As more people turn to sex work amid a cost-of-living crisis, what can we do to help – and protect – them? Jennifer Savin heads to the place that thought it had a solution
It could be any neighbourhood, anywhere. Kids whizz past blocks of flats and new-builds on scooters. Teenagers vape in the underpass and mums chat outside the newsagents. But as daylight fades and I head towards the local community centre, housed in an old church, things begin to feel a little different.
I can sense the tension, the aftermath of the past few years. This neighbourhood, Holbeck in Leeds, is home to a local council experiment. In 2014, it ‘legalised’ street sex work between certain hours, initially just for a year-long pilot. It was deemed such a success by the authorities and the Safer Leeds partnership bodies that it was allowed to continue. But almost seven years later, the scheme was stopped. What happened? And can we learn anything from Holbeck about making sex work safer, at a time when more people than ever are entering the industry? And what do those who work in the industry think the solution is?
I went to Leeds (and beyond) to find out…
“It’s getting rougher and rougher. There are fewer clients and those I do have now try to haggle me down on price. I’m having to say yes to requests that were always on my ‘never’ list…”
I’m speaking to Ellen* who, fifteen years ago – when she moved to London from south-east Asia – replied to an escort-agency advert in the newspaper. Her main motivation, she explains, was always money and, later, flexible hours to suit caring for her children. Up until recently, her work provided her that, but the cost-of-living crisis has had a big impact on Ellen, like most others in the sex work industry.
“People’s boundaries are getting pushed and if there’s a lack of resource, what you’re willing to do for money shifts,” say Maedb and Carmen, co-founders of Sexsquisite Events, a sex worker-led arts company. They explain that a combination of the client pool shrinking, alongside more people entering (or re-entering) into sex work, has created a perfect storm – leaving those on the inside feeling worried about the future.
One stat suggests there are 72,800 sex workers in the UK, but because many operate secretly, it’s impossible to know for sure. And while generally there are two commonly depicted stereotypes (the ‘happy hooker’, or an addict struggling on a street corner) there’s actually a vast array of stories in between. The term ‘sex worker’ (coined in the 70s) can cover those who strip, make sexual content, or who offer full-service in-person sex (either indoors or out), amongst other things. Not everyone in the industry likes the term though, with some debate surrounding its use. According to the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), 88% of those who sell sex are women. Most are mothers and the majority of punters are men.
Calls to the ECP have increased by a third this past year, with many reporting being driven to sex work for the first time, or returning after years away, due to inflation, job losses, benefit sanctions, sudden evictions or rent rises, leaving them urgently needing money. Typically, the ECP says, there’s a spike around Christmas and late August, right before the schools return and panicked mothers need cash for books and backpacks.
This rise in the number of people selling sex has intensified the discussion around what can be done to make the profession safer for everyone within it. Is the current legal framework working? Most argue it’s not, as sex-work laws in the UK are particularly thorny. For example, it’s legal to sell sex, but people cannot solicit sex or work together as it may be classed as an illegal brothel – a rule that even prevents sex workers from being flatmates, or working in the same hotel at the same time.
Many local councils are also trying to wipe out strip clubs, which, again, is pushing sex workers into more precarious situations, such as working at private parties (without security). And when brothels are raided and shut down by police, the women who work in them can be left with nowhere to turn. This is something Ellen is currently experiencing, after the brothel she worked in was raided as part of an ‘anti-trafficking operation’ – but now, she tells me, police are now attempting to charge her with an offence known as ‘Controlling Prostitution for Gain’, leaving her future dangling by a thread. Any savings or items she owns (even those accrued from non-sex-related work) could be seized and prison is possible. She’s since been left working under worrying conditions, travelling far from home instead.
Ellen insists she is not coercing others into prostitution and that actually, she’s been helping friends with poor English by answering their phones and screening their clients, whilst dreaming of starting afresh as a nurse. Yet, the raid was plastered all over the papers as a triumph. “The police want to label sex workers without knowing the full story, especially migrant ones,” she says. There’s also anecdotal evidence of officers pocketing cash during raids and being aggressive during arrests (e.g. during the Soho raids, it’s claimed police arrived with the press in tow and dragged women outside from their flats, where they were pictured without consent).
