It was at the height of the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry and while most journalists concentrated on the killer and his crimes, probably because most crime reporters were men, I wanted to know why women would put themselves at risk night after night meeting strangers for sex.
It was a rude awakening into a world I was sadly to report on many times over during the next few decades, from the murder of Leeds teenager Julie Dart, to the horrific crimes of the Crossbow Cannibal.
Skippy, obviously not her real name, took advantage of my obvious naivety. “Look girls we have a new girl trying the muscle in on our patch,” she shouted to the others standing on a corner of Lumb Lane.
Red-faced, I explained I just wanted to talk. “That’s what they all say,” came her swift response. “But it’ll cost you. My time’s not cheap, you know.”
Bursting out laughing at the horrified look on my face, Skippy eventually took pity on me and agreed to answer my questions with one caveat. “Don’t you dare judge me,” she demanded. “I know women who agree to have sex with their husbands for a new dress or a new kitchen. I do it to feed my children and put a roof over our heads.”
Skippy’s comment has stayed with me forever. Her story was one which I was to become all too familiar with in the years that followed. Faced with eviction after escaping a violent partner, Skippy turned to prostitution to pay the rent. And stayed. But she was feisty and defiant. She was different from the women I encountered more than 30 years later in the same city after the murder of three women by Stephen Griffiths. They had no fight, they just wanted their next fix. Selling their bodies was to pay for their addiction. All were tired, painfully thin and weary of life. They reaffirmed my view that prostitution is never a choice. And that the men who use them, pimp or punter, are the real criminals.
Over the years I have made my views on prostitution very clear. To tolerate it is to sanction abuse. Nothing and no-one will make me change my mind.
For every high-profile murder of a woman selling sex on the streets, there are countless more who have been attacked, violated and destroyed whose stories we never hear. Which is why this week I breathed a sigh of relief that common sense has prevailed and Leeds City Council has announced that the ‘managed’ zone in Holbeck is to end.
Thank goodness. You cannot ‘manage’ prostitution. It is a dark, dangerous world where any sense of trying to bring order to the chaos is impossible.
But here is my warning. The issues surrounding prostitution and the control of these women by men will not go away. We must not allow them to be forced to go underground. Because being forced to become a prostitute is the truth behind the whole issue. And if anyone dare utter the phrase ‘it’s their choice’, I will get angry, It is not. And never has been. Nor is the glib phrase ‘you can’t stop it, it’s the oldest profession in the world’ an excuse for allowing it to continue.
But these women need help. They certainly do not need to be turned into criminals now it is no longer ‘legal’ for them to stand on street corners waiting for the next customer. They need help escaping the men who control them. They need support to overcome their addiction and mental health issues, because these women are damaged physically and mentally by what they have been through.
In some ways having become outcasts in society they have also become addicted to life on the streets. They cannot just be given a flat and told to get on with it. To be alone with their demons is as dangerous as the life they find themselves living. I do not believe Leeds City Council and its officers made their decision to allow prostitution in one area of the city out of ease, that it was easier if it was contained.
But I do believe they were naive. As for the police, yes it is true that they policed the area in the hope that these women would report any violence shown towards them. Sadly that – as many women have told me down the years – is what they have come to see as being part of the job.
And don’t call them sex workers. It somehow validates the theory that it is a bona fide profession. It isn’t. It is modern day slavery.
I commend the campaigners at Save Our Eyes, the residents group in Holbeck, who have fought against the managed zone they have been forced to live with these past few years.
Yes they wanted to reclaim their streets as a place of safety for themselves and their families, having had to live with the detritus of prostitution, from discarded needles and condoms to unwanted attention from those who seek their services. But above all, they want help for these girls and a life from which there seems to be no escape. But there must be.
Instead, let the full force of the law and the power of public condemnation be turned on those men who would use and abuse these women. Let the pimps and the kerb crawlers be arrested and brought before the courts. Let them be named and shamed and forced to accept that what they are doing is wrong, and that for too long it has destroyed the lives of women who once had dreams and ambitions.
Leeds City Council has made the first step in the right direction. But it must be only the first step, because this is an issue that will not go away unless we tackle it with compassion, care and determination.
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