The final episode of the BBC3 documentary, Sex Drugs and Murder, is out (finally!) and at Basis we’re mightily relieved to see the end of the program – 18 months since they first came into the Leeds' managed area.
When research conducted by the University of York in 2014 found that sex workers in Leeds were not reporting violent crimes to the police, Leeds City Council, the West Yorkshire Police, and support groups came together to pioneer a new approach to street sex work and sex worker safety.
For over ten years, the street sex workers of Leeds have operated in the Holbeck district of the city and no attempt at abolishing this has worked. The 2014 ‘Managed Approach’ meant that within this area, between the hours of 8pm and 6am, there would be no police prosecutions for soliciting or selling sex. A dedicated police sex work liaison officer was brought in, as well as an increased police presence. Local and national charities that support sex workers, like Basis and National Ugly Mugs, were able to offer training to police and sex workers in reporting crimes and staying safe. The Joanna charity opened an outreach centre in Holbeck, offering support and advice for those who needed it.
And, what’s more, the scheme works. Under the new approach there has been a tenfold increase in crimes against sex workers reported to police, and conviction rates increased dramatically. But, it has not been easy to achieve.
Making the managed approach work is an extremely delicate process that has to continually balance the needs of vulnerable people, the rights and concerns of the residents, and the interests of local authorities. Basis are extremely concerned about the impact of the BBC's documentary series is having on this process.
Basis Yorkshire was set up to support sex workers across Leeds in 1989. Over that time, we have worked closely with sex workers across the sex industry to provide safety, information and support to women and young people who need it. We believe the BBC documentary 'Sex, Drugs and Murder; Life in the Red Light Zone’ has done a great deal of damage to the stereotypes of sex workers in Leeds (and across the country) by portraying the women in a highly sensationalist, voyeuristic way. The footage often none-to subtly focuses the shot on drug paraphernalia and rubbish in their home, or the area they work in - giving deliberately unpleasant, grubby feel to the program and the women that are featured. This all feeds into the unjustified, but very real, stereotypes that we know place sex workers at serious risk of harm – the hashtag #stigmakills exists for a reason.
The program could have been made about a group of women with complex needs and had the same content – but by adding the label of 'sex workers', it becomes more sensationalist and attracts more viewers. The documentary focuses only on women who have severe addiction issues, or on complex, even at times violent, social situations, rather than allowing viewers to see the diversity of women we work with (or indeed the diversity of the lives of the women they chose to film).
Pehaps what is most troubling from an ethical position is that the documentary team behind this series paid cash to vulnerable people to appear on film. Offering cash on the streets to individuals who are desperate for drugs is hardly ethical journalism, and certainly not dignified human interaction. Given the deeply complex needs and often chaotic lives of the people being filmed, it is hard to understand how the BBC believes exposing their lives to an audience of millions to critique is going to help.
Many of our service users, in fact, told us they had stayed well clear of the filming, and although most did they were upset by the footage nonetheless.
On June 5th, 2017, The Yorkshire Evening Post published an article online titled 'Women used as sex slaves kept in 'pop up brothels' in Yorkshire and Humberside'. The article highlights a new Crimestoppers campaign 'to tackle the issue of women being used as sex slaves within 'pop up brothels'... the campaign includes teaching people about the signs to look out for in their own neighbourhood, such as a number of women living at the address, frequent male visitors who do not stay for a long time and multiple vehicles visiting a property.'
The article goes on to list a number of 'warning signs' to look out for in your neighbourhood. They are as follows;
Trafficking is a serious crime and those responsible for trafficking any person should be prosecuted and victims should be supported. At Basis Sex Work, we have nearly 30 years of experience of supporting sexworkers and accurately identifying victims of trafficking and exploitation, we would suggest that the list of signs to look out for as quoted in the article are largely indistinguishable from signs that would indicate indoor sexwork is taking place – in many cases women who are sexworking out of choice and not held against their will.
Real trafficking victims are often not as obvious for the outside world to see. As the law currently stands, brothels are illegal and therefore women often move around and to remain unidentified. “Pop up brothels” does not necessarily imply trafficking.
As highlighted by experts in this field, conflating the issue of sexwork and trafficking is dangerous; it may cause those that are truly in need of support as victims of trafficking to go without support as efforts are focused on sexworkers as a whole - including those who are working out of choice. People are also trafficked for reasons other than sexual exploitation - such as forced labour. Conflating trafficking with sexwork also increases the risk of migrant sexworkers being disproportionately targeted by the police.
