Eventually you get to a point in mid-adulthood, having digested a few newspapers and muted a few politicians, when you start to wonder: do cities actually want their women to die? Otherwise, why take these backward steps, cutting services so that more and more women’s refuges are forced to close? Backward steps – no, it’s more like being dragged through shrubland into a dimmer, darker place.
Sunderland is about to become the first UK city without a single domestic violence refuge. The bleakness of this is exhausting. The knowledge that even if a woman in Sunderland finds the courage, cash and energy to leave the partner that hits her, soon there will be nowhere for her to go. The chances are she will end up on the streets (St Mungo’s reports a third of the women they work with say domestic violence contributed to their homelessness) or in a B&B, floundering with no support, no advice on how to begin a life alone, and of course that itch, that feeling that she will always be listening for steps behind her, that she is never safe. Or else, of course, like the two women murdered by their partners in England and Wales every week, she’ll return to a man that kills her.
And the irony is that – apart from at this very sharpest end of the issue, where hundreds of women are being turned away from refuges, due in part to almost a fifth closing since 2010 – elsewhere hard work is paying off. Police now know how to talk to victims of abuse, how to deal with the shadowy cases, the crimes that happen in family homes. Schools now teach pupils the acceptable boundaries of relationships, due to charities working tirelessly to research and fight dating abuse, and expose the horrors of being 14 and terrified. Yet still, if a woman runs, cuts in funding mean she’ll have nowhere to go.
It took a long time to get here, to a place where we could talk about domestic violence, and then acknowledge the many forms it can take, and then the difficulties of escaping it. It took a long time before refuges opened across the country, offering beds and safety to women whose black eyes had been politely ignored by their bosses, at home their children silently watching the ads.
A couple of years ago, Jenny Smith wrote The Refuge, a book about finding sanctuary in the world’s first safe house for women. It was May 1973, when women weren’t allowed to apply for a mortgage without a man, and there was no such thing as marital rape. After two years of being kicked around, people turning away when her husband hit her on the street, she happened upon a piece in the Daily Mirror which read: “Victims of domestic violence? Need help?”
She hid the article under the carpet so he wouldn’t find it. He had beaten her, stabbed her, burned and bitten her – once he tried to drown her. When Smith arrived at the refuge – a terraced house on the other side of London – with her two babies, they welcomed her in, telling her she was safe.
Forty-four years later, two out of every three women that approach a refuge for help are being turned away. When we hear about Sunderland losing its last refuge, it’s as if another brick has been removed from that first safe house in London – it’s not safe. At it’s foundation, it’s not safe. It sounds flippant to wonder whether cities care about the lives of their vulnerable women, whether they want them to die, but all evidence points in that direction. The places those women go to stay alive are disappearing. It’s dreadful to revisit Smith’s book – those 1970s campaigners feeling they had achieved so much, only for the 2000s government to dismantle their efforts with shrugs and cuts.
QotD: “Men often kill wives after lengthy periods of prolonged physical violence accompanied by other forms of abuse and coercion”
Men often kill wives after lengthy periods of prolonged physical violence accompanied by other forms of abuse and coercion; the roles in such cases are seldom if ever reversed. Men perpetrate familial massacres, killing spouse and children together; women do not. Men commonly hunt down and kill wives who have left them; women hardly ever behave similarly. Men kill wives as part of planned murder-suicides; analogous acts by women are almost unheard of. Men kill in response to revelations of wifely infidelity; women almost never respond similarly, though their mates are more often adulterous.
