Holbeck’s Sex Work Zone and the socialist imperative of decriminalisation

Image Credit: Juno Mac

By Sarah Horton

The ‘Holbeck Managed Approach’ in Leeds, implemented in 2014, is the only area in the UK where sex workers, and clients, can do business without being arrested. While sex itself is not permitted in the area, from the hours of 8pm to 6am, street-based sex workers can legally meet punters. The approach aims to minimise sex work in residential areas and, most importantly, to enable sex workers to report the crimes committed against them without fear of criminalisation.

Since its implementation, Leeds-based sex worker support charity, Basis, have reported a striking rise, from 7% to 97%, in the number of women willing to report such crimes to the police. Economic problems associated with sex work have also been minimised, with one worker noting, in an article written by local historian, Kate Lister, that she is now less liable to be fined for working and forced into a cycle of sex work to pay her debts.

Despite these material gains for sex workers, a small group, entitled ‘Save Our Eyes’, has called for the zone’s closure, complaining of the proximity of sex workers to their homes, the litter left behind and the workers’ apparent breaches of the zone’s limits. Others argue that the zone has proven that decriminalisation only results in further violence, citing the murder of 21-year-old Daria Pionko in December 2015 as evidence. However, both official sources and sex workers have attributed such deaths to the fact that women are forced to have sex in unsafe areas outside the regulated zone.

Further, Sex Workers Advocacy and Resistance Movement, SWARM, officially stated their support for ‘any working class community which calls for better living conditions’, but argued that closing down the zone was not the answer, as it would further displace economically marginalised women and threaten transwomen and migrants, who are most at risk of police crackdowns. Both SWARM and Basis have also noted that only a minority of workers are breaking the rules, as most wish to avoid conflict with residents.

While some residents have legitimate concerns regarding the organisation of the zone, the work of ‘Save Our Eyes’ further stigmatises sex workers, regurgitating harmful stereotypes and distancing local communities from their sex-worker members. Such action serves to reinforce a rift between working-class communities, redirecting communal anxieties away from the real causes of their socioeconomic problems. As SWARM implied, closing the zone might aid gentrification of the area, which could result in other working-class people being driven out.

The full decriminalisation of sex work is a socialist imperative that goes some way to eradicating these divisive hierarchies. It would situate sex work as a legitimate form of labour, enabling workers to unionise and gain employment rights, as well as potentially helping to destigmatise the profession. The removal of the added barriers of fines and criminal records would also offer women more opportunities to exit the profession if they so desired. Decriminalisation, as evidenced by the Holbeck zone, would also enable workers to hold violent customers to account and potentially allow an ultimate reduction of violence and crime in the community. Protecting and extending decriminalised zones, then, is vital for both sex workers and their working-class communities.

The rest of the UK, as it stands, enforces partial criminalisation, where buying and selling sex is legal but many acts associated with such work, i.e. soliciting and kerb-crawling, is not. Despite the clear socialist tenets of decriminalisation, Labour has been slow to adopt this policy. While Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has worked repeatedly with the English Collective of Prostitutes, in 2018, Corbyn implicitly signalled his support for the ‘Nordic model’ of sex work legislation, despite potentially supporting broader decriminalisation in 2016.

This model, which decriminalises workers and criminalises clients, has been widely criticised by sex worker organisations. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue, the criminalisation of clients does not reduce demand, but instead pushes workers into increasingly dangerous positions, forcing them to solicit in unsafe areas to avoid client prosecution. Most organisations also criticise ‘legalisation’ models, as adopted in the Netherlands, as the expensive applications to become a licensed sex worker further criminalises particularly vulnerable workers, such as undocumented migrants and homeless people.

The fact that sex workers are vocal supporters of decriminalisation is, itself, a reason for Labour to listen, as agency of the working-classes should be central to any socialist movement. Moreover, decriminalisation fulfils various socialist goals: reducing the targeting of minorities by the police and allowing workers greater power to both unionise and earn in a period of increasing economic instability, where benefit sanctions have been cited as a key motivation for women entering into sex work.

Labour’s failure to engage with these convincing arguments shows a disregard for the issues affecting working-class women and minorities, who form the majority of sex workers and are disproportionately affected by austerity. To support working-class women’s survival in an increasingly classist, racist and misogynistic society, Labour needs to publicly commit to decriminalisation and make this clear in their manifesto. This should come hand-in-hand with opening borders, which would most effectively reduce trafficking and safeguard undocumented migrant sex workers, who are targeted by police even in decriminalised systems. As the U.S. authorities crack down on both sex work and migration, now more than ever, Corbyn’s labour have to create an inclusive, socialist movement that includes the international voices and demands of sex workers.