Alternatively, there’s a growing number of people, and some local councils, who see the Nordic model as the solution. Some supporters of this approach push the narrative that most (if not all) sex work stems from trauma rather (whether knowingly or not) rather than choice, and say the term ‘sex worker’ falsely empowers. As such, they believe those buying sex should be criminalised, but those selling it should not.
But grassroots organisations, like Hookers Against Hardship, oppose this stance, fearing an already waning client pool would then shrink down to only those willing to break the law. Instead, they’re rallying for total decriminalisation of selling or buying sex (whilst still keeping trafficking and assault rules in place), and better financial support from the government. Many sex workers are also calling for curbs to police powers, which they claim are misused (for example, the unfair issuing of on-the-spot fines for ‘loitering’ or ‘soliciting’, which further add to financial stress).
“I get messages from people saying, ‘I can’t find any clients today’, everyone is struggling,” says Jordan Phillips, a SCOT-PEP spokesperson (a Scottish sex worker-led charity). “There’s no governmental support for sex workers, who are now competing with one another and are being asked to do more for less money. They’re told ‘Get another job!’ but how?” Many have difficulties finding ‘normal’ work, may lack education or struggle to explain the gaps on their CV [stats suggest the average age to begin on-street sex work is 19]. Jordan adds that some sex workers can also have convictions against their name, due to the earlier mentioned loopholes like soliciting or brothel-keeping.
“I get messages from people saying, ‘I can’t find any clients today’ – everyone is struggling”
Izzy* agrees it’s hard, saying she stopped sex work before the pandemic after starting at drama school, getting multiple ‘civvy’ jobs to stay afloat. But when Covid hit, her bar and theatre work dried up. “I don’t have family to fall back on, I applied for over 70 jobs – marketing, estate agent, anything. In the end, I went back to bar work once restrictions lifted but it was difficult doing those long hours,” she says. “I was going to bed at 4am, getting up at 9am to pursue my own goals of script-writing. Being around alcohol all the time was bad for me and I was drinking too much.” Izzy explains she felt stuck in a trap, one that also saw her without enough money to leave her toxic relationship, and so, she re-entered into sex work.
“It was shit, but I’d just earned my weekly wage in a day. It afforded me time and space to take care of myself,” she continues. “I hate sex work, but I can’t deny the money and the opportunities it’s given me. It’s enabled me to change my life so much and there’s a nuance in that that people need to understand. There are so few other ways a working class women can make that much money in such a short space of time.”
This stigma – of sex work and class – constantly feeds in too: if you’re rich, sex work is seen as ‘glamorous’. If you’re poor, it’s ‘disgusting’ or ‘degrading’.
Living in Holbeck
Children picking up used condoms, thinking they’re balloons. Needles sprayed across parks. Women, of all ages, harassed returning home from school or work. Sexual assaults. Drug lords. All night screaming matches. Emaciated bodies collapsing in the street while trying to flag down potential punters during the 8 a.m. ‘morning rush’ (“Think about it,” one resident tells me, “A wife or girlfriend is going to be less suspicious of a man who wants to ‘get to the office early’ as opposed to one who’s ‘working late'”). It’s a cold November afternoon and inside the local working men’s club, five locals from Leeds are sitting in a circle – telling me how their lives were upended after the local council introduced what was dubbed ‘Britain’s first legal red-light zone’ on their doorstep.
[Note: ‘red light’ is somewhat misleading as it implies the sex was happening behind closed doors, when it was actually street-based; the official term for the scheme was ‘The Managed Approach’ (MA)].
Back in 2014, trading sex on the street – something already happening in Holbeck – was effectively made legal between 8pm and 6am in a specific ‘zone’. This was initially restricted to an industrial estate, but soon spilled into residential streets. As the years passed, the council and police, along with some local charities, praised the scheme (which set out to encourage sex workers to report assaults experienced on the job to police, and reduce the on-street numbers), with one charity saying in a local news report in 2019, “We can see the percentage [of sex workers who want to report crimes to the police] has gone up. We’re [now] significantly higher than the national average and that’s after being among the worst in the UK… It’s not perfect for anyone, but it’s far better than it was.” Comparing 2013 with 2017, research published in The BMJ shows the percentage of crimes that Leeds sex workers reported with full details leaped from 7% to 52%.
