You may or may not know that Holbeck, Leeds, my home, is the only “official” red light district in Britain. Prostitution here is not illegal so long as it happens between 7pm and 7am. So I’m going to tell you how that is for us.
Why Holbeck? Well, we are poor. This is the working class area of Leeds, mainly two up two down terraces, a high rise, and 1980s council houses. We are mainly low paid minimum wagers. The zero hour contract people you read about. A lot of cleaners and care workers. A lot of us are on benefits. A lot of us are refugees. Many of us are disabled.
There are posh parts of Leeds. Nice, green leafy spaces. Prostitutes used to work there, too, but the middle class residents complained about it. They don’t like women (and it always is women) “selling sex” outside their homes, in front of their kids. They don’t like the threat of men kerb crawling them on their way to the shops.
Well you know what? Neither do we. But no one asked us. No one gives a shit about us, so it got dumped on us. It’s handy for the buyers, who I shall refer to from here on in as rapists because that is what they are. Holbeck is handy for the rapists, being close to the town centre, they can pop by on their way home from work, pick up a poor women for around £20, and fuck her in the back of their car or in a car park. Walking around the area, you sometimes see these acts taking place. The women are sometimes picked up by pairs of men in white vans, because they are very cheap. Do you get a discount if there’s more than one of you? I don’t know. Sometimes by men in fancy cars. These men show no apparent shame, they do not seem embarrassed.
The women are mainly fairly young, mostly local woman, with some immigrants, mainly polish. They look thin, and ill, and slightly dangerous because slightly crazy. I talk to them sometimes because I have a cute puppy and everyone loves a cute puppy, right? We also see each other in the doctors surgery, post office, shops, on the bus. Everyone knows who these women are and what they are doing. They look like Fantine in Les Miserables. Many are missing teeth and have sunken faces. They look dirty, and small, and bedraggled, and tired.
The police have washed their hands of the “business” (according to them; according to to the women, they are heavily involved, as they are with the crack that plagues our neighbourhood, but that goes uninvestigated). So everyone knows you can do whatever you like in Holbeck, the police will never come around. They do not patrol the area, you never see them between 7pm and 7am. This works out very well for the police: we all pay council tax, but we get no police coverage overnight. It doesn’t work out so well for us. Most of us wouldn’t call them anyway, because this policy and the widespread local belief that the police profit from the crack and prostitution (which I have often heard expressed, though obviously have no proof of) has led to a total deterioration in relations between this community and the police. The women say the police make them give them freebies. I have no proof; however, I believed them when they said it. I can usually tell when someone is telling the truth. And what reason do they have to lie to me?
Since they legalised prostitution here, rape has trebled. TREBLED. And the motherfucking police are telling everyone that is because women trust them more now and are so more likely to report. That is a fucking lie. Sorry for the language, but I’m angry as hell. It’s a damned lie. We hate the police. Rape has trebled, because they have told everyone rape will no longer be prosecuted here between 7pm and 7am. Also because it is now council policy to house sex attackers here when they are released from prison. It is the perfect storm. Gather all the sex criminals into one part of town, keep them away from the nice middle class women, and then don’t police that part of town. Come nightfall, all the women here are free property and men are taking advantage of that. Anyone who tells you it is because of increased reporting is a liar and facilitator in our rape.
It works out very well for the other inhabitants of Leeds. All the crime gets pushed into our area. Their kids don’t have to see it. They get quicker police response times when the police take it into their own heads to just not bother policing one entire section of the city overnight.
The council (who again, most of us detest, this scheme having lead to a complete breakdown in trust between local residents and anything “official”) call this a “managed zone”. That is a lie. There is nothing managed about it. I have been in other cities with official red light zones: they are heavily policed, with good lighting, security cameras, street patrols etc. This is the opposite.
The impact on the women who are “selling themselves”: how can I begin to tell you about that? I wish someone would ask them, publish what they have to say about it. All I can tell you from the outside is that they look very, very unhappy and very, very ill.
I can tell you about the impact on me, on a woman living in the area. During the day, I like Holbeck. It isn’t posh, granted. There are areas of Leeds I would rather live in. But I like it just the same. We have a nice park (during the day), and people are on the whole nice. There are a lot of dog owners here and contrary to what people say, their dogs are well behaved and pleasant to be around.
