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Christa Ackroyd: Why Leeds’s ‘safe’ prostitution zone must end now

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I can still see her now. She was young but she had the face of an old woman. She was thin, not fashionably thin, but malnourished.

Her skin was blotchy, her eyes desperate and darting. And she begged me for money. £20 was all she needed, she said, to feed her cat. Only it wasn’t for her cat. She probably didn’t even have a cat. What she did have was a pimp. And as she begged for money she looked over her shoulder in case he was watching. He would hit her she said if she didn’t bring him the money. That wasn’t even her biggest worry. Her fix was her focus. And he had the drugs. I didn’t give her the £20. Instead I offered to buy her cat food. She laughed in my face. She knew I knew the game.

Of course her pimp was her boyfriend. He loved her. He took care of her, she said. She just needed the money to prove she loved him as much as she loved the drugs he provided, the reason she walked the streets and sold sex. I met her during the Crossbow Cannibal case in 2010 when three women selling sex on the streets of Bradford had been murdered. Six months later she called my mobile. She sounded strong and in control. She was clean and living in a safe house. I went to meet her. She wanted to tell me she had made contact with her parents again, was being treated for her drug addiction, but she was lonely. In fact she was climbing the walls. Her only friends had been the girls selling sex for £20 a go .. less if trade was slow. Her pimp had got a message to her that he missed her too. That he knew she missed drugs more. And the last time I heard she was back on the streets. She could be dead for all I know. And she and others like her haunt me. This week residents in Holbeck in Leeds demonstrated outside the offices of their local MP demanding an end to the ‘safe zone’ where the selling of sex is tolerated ostensibly to protect the girls who trade in it. Indeed Holbeck has been dubbed the first unofficial legalised prostitution area in the country. Shame on us. There is nothing safe about being a sex worker and in Holbeck the number of rapes and violent crimes against these sad unfortunate women has gone up year on year as more and more prostituted women find their way there. The very week the experiment was extended a young woman was murdered. But it went ahead anyway.

Well I don’t want to live in a society where the selling of sex is tolerated. Prostitution is not the oldest profession in the world. It is the most excused, ignored abuse of women. And it’s happening in every town and city in our country. There are an estimated 80,000 others like the girl I write about. Some are groomed. Some are trafficked. The vast majority are drug addicts. All are exploited. And don’t tell me it’s their right to choose what they do with their bodies. These women don’t chose to sell sex to strangers. It’s hardly a career choice. It is an act of desperation carried out under a cloak of fear. Neither is the solution to legalise brothels, to take these women off the streets. If we can’t police women who have been prostituted to sell sex illegally - which street prostitution is - then how can we protect those who do the same behind closed doors?

I sympathise with the residents of Holbeck living amongst the discarded needles and condoms.It must be horrible to have their daughters propositioned, to not dare wander out at night. But I sympathise with the women more. The only approach is a multi agency exit strategy where addiction services join with social services, housing and police to support these sad victims of the sex industry. Because they are victims. It works. In Ipswich, where five women were murdered in 2006, 100 exited prostitution and the vast majority never went back. Because they were offered an alternative to the chaotic violent life that is often as addictive as the substances they take to cope with it. There is another solution. Instead of criminalising women sex workers let us criminalise the men who buy sex, as they do in Northern Ireland. It works. Turning a blind eye never does. Yorkshire is rightly famous for its social conscience. It was a Yorkshire MP who led the fight against slavery, Well slavery is still happening on our streets right now and we are being told to just ignore it. It’s the slavery of prostitution and I for one can never accept it. Neither should anyone with a conscience. Holbeck isn’t working. It is time to end this crazy experiment now. There is no such thing as a happy hooker. And there never will be.