Our partnership with the police is based on the understanding that by conducting unjustified investigations on migrant and other sexworkers, the women will develop a greater distrust of the police as well as tying up scarce police resources. Indeed, a sexworker who doesn’t trust the police is not likely to call the police for support when they are in real danger – or request any support for themselves or any other woman if they are actually victims of trafficking.
We were recently awarded a national GSK Impact Award. One of the factors that contributed to this was our strong and innovative relationship with the police in Leeds, recognising our expert input into the response to sexwork in Leeds. We feel strongly that articles and campaigns such as the above do little to support the real victims of trafficking and in fact may make things worse. While we fully support efforts to protect victims of trafficking and prosecute the perpetrators, its important to remember that sexworkers, migrant or not, are not always victims of trafficking.
Buy Our Voices: Perspectives that Challenge the Stigma and Stereotypes around Sex Work here
I am really excited to introduce the Our Voices book to you all. Facilitated by Basis Yorkshire and funded by the Rosa Fund, this book contains a variety of stories and other perspectives from sex workers in Leeds. I wanted to briefly share our intentions behind making the book and its respective importance in challenging the stigma and stereotypes about sex work.
Its Comic Relief week! I know that so many people will be supporting Comic Relief today and I wanted to give you an example of the difference your work is making. Comic Relief’s funding allows us to offer specialist support to sex workers who have experienced sexual or domestic violence. Sex workers face a particular challenge when reporting crimes due to the stigma surrounding sex work. Sex workers still face prejudice from support services and the legal system when reporting crimes of a sexual nature committed against them. Frequently, their sex work is held against them, even when they have suffered the most horrific crimes.
My role is to support women through the whole criminal justice system, if they choose to go to the police, as well as supporting women who have been the victims of sexual or domestic abuse who don’t want to make a formal complaint. To have a specialist service that understands issues like the above, where conversations about work are not awkward and someone to help them navigate the system makes a real difference to the women.
Working one to one with the women has been really rewarding. I have supported women through the court process and have been the link to the police, as well as other supporting agencies; including accessing mental and physical health appointments and looking for volunteering opportunities and diversionary activities to help them combat social isolation. I also visit local hostels to raise awareness of our services. From the feedback we know that without Basis Sex Work’s involvement, some of these women would have not had accessed the support they need and have a right to. Also, its often just a real support to be believed and have someone to talk to that understands: “I’m thankful to you for everything, a big long weight off my shoulders feeling loads better thanks. ”
This post has allowed me to further develop our relationship with the Crown Prosecution Office and is something I’m proud to be working on. It was particularly special to have the Chief Prosecutor in to speak to our service users at our Xmas do as part of our #17daysofaction to End Violence Against Sex Workers. They talked to them about what consent is, and when and how it can and can’t be given. They spoke to the women about how they would want to prosecute any attacks on them as they would do any women, and the fact that they are sex workers does not mean that they will be seen as any different. West Yorkshire CPS have a good track record in this we are pleased to say.
Sometimes it’s been difficult to get women to engage with the one to one support about domestic violence or sexual violence issues as the women often have so many complex issues in their life; sexual abuse and violence only being one of them. In some cases, sexual abuse or other forms of violence have been normalised, particularly with street sex workers. Through our work we have already achieved a lot in increasing the number of sex workers willing to trust in the criminal justice process. But, domestic violence is still normalized for many women, and therefore much more challenging for them to address.
I’m proud to work for an organisation that allows me to have a flexible approach to supporting women through difficult times and working with them on their priority needs; helping me build strong working relationships. Thank you to everyone that has and will be supporting Comic Relief today!
The Leeds managed approach is innovative and forward thinking, but also a controversial system to manage street sex work. One of the aims was that the women would be more visible with the outcome of increased safety, but at the same time, it also makes them very easy to be spotted, filmed and sometimes harassed by the media.
I’ve been watching the current BBC3 documentaries named “Sex, Drugs and Murder” with frustration. I know these women well. I can see how one sided their representation is. I know how what they say is edited so they sometimes come across as heartless, greedy or aggressive. That’s really going to support the plight of eradicating sex worker stigma!