But at nighttime, it becomes dangerous. I have been kerb crawled twice on my way to the shops after dark, once by a car with a group of men in it. That is very frightening. You know whatever happens, you are on your own. You wouldn’t call the police even if you believed they would come, because none of us trust them (and I have very good personal reasons not to, I have seen (and felt) their methods at first hand). There is a lot of drugs. A horrible smell hangs over the streets, and I didn’t know what it was, but I am informed it is crack. I see strange items in the gutters, bent scorched spoons and twists of metal foil. Someone threw a bottle of piss into our front yard. Others have told me they often find used condoms, though I haven’t found one yet. I suppose local residents are discarding them. You can feel the craziness all around you. There are a lot of disused spaces, empty warehouses, bits of scrubby wasteland, dark empty car parks, where you can see this “business” going on in the corners.
The “business” is not limited to 7pm-7am. It goes on through the day as well. Kids can see this going on, on their way to school. The women haunt your life like a spectre of your own future. Poor women see them and wonder: will that be me? If I don’t find a job soon, will I be the one out there? Middle class women don’t have to face that fear every time they go out to buy bread.
As the area has become more and more plagued with crime, and more famous for it, so it has become increasingly ghettoised. We get shit services, the GP here is terrible and in fact nearly killed me. I now go to one in the next part of town, but we shouldn’t have to migrate to nicer districts to access public services. What is our council tax being spent on? Not the roads, which are appalling. Not street lighting, which doesn’t exist. They take our money every month and they funnel it into the nicer parts of town. Who is going to complain? The people of Holbeck? Who cares about them? They’re all crackheads.
Now the area is so “crappy”, the council have begun housing all the sex attackers who have just come out of prison here. We don’t know who they are, we just hear rumours. Watch out for that house opposite the bus stop; that’s all pedos. Be careful of the house by the doctors surgery, that’s where the man lived who raped that woman last month. So you are always surrounded by this and you don’t know where you are safe. All so middle class people can pop by when they feel like raping a woman for cash, but they can drive home afterwards to their nice suburban areas with their speed limits and nice roads and certainly no drugs, because why would there be drugs there? Everyone knows, you get drugs in Holbeck. You don’t have to worry about the police, in Holbeck. We are being used as a silo for everyone else’s crime. And none of us can even afford drugs or prostitutes, even if we wanted them. Most of us can barely afford food. But we are made to carry the weight of everyone else’s crimes.
I would like to remind you all: we did not vote on this. We never said we were ok with this happening in our area. Those women are being abused. I don’t care what you read in the guardian or on twitter about “sex work”. They are being raped for cash because they have no other option, and the people who live here have no choice but to see that going on, day in, day out, and there’s nothing we can do. Of the girls attending the local school, a certain percentage of them will end up doing that before they’re 20. I don’t know what the percentage is, but that wasn’t presented to me as a career option in my (middle class) district when I was growing up. That wasn’t a fate which awaited a certain percentage of us.
Work is hard to find here. I have been unemployed three years, and I am MPhil, bilingual with accounting qualifications and lots of experience. If I can’t find work, how is it for less privileged people? Benefits sanctions have hit us hard. I get nothing. Many others get nothing, or so little it might as well be nothing. And austerity hits women harder than men. The government is systematically and knowingly driving working class women into extremes of poverty, and then generously “allowing” us to be raped for £20. I view this as the systematic sexual enslavement of working class women for the gratification of middle class men.
I’d like to say “I don’t know why ministers aren’t screaming blue murder about this in their pulpits every Sunday”; but I do know why. They aren’t talking about it, because they don’t care. We are only poor women; it is to be expected that we be raped and abused. It is to be expected that middle class men use us without fear or shame, because they are middle class men and the police and laws are on their side. That is the nature of our society and does not even merit attention. It’s the patriarchy, stupid.
And after all, it’s “legal sex work”. It’s just a job, right? It’s just that no middle class men want to do it. No middle class women want to do it, either. No, the privilege of that “work” lands squarely on those with no other choices.
We have consistently voted Labour since Labour was a thing. Labour have deserted us. We never see them, they don’t campaign. In the four years I have been here, they have put one leaflet through the door, and that was put through by a nice old lady. Why should they bother doing nice things for us? Who are we going to vote for? The Tories? Hardly. And so, the abuse goes on and no one protects us.
In the last elections (turnout 28%, which I think says a lot), an independent candidate stood, on a platform of ending the “managed zone”, and did very well, against the incumbent Hilary Benn. Given what Labour are doing to women’s rights, and given what they have done to my neighbourhood, I will be voting for her next time around. Hell, I might even campaign with her if she wants me. I’m done showing loyalty to a party who sells out its most loyal and most vulnerable supporters.
Local residents have set up a campaign group. Here on their website they speak more eloquently than I have, about the reality of our lives.