So, I’ve talked about the legal red light district in Leeds before, and no doubt I will again, because I walk through it every day so it’s always on my mind. But I wanted to share something that happened to me this evening which gave me a new (and unwelcome to be honest) point of view.
I’ll keep the details spare cos it’s not my aim to embarrass anyone. But I was in a group earlier which included a few other people from Holbeck. The subject came up very quickly, as it always does in any discussion of Holbeck. Those of us who live here were of course the most engaged, and some frank discussion followed.
A man and woman around my age (40) approached it from an angle I was instinctively comfortable with: one talked of incel culture, and one said how great it would be to hear from more different people, mentioning the documentary made by the bbc (which I have been told is excellent but which I feel too traumatised to watch myself), and which was made “from the point of view” of the prostituted women (and I’m glad of that). But they said it would also be interesting to talk to other people from the community because this is something which affects us all, and how it would be great to speak to maybe a policeman, the family of one of the women, local shopowners, local kids, etc. Which I thought was a good point.
But as another, slightly older couple began talking, the conversation quickly crystallised into something different, more vicious and frankly a little difficult to be around. The woman was particularly brutal, and got quite passionate about “these slags”and how her childhood had been terrible but you didn’t see her doing drugs etc. They went on to complain about seeing condom and needle refuse in the streets: of course, not acceptable especially with so many kids around, but it was clear that what they were passionate about was that this shouldn’t be happening WHERE THEY LIVE.
The facilitator of the conversation (I think probably sensing some discomfort in the room) handled it brilliantly, deftly segueing into a conversation about narrative voices etc. The moment passed. But the angry passion of the woman stuck like a thorn in my throat. As I walked home (though the red light district, now fully up to speed as night had fallen) I passed maybe five women out working. A couple of them greeted me cheerfully and pleasantly as I passed, and I felt that was like a little white flag raised between two women who were aware of the intimidating and frightening nature of their surroundings and were giving each other a little nod of solidarity. Perhaps that’s what they meant. It is what I meant, anyway. Perhaps they are just friendly women.
I passed the “Basis” van, looking like a little cheerful island in this dark wasteland of shadows and canal and broken glass and boarded up railway arches and abandoned cars in alleyways. The doors were open so I went and had a wee chat. I told them I was glad to see them there, that I worried about the women. They seemed like nice women. Their van has some comfy chairs inside and is warm and has coffee and snacks. The project has not been universally popular, but I can tell you I was glad at least someone was there. They park on the main corner and all around them, the women are pacing, waiting, sometimes chatting to each other, sometimes alone. Some women look old and worn out. Some look desperately young, still with those awkward legs teenagers have like Bambi, and a bit dangerous. (I have PTSD in common with many of these women, so I know where the “slightly dangerous” look comes from). There was a tall woman who looked in better shape and better maintained than the others, talking animatedly on her mobile, in a language I didn’t recognise, which I would guess was something Slavic (I have been told that the dynamics are as follows: the foreign women are better looking and charge more because they don’t use crack. The talk is that they “appeared” as a result of decriminalisation and there is some conflict between them and the local women. I have no idea if any of this is true. It was gossip)
As I passed a woman on the corner (making sure always to keep my head up, always look around me, stay to the edge of the pavement, because the red light district is scary and dangerous and you feel very threatened) a man was approaching from the other direction. He also looked kind of worn out, in joggers and carrying a plastic bag, maybe on his way home from work? and like he probably couldn’t afford money for that anyway. (We are POOR in holbeck. Many of us, anyway. To give you some context: I have £3.99 to last me until Monday. I need that all for dog food. And I’m one of the lucky ones, at least I have a safe house with electricity on the meter and some tins in the cupboard and a fridge).
We happened to pass her at more or less the same time, so I heard her approach him and ask him “are you looking for business sweetheart?”. It felt very awkward, like I was intruding on a moment of intimacy, which of course I am not in a way. But in another, very real way, I am. Suddenly the relationship between the players changed, and while i would normally see any man in that zone at that time as a potential threat, something about the interchange made me feel kind of protective of him, too. It felt so sad. What are the options. Either, he doesn’t want to have sex with her. Perhaps he does, but he doesn’t have the money. Perhaps he does, but he won’t. Perhaps he has a daughter her age and she makes him think of her and worry about her. Perhaps horrible images go through his mind at night and he can’t sleep. There is no way for any of us to know. But it can’t be pleasant to be asked. In fact I have known many local men complain about being asked and how awkward they feel and they don’t know what to say or do. While ones sympathies are very naturally focused on the women in this scene, prostitution is degrading to all of us. To the children and young people who live here, too. Seeing it and knowing what is happening is degrading to all of us as a community.