R. Emerson and Russell Dobash, quoted in Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel
QotD: “I have to ask you to resist, not to comply, to destroy the power men have over women, to refuse to accept it, to abhor it and to do whatever is necessary despite its cost to you to change it”
We need to put women first. We need to do anything that will interrupt the colonizing of the female body. We need to refuse to accept the givens. We need to ask ourselves what political rights we need as women. What laws do we need? What would freedom be for us? What principles are necessary for our well-being? Why are women being sold on street corners and tortured in their homes, in societies that claim to be based on freedom and justice? What actions must be taken? What will it cost us and why are we too afraid to pay and are the women who have gotten a little from the women’s movement afraid that resistance or rebellion or even political inquiry will cost them the little they have gotten? Why are we still making deals with men one by one instead of collectively demanding what we need? I am going to ask you to remember that as long as a woman is being bought and sold anywhere in the world, you are not free, nor are you safe. You too have a number; some day your turn will come. I’m going to ask you to remember the prostituted, the homeless, the battered, the raped, the tortured, the murdered, the raped-then-murdered, the murdered-then-raped; and I am going to ask you to remember the photographed, the ones that any or all of the above happened to and it was photographed and now the photographs are for sale in our free countries. I want you to think about those who have been hurt for the fun, the entertainment, the so-called speech of others; those who have been hurt for profit, for the financial benefit of pimps and entrepreneurs. I want you to remember the perpetrator and I am going to ask you to remember the victims: not just tonight but tomorrow and the next day. I want you to find a way to include them – the perpetrators and the victims – in what you do, how you think, how you act, what you care about, what your life means to you.
Now, I know, in this room, some of you are the women I have been talking about. I know that. People around you may not. I am going to ask you to use every single thing you can remember about what was done to you – how it was done, where, by whom, when, and, if you know, why – to begin to tear male dominance to pieces, to pull it apart, to vandalize it, to destabilize it, to mess it up, to get in its way, to fuck it up. I have to ask you to resist, not to comply, to destroy the power men have over women, to refuse to accept it, to abhor it and to do whatever is necessary despite its cost to you to change it.
The Argentine President, Mauricio Macri, has announced a national plan to fight violence against women.
Mr Macri said every 37 hours a woman was attacked in Argentina and that education was the key to ending deeply rooted cultural patterns of violence.
The plan, due to start next year, includes creating a network of women’s refuges, and money for the electronic tagging of violent men.
Last year 235 women were killed in gender violence incidents in Argentina.
The government’s National Plan for the Eradication of Violence against Women is putting into force a 2009 law.
Presenting the plan President Macri said: “We all need to commit ourselves. This is not only the job of government it is for society too.”
Maria Fabiana Tunez, the president of the National Council of Women, a government agency, said the plan would last three years and include introducing gender violence awareness into the school curriculum. Staffing at a telephone helpline for women will also be increased.
The national plan comes after a series of rallies and demonstrations in several cities last year.
The initial demonstration last year followed the murder of a 14-year-old pregnant schoolgirl, Chiara Paez, who was found buried in her boyfriend’s garden three days after being reported missing in the town of Rufino in central Santa Fe province.
In the past year there have been protests elsewhere in Latin America against gender violence, in countries including Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil.
QotD: “It is not considered unnatural for men to pose a threat; it is considered unnatural for women to do nothing to counteract it”
On Tuesday Ben Butler was sentenced to a minimum of 23 years in prison for the murder of his six-year-old daughter Ellie. It’s a death that is particularly tragic because not only was it predictable, but it was predicted, again and again.
Ben Butler was a violent man, with prior convictions for assaulting an ex-girlfriend and two strangers. He was jailed for attacking Ellie when she was six weeks old, but this conviction was later quashed. He and Ellie’s mother, Jennie Gray, won back custody of Ellie in 2012, despite Gray’s grandfather protesting that this would lead to the little girl’s death. It took just eleven months for this prediction to come true.
Gray was not present when her daughter died, but she later helped Butler in his attempt to make the death appear to have been an accident. She has been sentenced to 42 months’ imprisonment for child cruelty. The Daily Mail describes her as “the twisted mother who sooner saw [Ellie] die than turn against the savage thug who beat her to death,” while according to the Mirror she is “evil” and “scheming”. But Gray was also a victim of Ben Butler. Despite her own protestations to the contrary, the physical suffering and mental torment endured by Gray – who wrote secret “letters of prayer” begging for Butler to “stop being angry, hateful and violent” – should not be in any doubt.
Gray was gaslighted by Butler, who told her to “please try harder with your mouth as it’s a trigger for me”. The judge who awarded custody of Ellie to her parents ignored the concerns of a junior doctor, who said he had seen Butler pushing and poking his partner. A police officer involved in the case described Butler’s treatment of Gray as “completely abnormal”: “And for her to tolerate it in the way that she does is not normal either.”
