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.”