But there was something so devastatingly sad about it. I was reminded of George Orwell saying of poverty that the first thing you lose is your sex life, because no one wants to have sex with poor people, and you can’t afford to buy it (in Down and Out in Paris and London, in which he also observed one sees fewer female “tramps” than males because “women always have something to sell”). The man looked so tired, and she looked so sick and ill. I didn’t hear what he said back to her, but it was in the negative. I felt the strange sensation of disappointment, fear that I had fucked up her deal for her because maybe the man would have said yes if I hadn’t been there, but he was too embarrassed to say yes in front of me.
Anyway, I’m drifting. What I wanted to explain is that this is why I haven’t felt comfortable getting involved with the local campaign group, who have organised to try to end the managed zone. They’ve put leaflets through the door a couple of times, and I admire them for organising themselves and fighting for our community. But there’s always this NIMBY element to it, where I always felt the focus was too much on the negative impact this is having on our community (though that is savage, undeniably, and utterly unacceptable and a disgrace to every elected official in the city); while I passionately want to end the managed zone, I would get down on my knees and crawl if it would change it, it eats my heart like a cancer; but I don’t just want them to move to another part of the city or to “stay in their zone” (a frequent complaint of local residents is that the “business” [so hard to find the right words to describe this situation] is not contained within the times and streets set down by the council).
My heart breaks all the time in holbeck. After a difficult start, I have come to love this neighbourhood and the community here. I feel protective of them. Of us. Lord, do we battle, but we survive (most of us 😿) and we do it with some grace. And I want to end this. My heart rises up in my throat full of disgust which threatens to choke me. Sometimes when I am walking home I could cry because of what I see all around me, and I have to stop myself so people don’t think I’m crazy, and stopping myself crying hurts my chest and throat and makes my nostrils quiver. I know what is happening to those women, right now. I have come home, and I am sitting here safe on my iPad. No one is going to hurt me tonight (god willing). But every night they are being hurt and I can’t stop it. So I desperately want to end the managed zone.
But I would pick up a hundred condom wrappers from my front yard every morning if it would stop this. I don’t give a shit about the condom wrappers. Let them choke the railway, let them wash like a great flood down the river into the centre of the city and clog up the fancy tourist bridges at Granary Wharf. A condom wrapper isn’t going to kill me or rape me.
So when we talk about the managed zone and the damage being done to our community, let’s resolve that we are never going to forget that there is no “them” and “us”. The women “working” in the zone are part of our community too, and them moving to an even quieter less well-policed zone or limiting the “business” between agreed hours is not an acceptable compromise. The problem here is the rapes, the beatings, the crack, and especially the systematic abuse that has led to this point, which shames us all (but middle class white men especially). A lot of people had to fail in their duties for these woman to end up where they are. And they could be me. I am only maybe one or two bad decisions or pieces of bad luck from where they are. They could be you.
And don’t call my sisters slags. Don’t call them anything at all. I’m not having that. As if their night isn’t shit enough RIGHT NOW, right at this very moment while we are drinking tea, they are out there in the terrifying damp cold which hurts your lungs- we are not going to have people who are safe sitting around discussing this as if the WOMEN are the problem, and calling them the kind of names the johns call them.
People shit on Holbeck. Some have postulated my postcode is one of the reasons I’m finding it hard to get a job. But people, yeah, are stupid. We have such a proud history, you would be amazed by how many extraordinary things we have done. We invented and crafted and created, we battled Nazis on the common while the government appeased them. We built the railways and canals. This whole beautiful city is made of stones our ancestors carved with their own hands. Our workmanship was legendary. Our water came from famous (and, prior to industrialisation, profitable) springs. We have tended allotments, and raised fine dogs and horses, and organised bowling championships, community gardens and food banks. We are the home of the oldest working man’s club still in operation in the UK. We are also home to the (now closed) almost-as-revolutionary Pitt conservative club (I admit to a childish delight they closed down but we are still open 🤣✊🏻) which I find utterly fascinating and can’t find any information on (it is now a cleaning company. I got chatting to them once and tried to wangle an invitation to look inside but I didn’t get one 😿). We have organised free adult education. We make fabulous beer. Our churchyard is home to dissenters, engineers, reformers and abolitionists.
I’m telling you this so you understand: our ancestors didn’t do all that, so that their great great granddaughters would end up hawking pussy cos they got unlucky. And also so you understand: we may look down, but we are not out. We have fought and we will fight. We do not accept this life for our sisters or for ourselves. Make no mistake: if we have to fight you for a hundred (more) years, we will do it, but it isn’t going to take that long.
FOOTNOTE: if you would like to know more about the red light district and the efforts being made by local people to end it, the local campaign group is called Save Our Eyes. Some have also joined together to stand for election on a platform of ending the managed zone. You can find out more about Basis Yorkshire here. I would recommend Julie Bindels writings on prostitution. Someone told me she used to live here. In any case, she certainly knows and understands the area.