But Gray was an adult, Ellie a child. Gray is still alive, but Ellie is not. And I am aware that just by mentioning Butler’s abuse of Gray I may be accused of making excuses for her, of indulging in a kind of “victim feminism” which denies women agency and assumes they can do no wrong. Romantic love is, after all, a selfish indulgence compared to its mundane, frequently unrewarding maternal counterpart. Gray will be seen by some to have chosen the former over the latter, even if it happened to be with a man who treated her and their children appallingly.
I am suspicious of this urge to present the female partners of men who kill children as sharing in their guilt. While both Jennie Gray and Mareid Phillpot, sentenced to 17 years in prison for the deaths of her children in the fire orchestrated by her husband Mick, are more deserving of condemnation than Carr, I think something else is going on when we decide these women are morally no different to the men who abused them. It stops us having to consider the way in which male violence is not just tolerated, but seen as a necessary price to pay for order.
We may hate the harm male violence does but far from challenging it, our response is to look for ways of accommodating it. In particular, the responsibility of mitigating its worst effects– either by tending to the wounded or taking on the role of punch bag – falls on the women closest to violent men. Men create the shocks, women absorb them. Hence if male violence gets out of hand, it is not the fault of men alone. Some woman, somewhere, has not been doing her job.
We know that women are not held to the same standards as men. Our economies and social structures are absolutely reliant on the belief that women, as “natural” carers, will not only do the work of nurturing, but that of neutralising the most unwelcome aspects of male aggression, which is also “natural” and hence cannot be eradicated. There will, we tell ourselves, always be another Ben Butler out there, just as there will always be “some nutter” who’s intending to rape you, or “some bigot” who wants to beat you up for wearing the wrong clothes. It is the role of women to prevent this from happening: why don’t you leave him? why don’t you stay in? why don’t you provide a safe space for those more marginalised than you? It is not considered unnatural for men to pose a threat; it is considered unnatural for women to do nothing to counteract it.
Yet as most victims of abuse know, there is no safe way of responding to male violence. Women are most at risk from a violent partner when attempting to leave the relationship. In a 2014 report for Buzzfeed, Alex Campbell identified 28 mothers in the US who had been sentenced to more than 10 years’ imprisonment for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children: “In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.” Moreover, as Campbell explains, what outsiders may see as tolerance or complicity is frequently a woman trying her hardest not to provoke further attacks. “Any time I interfered,” says Victoria, currently serving 20 years for “permitting” the abuse and murder of her daughter Aubriana, “it would just make the situation worse.”
One could argue that Gray was not attempting to protect Ellie by staying with Butler, and I would agree. However, she had bought into the narrative that it is down to women to limit male violence. She thought she could make him stop, not least because Butler himself was reading from the same script, suggesting that as long as Gray did not “trigger” him all would be well.
Both Ben Butler and Victoria’s husband, Daniel Pedraza, physically abused the women in their lives. It strange how often beating girlfriends and wives, so often the precursor to violence further afield, is not seen as a red flag. Perhaps it is assumed that as long as men stick to hitting the women they sleep with, male aggression has been managed and order maintained. Perhaps in some not-too-distant dystopian future, as well as being able to pay for women to penetrate and women to gestate their offspring, men will be able to pay for women to beat. Why don’t we make it all legal and see if we have offered men sufficient outlets for their natural male rage? If all else fails, we can blame the women for failing to be accommodating enough.
I know that at times like these one is expected to do the whole “as a mother” routine. And yes, as a mother I cannot tolerate the idea of anyone hurting my children. But when I say I wish to protect them from the big bad world, I do not mean from wolves or monsters, nor even from people. I mean men. The biggest threat to my children’s safety comes from the violence of men.
The world does not have to be like this. As Joan Smith once pointed out, it doesn’t even matter if one believes there is a natural, biological basis for male violence. The pertinent question is “are you happy with this state of affairs?” I am not and nor should you be. The best of all possible worlds is not a world in which Ellie Butler would have suffered and died the way she did. But to see Jennie Gray as just as guilty as Ben Butler is to treat abuse as a relationship to be managed, not something one person does to another. It is to accept the abuser’s own logic. For the sake of the women and children still out there, absorbing the blows we don’t see, we need to do better than this.
