The Holbeck Experiment

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Holbeck has been a ‘managed area’ for 5 years now, meaning prostitutes are not prosecuted while trading. Isabel Ralphs talks to a former prostitute to find out the impact this has on sex work in the area.

Perhaps not common knowledge for those of us living North of the Trinity Centre, in 2014 Leeds became the first and only city in the UK to allow sex workers to sell their trade on the streets without fear of arrest. For the past five years, Holbeck – situated in the South West of the city, around the corner from Watergate – has been home to a new approach to the sale of sex, known as the ‘Managed Approach’. Colloquially – though inaccurately – branded the UK’s first legal ‘Red Light District’, in Holbeck, between the hours of 8pm and 6am, sex workers can work on the streets in a designated area and not be prosecuted by police. 

The scheme is credited with aiming to reduce ‘problems’ caused by the industry to local residents and improve safety for the workers themselves, with a view to ultimately help them find a way out of their current way of living. Although complaints about the approach as a public nuisance issue are ongoing, in terms of what it has done for the people selling their bodies to make ends meet, the Holbeck experiment has seen some gleams of success. 

For starters, reporting of incidents of crime against sex workers has gone up in the area, since decriminalising prostitution allows sex workers to report misdemeanours they have suffered on the job without having to worry about being convicted themselves in the process of doing so. 

Despite the fact that an estimated 73,000 people were reported to be working the trade in 2019, prostitution is a topic that is largely left out of conversation in the United Kingdom – where an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach tends to be the one taken. The way laws criminalise sex work practices in the UK means that the industry today remains largely behind closed doors.

Thanks to the staff at Forward Leeds (a charity that works with and supporting vulnerable people in Leeds), I was able to speak with ‘Rosie’, who until very recently worked in Holbeck herself. 

In her words, Rosie was “the epitome of a normal person” – with a family and a good job in local government – until her life was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with a very painful form of arthritis. Rosie’s meds were stopped by her doctor when she had reached the point where she was taking 40 pills a day. A number of unfortunate encounters with the wrong people led to Rosie losing her job and in need of a quick way to finance a spiralling heroin addiction. Rosie believes that she made the “worst mistake of [her] life” the day she decided to try working in Holbeck. 

Image: BBC

Sometimes earning £600–£700 a night when she first started, is easy to see why sex work might have seemed a lucrative option for Rosie – and it is only with the benefit of hindsight that she is able to say that the money she was earning “is not worth it at all”. Before long on the job, Rosie had lost 6 stone and most of the money she was meant to be earning after falling victim to a psychologically abusive relationship. 

“He would watch how many cars I got in, and if he suspected I’d kept any of the money he’d go crazy”, Rosie explained. She went on to tell me about the time her abuser threw a brick through her window, missing her head by 6 inches. 

Despite the traumas, Rosie suffered on the streets of Holbeck, she still sings the praises of the treatment of sex workers in the area. 

“The police are great”, she said. “A lot of the girls don’t appreciate it” – citing the claim that police presence drives potential customers away from the area – “but if missing a couple of customers is the worst you can say, I’m not bothered”. 

Rosie also pointed out the fact that having police on the streets is preferable to having them waste time charging girls, who “are going to be out in an hour doing the exact same thing”. At least in Holbeck, police are around in the event of an attack – which, sadly, are very much a reality in this line of work. 

Now four months clean, Rosie’s life is slowly getting back to normal. “Life is good, but it could be better. I’m working towards better”, she told me. Rosie thanks local charities for helping to turn her life around. Organisations such as the Joanna Project, Basis and Forward Leeds have all played a role in helping Rosie and others in similar situations to get out of a toxic and damaging lifestyle. 

“The support you get down there is wonderful!” she said, about the Joanna Project. “When I first went in, I was a mess”, she reflects, but staff at the Project treating her like a ‘normal person’ – without judgement or stigmatisation – “made [her] feel like a human for the first time in a long time”. 

Rosie is very clear on the fact that she is not a criminal, telling me that she would never have given the idea a second thought had Holbeck not been a legal zone. This does beg the question of whether areas like this make the dangerous profession of prostitution more tempting to those who may otherwise not have considered it. But the support she gets from police and charity organisations working in Holbeck cannot be underestimated. Taking a more lenient and compassionate approach to people in situations like Rosie’s, rather than jumping to arrest them without a second thought as to why they might be doing what they are doing, is certainly a step in the right direction.

At the very least, Holbeck is helping to open up the conversation a little bit more and slowly bring the issue out into the daylight. 

Statement from Forward Leeds:

Forward Leeds does not support the selling of sex on the streets. However, in the past criminalising women involved in selling sex has been incredibly damaging and has left women vulnerable, isolated, stigmatised and subject to perpetrators who have targeted sex workers with little fear of identification, arrest or conviction. Through the managed approach these women have been made safer. They feel they are more able to come forward and report crimes. In addition, they have also been able to engage with other services around their general health and wellbeing. This includes Forward Leeds.

[Image Credit: Rafal Bloch / Shuttershock]