Legal Red Light Districts Don’t Keep Sex Workers Safe

Just before Christmas of 2015, 21-year-old Daria Pionko, a street-based sex worker, was murdered in the Holbeck district of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Sadly, violence is a fact of life for street workers; they are 12 times more likely than other women to be murdered in the UK. But Pionko was working in Britain’s first-ever legal red light district, a project whose intention is to protect workers from violence. Her death raised questions: Can sex workers ever truly be safe inside the system that criminalizes and demonizes their existence? Or do we have to dismantle that system in order to truly achieve justice, equality, and safety for sex workers?

The red light district, which was made official in October 2014 and permanent in January 2016, was initiated by local group Safer Leeds in collaboration with sex workers charities and law enforcement. In the legalized red light area, street workers are permitted to solicit clientele between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The decriminalization of sex work at any level is an important stepping stone toward recognizing the human rights of sex workers, but the zone and the legislation supporting it have messy implications which fail to annihilate the systemic and historical violence sex workers face in the process of making a living.

Numerous factors inhibit the effectiveness of the Holbeck red light zone. As it turns out, Leeds is currently facing a particularly trying moment of austerity. The Holbeck budget will be cut by $180 million by the end of this month. Meanwhile, the police force has taken a whopping 30% cut and anticipates further dire slashes. The relatively new legislation arises in this context of economic struggle for Leeds.

From a policymaker’s perspective, legalizing the sex trade in a specific zone for a specific amount of time may be a beacon of hope for a shrinking budget. If those in the industry can work legally, they then can report issues directly to the police — absolving the need for heavy-handed and expensive monitoring of street work. Allowing sex to be traded legally might look like an opportunity to save money and police energy, allowing funds usually used to process and parole sex workers to be re-allocated.

But simply creating a zone for sexual service providers to do their job does not necessarily imply ultimate safety for those working in a historically stigmatized and risky profession. Pionko’s death makes that starkly clear: Decriminalization was not enough to save her life.

This may be because, freed of the responsibility to round up sex workers, police have drifted away from the red light area. Sources report that police presence in the district has dwindled, perhaps in an effort to conserve resources. Teela Sanders, a sociology professor at the University of Leeds, wrote in a report: “The perceived decrease in police presence during operational hours is a concern and has contributed to sex workers not experiencing an increase in feeling safer.” Sanders recommended that extra policing, better street lighting, CCTV, and number plate recognition might help create a safer environment for those working the streets of Holbeck. However, enacting these moves toward greater safety for workers in the red light district will require time, energy, and most importantly, funds.

Budget cuts are complex obstacles that will not be resolved with the wave of a magic wand. Nor are the numerous stigmas against sex workers resolvable by a conditional permission slip written by the State. The stakes for street workers, in particular, are high. If we are a global community that values the rights of sex workers, then we will also understand that a legal red light district with nonexistent safety measures is a quick fix to a nebulous issue, and poses serious threats to workers’ lives.

Due to the overarching criminalization of sex work, few sex workers feel safe confiding in police, and this is unlikely to change simply because providers are allowed to work legally. Police violence against sex workers and dismissal of their traumas has created a relationship of distrust worldwide. In New York City, for example, the Urban Justice Center and the Sex Workers Project interviewed 30 street workers, ultimately finding that 80% of them had experienced violence on the job. When researchers asked about reporting these crimes to the police, the workers overwhelmingly responded that police did not take their complaints seriously or suggested that they should “expect violence” on the job.

“Carol,” a worker interviewed by researchers, said,“If I call them, they don’t come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it. ‘Nobody told you to be in the street,’ [they say].” Thirty percent of those interviewed stated that they had been threatened with violence by police officers, while 27% reported actually having experienced physical violence at the hands of the police. In a culture of widespread whorephobia, it can only be assumed that these statistics shed light on the reluctance of workers to look to the police for help. Allowing workers to report assault, rape, and trafficking they see or experience on the job via legalizing that work on a precarious and provisory basis fails to answer to the larger issues that shadow sex work generally.

Even if the red light zone were truly safe, it’s too small to be sufficient. (Holbeck covers less than a square mile.) Restricting the movement of workers feels similar to the backhanded pandering of “free speech zones.” A legal red light zone says, “Come as you are, but at times that are inoffensive to me and on conditions that I establish.” There’s an unspoken ceiling implied by limiting the ability to work legally to “the right time and the right place” — and that restriction raises questions about whether we truly perceive sex workers as people, deserving of equal rights and respect. The minute a worker steps off the legal grid, they are immediately vulnerable to harassment, rape, and murder at the hands of clients or police. It’s clear that a legal red light zone has benefits, but does it really solve the problem of widespread violence against sex workers? We’ve seen from Pionko’s death that it does not. And sex workers’ understandable fear of the law makes me wonder what other violent crime they have endured, but left unreported, in the UK’s legal red light zone. When we’re talking about an illicit trade, even during the few hours when it’s legal, it’s unlikely that we have all the information.

Budget cuts are a hurdle, but sex workers, who contribute to the economy just like everyone else, are in constant, grave danger. It’s inexpressibly fatiguing to try to protect yourself while dodging half-baked and negligent policy, and sex workers carry a significant psychological weight from the stigma surrounding their profession. No matter what time of day it is or where they happen to be standing, workers deserve recognition as human beings with human rights.

If we respect the lives of sex workers — a basic humane position, regardless of complicated societal opinions about their jobs — then, at bare minimum, we need to decriminalize their existence completely, lest the violence continue. We need to actively seek out solutions from those who are on the treacherous front lines of patriarchal violence. Sex workers can spend precious energy advocating for the rights of their respective communities for lifetimes, but unfortunately, that alone won’t spark the cultural shift necessary to save lives. Everyone else also needs to step up and put pressure on law enforcement and policymakers to do their research. After all, workers are a part of this world, too. We’re mothers, daughters, girlfriends, boyfriends, brothers, best friends — we’re real people. Hopefully the lives of countless victims can be recognized as being worth the time, money, and energy necessary to enact thoughtful and effective policy.

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Lead image: flickr/Patrick Standish

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