A man carried out a “sustained and forceful” attack on a [prostituted woman] in Leeds before spending the money he stole from her on takeaways, drugs and cigarettes, a court has heard.
A jury at Leeds crown court heard how, wearing steel-capped boots, 24-year-old Lewis Pierre battered 21-year-old Daria Pionko to death shortly after 10.40pm on 22 December in the UK’s first managed red light district in the Holbeck area of Leeds.
The scheme introduced by Leeds city council in October 2015 allows [prostituted women] to operate in a designated area on the edge of the city centre between 7pm and 7am without fear of being arrested.
CCTV captured Pierre walking towards an area of wasteland with Pionko at around 10.40, before being spotted leaving the scene alone less than five minutes later. He has admitted robbery and manslaughter, but denies murder.
Pierre, who was working as an assistant to a heavy goods driver, then allegedly bought a meal of kebab meat and chips, four cans of drink, and cigarettes with money he robbed from Pionko. Colleagues say Pierre turned up to work the next day in possession of cannabis.
Pionko, who had moved to the UK from Łódź in Poland 10 months previously, was found lying face down and lifeless by her housemate Karolina Szajnda, who was also [a prostituted woman].
Pionko had suffered serious injuries to her face, head, neck and body. Szajnda described her friend’s face as having been “massacred”. The postmortem concluded that Pionko had died within 30 minutes of the attack.
Opening the case, Kama Melly QC, prosecuting, said: “On 22 December 2015, just three days before Christmas, Daria Pionko and her close friend Karolina went out to earn money in Leeds as [prostituted women]. They went off to have sex with [johns] before meeting to carry on working. Karolina went off with a [john] and when she returned Daria was nowhere to be seen. She eventually found her lying in a secluded spot. Daria had been subjected to a sustained attack.”
Melly said Pierre had set off from “a hard day’s shift” with no money. “It is the prosecution’s case he was determined to find some money that night,” she said.
Melly added: “[Pierre] denies he intended to cause [Pionko] death or cause her serious injury … The prosecution is confident that his intention to cause really serious harm to Daria will be proved against Lewis Pierre by the evidence you will hear in this trial.”
The court heard that Pionko’s family had not known she was a [prostituted woman] and thought she was working at a bar in Leeds. The trial continues.
This is Gangnam, today. Gangnam is a bustling main street area in Seoul, South Korea, similar to Times Square in New York City. I grew up here.
On the night of Tuesday, May 17, 2016, a 23-year-old woman was brutally stabbed to death with a 12-inch knife in a unisex bathroom. She had been enjoying a night out in Gangnam with her boyfriend and friends. The police arrested a 34-year-old man who confessed that he had been waiting inside the bathroom to kill any woman that walked in, because he hated women for ignoring him.
The mainstream media described this murder as a freak incident, a random killing committed by a deranged individual. Worse, many people blamed the woman for having been out drinking at night. Many others empathized with the murderer’s hurt feelings.
Feminists are naming this murder a femicide (woman killing/gender-based crime), one among too many. We recognize the connection between this woman’s murder and the murders of other women, more than a hundred women murdered by male partners every year in South Korea, hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, hundreds more violently killed in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, women who lost their lives in the Montreal Massacre, and countless others on this planet, past, present, and future.
We will remember her death.
We will fight back.
We will not give up.
When Helen Titchener stabbed her domineering husband in an episode of The Archers last weekend, it seemed as though everyone wanted to talk about domestic abuse. People who had never heard of “coercive control”, the kind of behaviour Helen has been subjected to in the long-running Radio 4 series, suddenly wanted to know what it was. Some listeners may even have realised, with a mixed sense of horror and relief, that it was an apt description of their own relationships.
The BBC has done a public service in kicking off this conversation even though the scenario it highlighted – a woman snapping and trying to kill her abuser – has more in common with melodrama than real life. Domestic abuse causes fear, anxiety, depression, injury and death in the most extreme cases, but the victim is more likely to die than her abuser. What is extraordinary is not that we are talking about it, but that it hasn’t happened long before now.
