of sexual acts an exponential increase in sex trafficking, and the birth of country-wide chain brothels seemingly overnight. The Netherlands is also struggling with the disastrous effects of legalization and the same scenario is unfolding under New Zealand’s decriminalized regime. In the sixteen years since the Swedish government passed legislation known as the “Nordic Model” not one prostituted woman has been murdered by a “client;” in Germany, the body count since legalization is growing, with crushing silence and indifference.
Yes, the vast majority of women and transgender people bought and sold in the sex trade are in “the life” because they lack choice. They have children to feed, seek shelter, or suffer from trauma-induced ills that make escape seem impossible. Rather than condemning them to the sex trade, the Leeds City Council should invest in creating educational and economic opportunities, providing job training, and funding frontline service organizations that offer meaningful exit strategies for prostituted individuals, regardless of immigration status.
“There are far better and safer ways to deal with prostitution than by the creation of an unsafe hazardous area disguised as a ‘safe’ place to carry out ‘sex work,'” wrote MEP Honeyball on her blog, The Honeyball Buzz.
Evidence shows that it will be impossible for Mr. Hobson or the Leeds police to protect women like Daria, so the City Council has an unmitigated obligation to document and report the effects of Holbeck’s “managed area.” Leeds’ constituents must compel their representatives to create a baseline count of current brothels, both legal and illegal; escort ads in newspapers and online; complaints of prostitution-related incidents, including rape, intimate partner abuse and trafficking; and to require hospital emergency rooms and groups fighting domestic violence to document the impact of Holbeck’s legalization regime.
In creating Holbeck’s “red-light” district, the Leeds City Council has unequivocally placed the UK with other countries that violate the Palermo Protocol and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), that respectively mandate governments to legislate against abuse of power over vulnerable persons, including through the exploitation of prostitution. As far as morality goes, the struggle to end commercial sexual exploitation is as moral as upholding the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and as moral as our communal quests to end disease, hunger, and corruption.
And should the Leeds City Council approve legislation to mandate the compilation of impartial and verifiable statistics that will trace the foreseeable increase of organized crime, pimping, and the transformation of Holbeck into a sex tourism destination, they should name it the “Daria Law.”
Daria Pionko was supposed to be safe. Or safer, anyway. That, at least, was part of the thinking behind the “managed prostitution area” established in the Holbeck area of Leeds in June 2014 and officially announced the following October. It was also a tidying-up exercise, in response to locals’ concerns about living alongside street prostitution. By suspending the laws on kerb-crawling and soliciting between seven at night and seven in the morning in one non-residential part of town, Leeds City Council hoped to draw all the city’s outdoor prostitution to one unobtrusive place.
Alongside this effective decriminalisation, a Sex Work Liaison officer was appointed to work with women in prostitution, who are often (and reasonably) too fearful of the law to appeal to it. On top of this, outreach workers reported that the area made it easier for them to bring them health and social care to women in prostitution. If you have any concern at all about the wellbeing of women in prostitution, those are both excellent developments – as is the release of women from the threat of prosecution, breaking the grim cycle of punishment and crime that catches so many.
None of this was enough to keep Daria Pionko safe as she sold sex, though. Early on 23 December 2015, the Polish national was found unconscious within the managed area, and pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. Police described the head and face injuries that killed her as “brutal”. On 3 January 2016, 24-year-old Lewis Pierre was charged with her murder. He was not the first man to be charged with a violent crime against a woman working in the managed area. In September 2014, Abdul Fulat picked up a woman from the managed area and subjected her to a prolonged, violent sexual attack. Two months later, Anthony Riley raped and robbed a 27-year-old woman who had been selling sex there. Ten months after that, the council declared the managed area “a success”.
And then there’s the violence that doesn’t necessarily make it to court or reach the headlines. An evaluation conducted for the council in September 2015 claims that introducing the managed area led to an increase in reports to Ugly Mugs (a scheme that collects details of crimes against women in prostitution). From any perspective, more women reporting acts of violence against them is a good thing, especially if it means fewer men getting away with it (it’s possible that Fulat and Riley’s victims would never have reported their attacks before the managed area). But there’s a horror underlying that success. Every single mark on that tally is a woman abused, a woman brutalised, a woman put in fear.
Violence is never far away from prostitution, and one thing that the managed area couldn’t do was make women feel protected: “Amongst sex workers,” says the evaluation, “there was not a sense that the Managed Area had improved safety for the street sex workers as fear of crime persisted.” (For its part, the council says: “the area is regularly patrolled and officers take a robust approach to any offences against sex workers”.) Despite no longer being at risk of arrest for selling sex, the women felt that there had been a reduction in policing that left them vulnerable – and although the evaluation ascribes that threat to an abstract entity called “crime”, there is of course an agent behind every act of violence, and that agent is generally a man.
Yet in official documents about the managed area, the punters are astonishingly absent, gently muffled in circumlocution. “Consider the place where the sexual transaction happens as the place where there is most risk for sex workers,” runs one recommendation from the evaluation, as though danger were a matter of geography: it’s not being away from the managed area that creates the risk, it’s being isolated with a man who has paid for sex and feels entitled to take his satisfactions from a female body. There’s a suggestion of “[i]mproving the physical spaces to design out violence”, but no conception that you could “design out violence” from the men who actually commit it.
Because the problem with prostitution always comes from one thing without which it could not exist at all: the men. A man who pays for sex knows that the woman he’s paying anticipates no satisfaction from the encounter beyond a financial reward that she may direly need (after all, there’s be no need to pay if she was having sex for her own genuine pleasure), and yet he doesn’t find anything obnoxious about purchasing her consent. Maybe it’s even a turn-on for him. How much do you have to dehumanise a woman to think it acceptable to use her like that? How much easier to be violent to someone you already see as inferior?
Less than a month after Daria Pionko’s murder, the council decided to make the managed area permanent. Councillor Mark Dobson told the Telegraph: “Sex work remains – as last month proved – an extremely dangerous and fraught occupation. But it’s incumbent on us to make it as safe as possible.” Two rapes, a murder, multiple other attacks. As safe as possible. Leeds’s managed area policy is flawed, but its focus on the women’s needs suggests a genuine potential to do good. It cannot succeed, however, if it cannot admit that the dangers of prostitution are fundamental to its economy: there can be no prostitution without punters, and there can be no safety for women with punters. You can exile prostitution to an industrial estate. You can install extra bins for the used condoms and other detritus. But when you’re picking up the bodies of murdered women and calling it an occupational hazard, the obscenity of prostitution should be impossible to ignore.