Sex Worker Voices
'Nothing About Us, Without Us'
In 1981 Peter Sutcliffe was arrested and charged with murdering thirteen women and attacking seven more, some of his victims were street sex workers in Yorkshire, including some in Leeds. In a police statement in February 1981 he said, 'It was my intention to get rid of prostitutes at any cost'. When Sutcliffe was later asked by his brother Carl why he had committed such awful crimes he replied, "I were just cleaning up the streets, our kid”.
Sex workers, historians and social researchers have long evidenced how people who sell sexual services are stigmatised, discriminated against, socially marginalised, and treated as ‘other’. In her 1994 historical studies of sex work, Nickie Roberts directly linked what she called ‘whore stigma’, to violence against sex workers, and the tendency for law enforcement not to take violence against sex workers seriously. Jon Lowman coined the term ‘discourse of disposability’ after studying the media coverage of sex worker murders in Canada. Lowman drew attention to the language used around sex work in the media, as well as in political, policing and resident discussions on how to ‘get rid’ of street prostitution from residential areas. Lowman observed that such campaigns often focused on ‘clearing up’ and so cast street sex workers as, ‘throwaway people’ who made the world dirtier simply by being in it. Once sex workers are being discussed in terms of social cleansing, a ‘social milieu in which violence against prostitutes could flourish’ is enabled (: 1003). Simply put, there is a link between media, political, and residential campaigns to ‘clear up’ street sex work and violence being enacted against sex workers.
In one of the most extensive studies of violence against sex workers in the UK, Hilary Kinnell stressed that violence against sex workers cannot be understood just by looking at individual perpetrators. She not only stressed that ‘hostile legislation, law enforcement, and public attitudes.... (2006: 163)’ are related to violence against sex workers, but illustrated how statements from police, politicians, local council officers, residents’ groups and others, which used the language of cleansing, cleaning up, eliminating, eradicating, effectively ‘equating sex workers with rubbish’ (Kinnell 2006: 148), were commonplace in the UK. These created a perception of sex workers as ‘social pollutants’ (: 149), reinforcing a ‘rhetoric of abhorrence’ (: 164), promoting and condoning the victimisation of sex workers.
We see examples of this ‘othering’ and language of disposability around sex workers in Leeds exemplified by the campaigning group ‘Save Our Eyes’ - a group who oppose the Leeds managed approach to street sex work. The name of the group itself is concerning enough, as it directly expresses distaste and disgust at women involved in street sex work in Leeds, but Save Our Eyes go much further than this.
Leeds artist Claire Bentley-Smith, has recently created a series of sculptures of sex workers out of rubbish she found on the street. She is described as working ‘closely with the campaign group Save Our Eyes’, is a vocal opponent against the managed approach and has on occasion formerly represented Save Our Eyes. One sculpture, called ‘Intravenous Innocents' is made of a used needle, a broken doll head, and burnt spoon. Another, called ‘Hopeless Harlot' also features a broken doll, as well as methadone bottles, wire mesh, a woman's bra, and £5 in Monopoly money. Bentley-Smith said, ‘Rather than us saying 'prostitution is damaging our area', through these sculptures it allows people to question prostitution and it brings about a much broader debate about what is happening here’. It is hard to imagine a more succinct example of Lowman’s ‘discourse of disposability’ in campaigning against street sex work than a sculpture of a sex worker literally made from litter found on the street. Sex workers are not street waste, they are not hopeless. They are not broken doll heads, monopoly money, drug refuse, or dirty bits of discarded underwear – the women working on the street in Leeds are human beings; mums, sisters and daughters. Associating a vulnerable and marginalised group with filth and rubbish is not only profoundly insulting, it is irresponsible.