According to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data, an estimated 1.4 million women in Britain suffered domestic abuse in the year 2013-14. (Men are targeted as well, but female victims outnumber them by two-to-one in ONS estimates and three-to-one in cases recorded by big police forces.) The figures are shocking, but they do not surprise me at all.
Ever since I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young journalist, I have been horrified not just by the kinds of extreme violence perpetrated against women but less widely reported forms of abuse. Serial killings, such as the murders of prostituted women in Ipswich 10 years ago, deservedly get the public’s attention. So, latterly, does the kind of sexual exploitation carried out by Jimmy Savile and other well-known men in the entertainment industry. But “everyday” abuse, which stops short of the kind of extreme violence catalogued in a BBC documentary last month, is a different matter.
Three years ago, when I became co-chair of the mayor of London’s violence against women and girls board, I began to get hair-raising insights into the extent of the problem. The London figures tend to be worse – though not that much worse – than the rest of the country. One is that a third of violent crime resulting in injury in the capital is domestic in nature. Another is that the police attend more than twice as many emergency calls for domestic violence in London each month than they do for residential burglary.
Starting to get the picture now? I have plenty more figures where those came from. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents of domestic abuse in London last year, each of them involving a victim, a perpetrator and in many cases children. Factor in the victims’ parents, siblings and friends, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer number of people affected by the problem. If half a million people are struggling to deal with the effects of domestic abuse in London, what is the figure for the whole country? More to the point, where is the outrage and the political will to do something about it?
The last Labour government, to its credit, took the issue of violence against women more seriously than any previous administration. A group of ministers, including Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Vera Baird, made significant changes in the law to tackle sex trafficking and the exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry. In opposition, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband made a groundbreaking appointment, naming Seema Malhotra shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls. The case for having such a post in government, going beyond the brief of an equalities minister, seems to me urgent and unarguable.
Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. With the election for a new mayor of London less than a month away, domestic abuse has barely featured in the campaign to date. The winner will be in charge of a city where the police recorded a staggering 72,443 notifiable domestic offences – ones that are so serious that they have to be reported to the Home Office – last year. That total included 28 domestic murders. So why aren’t the candidates talking about domestic abuse as often as affordable rents or a third runway at Heathrow?
Both local and national politicians need to realise that we are at a turning point, which brings as many risks as it does opportunities. The exposure of Savile has encouraged many more women to come forward and report both rape and domestic abuse, defying national trends which suggest that crime overall is falling. But victims are putting their trust in a struggling criminal justice system: police and local authority budgets have been slashed, there is a chronic shortage of refuge places, and specialist services for black and ethnic minority women have been disproportionately hit by cuts in public spending.
Women fleeing abusive relationships are often forced to stay with relatives or move into refuges a long way from home, if they are lucky enough to find a place. Research carried out by Women’s Aid last year suggested that almost two-thirds of the women referred to a refuge in the capital didn’t manage to get a place; outside London, the situation is reported to be even worse. A report published last month by another women’s organisation, Solace Women’s Aid, exposed the extent of this hidden housing crisis: more than 60% of women who have a secure tenancy lose it when they enter a refuge, while almost 90% find themselves in another type of temporary accommodation when they leave. Housing officers frequently treat victims of domestic abuse as voluntarily homeless, sending them to the back of the queue for social housing. “Why did she go back to him?” people sometimes ask. The answer may be that she had nowhere else to live, especially if she is poor.
According to the ONS, women who live in the poorest households are three times more likely to become victims of domestic abuse. There is a debate about whether levels of violence really are higher in poorer areas – affluent women may have more choices – but the disparity in reported crime figures is striking. In London, you are much more likely to become a victim in Croydon or Tower Hamlets than in more prosperous Merton or Richmond-upon-Thames.
Discussion prompted by the Helen Titchener storyline is already moving from the wider subject of domestic abuse to the charges and sentence she might face. That is not the question facing most real-life victims, who have to deal with a toxic combination of housing problems, long-term psychological damage and inadequate provision by the state and local authorities. Prosecutions are failing, leaving perpetrators free to target other women, because of a lack of support for victims.
I don’t know whether the concern generated by a soap opera is enough to move this subject to the top of the political agenda. But the result, if women who report domestic abuse are failed by the public services they depend on, will be bitter and justified disillusionment.
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.