Giving the Green Light to a Red-light District: Lessons from the UK Experiment

red light2Photo credit: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Should street prostitution be legal? When it is, what are the experiences of the women involved? I hope to go some way towards unpacking these issues below. I will use the example of the red-light district in Holbeck, Leeds to argue that legalisation is a superficial solution.

Prostitution laws in the UK are complicated. Individuals may sell sex, but they cannot solicit business in a public place. In October 2014, however, Britain’s first ever managed red-light district was trialled by Leeds City Council. Holbeck is now thought to be home to around 40 women who solicit on its streets. The move came after police failed to control prostitution in the area, leading to an abundance of problems in the community and a highly unsafe environment for the workers.

But has the managed area increased women’s security? Before looking at the evidence, we should discuss feminist perspectives on the issue to understand the key debates from a gendered standpoint.

Feminist Perspectives on Prostitution

Prostitution is a highly gendered issue. Across Europe, it is estimated that 87% of sex workers are female[1]. The feminist debates presented here represent two different ends of the scale. Pro-sex work feminists advance that prostitution will happen whether it is legal or not. Kelly Bell says by treating it the same as other labour, with the same protection and rights, the women who voluntarily enter this line of work can enjoy its monetary and sexually liberating benefits[2]. Murray highlights that the prohibition of prostitution only serves to push it underground into the hands of organised criminals, placing women at grave risk of exploitation and violence[3].

Radical feminist Catherine MacKinnon, on the other hand, puts forward an interesting argument against giving the green light to the sex trade. From a legal viewpoint, she explains the differences between ‘sex work’ and ‘sexual exploitation’ are based upon ideologies rather than actualities[4].  Her reasoning is that women never truly choose the sex trade. The majority of the time, people in prostitution are from poverty-stricken backgrounds, often having nowhere else to turn; in an interview with 854 sex workers, 89% said they had no other options for survival[5]. How, then, can we call it consent? Some scholars even go as far to call prostitution “paid rape”[6]. MacKinnon raises the question of whether it is a human right to not be in prostitution, as those who participate lose both their physical and psychological freedom. For these reasons, she argues legalisation in any form to be an ineffective solution, as it does nothing to curb demand.

Whilst I have had to simplify these arguments, it is clear there are two conflicting perspectives to consider. Let’s now look at the case of Holbeck.

Selling Sex on the Street: Liberation or Survival?

In July 2016, Leeds council announced Holbeck’s red-light district was here to stay. Councillor Dobson described the managed area as a “pragmatic approach” to keeping women safe in an industry “as old as time”.  An executive summary of its impact highlights ways the area has been successful, such as improved relations between police and sex workers. Perhaps most importantly, there has been an increase in reporting incidents of violence to Ugly Mugs, along with outreach charities finding it easier to contact workers regarding health and social care. This is in line with Bell and Murray’s arguments that providing sex workers with legitimacy increases their protection.

Behind the rosy picture presented in statistics and sound bites, however, are troubling stories.

The horrific murder of Daria Pionko, a migrant from Poland, by a ‘client’ just weeks before the district was made permanent came as a stark reminder of the extreme dangers sex workers face. Migrant workers are at particular risk due to being fearful of authorities. As fellow blogger Sarah Ditum points out, the executive summary seems to gloss over any potential impact the area may have on human trafficking as a consequence of an increase in demand. Moreover, despite the ‘improved relations’ with police, violence remains commonplace with some sex workers even suggesting the police have given up patrolling the area. A recent BBC Three documentary follows two women in the district, Debi and Sammi Jo, for whom prostitution is a matter of survival and a way of fuelling their drug addictions.

Although this evidence is somewhat anecdotal, it is clear MacKinnon’s arguments resonate. Legalising public solicitation may help with providing legal, social and health services to workers, but it does nothing to curb demand. Neither does it address the reasons why women may turn to sex work, an industry linked to poverty and drug/alcohol abuse. The women working in Holbeck remain endangered – a managed area is a superficial solution to a deep problem. More must be done by Leeds council to ensure individuals at risk have alternatives to prostitution.


[1] Brussa, Licia. “Sex Work In Europe: A Mapping of the Prostitution Scene in 25 European Countries”. European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers (Tampep, 2009) pp. 14

[2] MacKinnon, Catherine A. “Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality” in Harvard Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Review 46:2 (2011) pp. 271-309.

[3] Bell, Kelly J. “A Feminist’s Argument on How Sex Work Can Benefit Women” in Inquiries Journal 1:11 (2009)

[4] Murray, Alison. “Debt-Bondage and Trafficking: Don’t Believe the Hype” in Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition. Edited by Kamala Kempadoo & Jo Doezema (Routledge, 1998)

[5] Farley, Melissa et al. “Prostitution in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” in Journal of Trauma Practice 2:3/4 (2003) pp. 33-74

[6] See, for example: Farley, M. “Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart: Prostitution Harms Women even if Legalised or Decriminalised” and; Ekberg, G. “The Swedish Law that Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services. Best Practices for Prevention of Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings” in Violence Against Women 10:10 (2004) pp. 1087-1125.


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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