As part of their campaign against the managed approach, Save Our Eyes gather ‘evidence’ of sex work taking place outside the managed area. Whilst the police and support groups encourage residents to report their concerns and any breaches of the rules, Save Our Eyes have a history of taking photos and videos of women working in street sex work, clearly identifying them, without their consent, and publish them online. They photograph cars in the area, ‘award’ them ‘punter of the week’ and then upload images of the vehicle, the driver and women they believe are sex workers to their website and Facebook group. This public identification and ‘outing’ of individual women is highly concerning, dangerous and would seem to verge on harassment and privacy violations. At the very least it shows a complete lack of sensitivity and understanding of the vulnerabilities experienced by many women working in street sex work in Leeds, a large proportion of whom are poor, experience drug and alcohol addiction issues, experience mental health issues and are targets of violent and other hate crimes. Save Our Eyes express concern for women involved in street sex work in Leeds yet how such actions align with any form of feminist values/ activism, violence against women and girls or wider equalities advocacy is impossible to fathom. We will not provide a link to such images because we do not want to perpetuate what is exploitation of people’s vulnerability and relative powerlessness.
The loudest voices are often just one voice, and their volume and tactics sometimes drowns out other voices, often silencing dissent and alternative perspectives within communities. A study funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which remains the most in-depth study of community responses to street sex work in the UK, found variation as to whether residents felt impacted or not and identified a range of specific impacts and concerns. Community responses to street sex work varied from proactive tolerance/support with active sympathy and engagement with the needs of women involved in street sex work to ‘modest tolerance’ to ‘proactive intolerance’ with action to displace sex workers them from the area and little sympathy for sex workers welfare and safety. Similarly based on research carried out with communities in Leeds, Kingston (2014) found community perceptions of prostitution were varied and more nuanced than policy often reflects, with many voices silent and unheard for many reasons.
The tactics used by groups such as Save Our Eyes will sit uncomfortably with many members of residential communities who live near of within areas where street sex work takes place in Leeds and elsewhere. They will not represent many in the community, although some will indeed have concerns about street sex work in their area, including genuine concerns not only for residents, but for the welfare and safety of sex workers. Residents who are impacted by street sex work, do have a right to contribute to and be heard in local and national public policy debates about sex work, but disagreement and discussion needs to be conducted in civil, respectful, responsible and constructive ways, with recognition that sex worker safety is a key priority.
Leeds City Council, alongside partner agencies, adopted the managed approach in a genuine attempt to balance a number of needs and concerns. The high levels of violence experienced by street sex workers, combined with low levels of confidence or trust in the police amongst sex workers, meant that Leeds had the highest levels of under-reporting of crimes against sex workers to the police in the UK. This, in turn, meant that perpetrators continued to offend unaddressed with no access to protection or justice for sex workers. Before the managed approach was introduced, there were high levels of complaints about street sex work from Holbeck residents and many meetings with police to address the issue. Police and press reports from 2004-14 estimated there were up to 200 street sex workers in the Holbeck area of Leeds. Although sex workers and their customers were frequently arrested and charged with soliciting and other offences, this had little impact on the level of street sex work. These factors created a difficult climate in which to deliver and access critical support services for sex workers. Safer Leeds adopted the Managed Approach in what was and remains a difficult national framework and were very much aware of their responsibility for public protection for all including the most marginal in society. As Leeds City Council debates the future of the managed approach, those councillors who sit as elected public representatives, with authority of public office need to assess carefully the information and views brought before them and the language, decisions and actions they themselves use, take or make. Do they reinforce the ‘othering’ of sex workers? Do they capitulate to the hyperbole of sectional community interests or do they consider and balance a range of views and needs? Will they reduce the impacts some in residential communities feel or not? Will they displace or disperse those issues within the city, replicating once again the problems of the past? Will they work towards sex workers being safer or will they heighten vulnerability? Will they provide increased investment in and better access to support services? Leeds has committed to be a ‘compassionate city’ that ‘tackles poverty and reduces the inequalities that exist’. Now we see if it will honour this for one of the most stigmatised groups in in the city and society.
Dr Rosie Campbell, OBE, University of York.
Dr Kate Lister, Leeds Trinity University.
 “Our vision is for Leeds to be the best city in the UK: one that is compassionate with a strong economy that tackles poverty and reduces the inequalities that still exist. We want Leeds to be a city that is fair and sustainable, ambitious, fun and creative for all. We will continue to work with others to achieve better outcomes for the city through a combination of innovation and efficiencies.” (’Cllr Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council and Tom Riordan, Chief Executive of Leeds City Council (Best Council Plan 2015-20: update 2016-17))