I can see in the girl’s eyes whether they are rattling or having just taken a shed load of Heroin. I can see their pain and suffering and I wonder how the filmmaker can point a camera in their face, and what exactly goes through his/her mind. I personally find it difficult viewing and morally totally disgusting. Just like a client, the filmmaker pays the sex worker for her time. Unlike a client, who pays specifically for a service, the filmmaker pays for her soul, with a total disregard for her any of the consequences. And at what cost? Well reports from the women indicate it’s anything from £30 to £300, depending on what theycan get away with. They get consent and assert that the girls have mental capacity, which of course is true, but the women are a followed around, getting in the way of their business and catching them when they desperately need more drugs, thus taking away any real choice. Participation seems to be the result of the filmmaker’s calculated manipulative behaviour.
The potential damage thiscould cause is significant. At the time of course, the subject is happy or desperate to accept money in order to score, then feels obliged talk on camera, or more realistically that’s the last thing on their mind whilst they are feeling poorly and sick. Afterwards though, they sit on our outreach bus, have time to reflect over a warming cuppa and their heart pours out in disbelief, horror and embarrassment about what they’ve said. My heart breaks to see them watching the footage off my mobile phone as they have no access to it personally, with tears rolling down their faces and fear in their eyes knowing what they have revealed. Some have even talked on film about crimes committed or their children taken into care all edited with a smile on their face or indifference, along with an edited catchphrase that will make even the most empathetic viewer disapprove.
One public opinion is that women need saving from sex work and that sex work is inherently abusive to women. One of the initial points for this documentary story was to get these women’s voices heard and let them tell their story. My feeling is that yes we are hearing a voice, but it’s a very one sided one. Why have they chosen to target just the most chaotic cases, all drug users, all vulnerably housed, all with mental health issues (although nothing official), and not any other examples of women that we also know from outreach? My opinion is that women don’t need “saving” from sex work, they need saving from voyeuristic, sensationalist and exploitative media programs.
Emily Turner- Senior Outreach Worker Basis Sex Work Project (Leeds)
Emily Turner, Outreach Worker at Basis Yorkshire
Safety of sex workers is so important to us here at Basis. In fact, we talk about it every day. Sadly, like so many other colleagues and sister projects across the UK, we have experienced the murder of one of the sex workers we worked with. Daria was murdered on the 23rd December 2015 and we are coming up to the 1st anniversary. We will be remembering her, and other murdered sex workers on that day with a little ceremony.
But thinking about violent crimes, sexual assaults and murders of sex workers is normal for us, and we strive to tackle these crimes in the work that we do. We coordinate the Ugly Mugs scheme in Leeds, where sex workers can report crimes committed against them to the police or to create alerts which can warn other working girls of dangerous individuals. We give women safety alarms and advice on how to work in as safe a way as possible. Crucially though, we fight sex worker stigma. We know sex workers can be targeted because perpetrators think they won’t report crimes against them, and even if they do, the police won’t believe them. And if the police do believe them, jury’s certainly won’t. This for us is not acceptable. Furthermore, other people’s bad attitudes continue to drive sex workers underground, away from a range of support, safety and health services.
At Basis we support the full decriminalisation of sex workers and we are involved in the partnership approach to sex work, including Leeds “controversial”and mostly misunderstood managed approach, the first of its kind in the UK. The managed approach is grounded in the idea of a harm reduction model with safety at its core. We are not interested in the moral judgements of others or silly sensationalist stories. We are interested in sex worker rights and safety.
December is always our busiest month and December the 17th the most important date in our calendar, as its International End Violence Against Sex Workers. This year we have run a 17 day campaign to raise awareness packed full of events. Here’s a low down of some of what we have been up to…
Throughout #17daysofaction, pics were posted all over social media with support and pledges from our friends and partners with the hashtags #17daysofsction #17dec #redumbrella and #endsexworkerviolence
The Art of a Profession Exhibition:
This was an evening to analyse people’s perception of sex work through the medium of art. Works were donated to be auctioned off using secret bids! The Exhibition will be on in The Brunswick from 17th Dec – 19th December.
All night outreach and Drop In from Friday 16th to Sat 17th 8pm – 4am:
A team of staff, volunteers and supporters delivered an all-night outreach in shifts throughout the night with live donations at the office of chocolate, warm clothes and toiletries.
Find out more from our website at www.basisyorkshire.org.uk
Whoever you are, be safe! We all have the same right to that!