Some Holbeck residents, however, particularly those who banded together to form a campaign group called ‘Save Our Eyes’, describe the MA as a living nightmare. They say the council didn’t consult residents before launching either. They criticise some charities who were meant to help sex workers with exit plans for simply doling out “coffees, condoms and giving them a pat on the head”.
“You wouldn’t get away with setting up a legal prostitution zone in the middle of a wealthy neighbourhood,” one resident, Julia*, tells me, again pointing out how intertwined class, sex and power are. “I don’t think anyone expected our largely working class community to mobilise the way it did.” She also says there are theories that Holbeck was chosen for the pilot test due to its proximity to a motorway, something residents say drew men in from all over the country, creating a sex tourism hotspot.
When the zone was closed during the pandemic following health concerns, they continued to petition (even setting up their own ‘Punter of the Week’ franchise on social media, posting number plate photos of men cruising the area) and, eventually, the council agreed the scheme would stay shut permanently. When approached for comment, Leeds City Council declined and sent me a report from June 2021, part of which says an independent review from the scheme, ultimately, after teething issues, decreased the number of women engaging in on-street sex work. It admits resource was sometimes lacking, which could have played a part in its downfall.
But Save Our Eyes is adamant in its claim that the scheme saw open heroin use soar and attracted pimps, dealers and predators to Holbeck (who’d later chat via online forums, comparing notes on which women were so desperate they’d go without condoms or could be haggled down to a tenner), while sex worker numbers increased, at least for a time. A year into the pilot, a 21-year-old Polish sex worker, Daria Pionko, was killed, her body found on a quiet industrial estate – which is perhaps partly why sex workers started to drift beyond the designated zone.
“At least this way, the women knew if they screamed, someone would hear and be more likely to call the police – even if they were just making a noise complaint,” one resident, known as Belstaffie says plainly, telling me how she once camped in a van in the zone for two weeks to observe the goings-on up close and was horrified by what she saw.
A year on from the MA being scrapped, its impact clearly lives on. While waiting outside the community centre for a taxi at 6pm, after meeting with the residents, I watched as a snowy-haired, sixty-something man stopped his car opposite me. Silently, he got out and deliberately walked past, attempting eye contact. He then looped around and strolled by again. Time became like treacle. I had no idea if I should run or not. Finally, he broke.
“You’re not a working girl, are you?” he said, grinning. Stuffing his hands in his pockets out of the cold and bobbing on the spot. All I could do was shake my head. “Didn’t think you was,” he grunted, returning to his car. Minutes later, another car pulled up and a man rolled down his window, shouting ‘how much’ at me. When I said I wasn’t selling sex, he leered, “Why are you here then? You’re pretty”. Further along, I spy a row of vehicles – each with a man in the driving seat, all patiently waiting. Different ages, races, social status, but with a shared goal. Men, who could, at any point, turn nasty.
I got a small taste of what daily life must be like for locals – and felt empathy for them, as well as for those who say ‘yes’ to the ‘working girl’ question. Should Holbeck’s MA ever have happened? It’s clear lessons were learned. But what happens next?
The following day, I head to the home of Natasha Wyer, a mother of five who moved to Holbeck a year after the zone opened, and who has been on both sides of the fence. She relocated from Luton, wanting to beat a 15-year crack and alcohol addiction that saw her “slide into prostitution”. She began by offering her dealer sex for drugs, then worked as everything from an “on-street girl who hung out in crack houses, to a high-class escort to fund a destructive habit”. She’s transparent about needing drink or drugs to be able to sleep with those who booked her.
“When I was escorting, I felt empowered at a point, or at least I thought I did. [There are the] designer bags, nice restaurants, and penthouses. But it’s just a prettier word for prostitution, like what’s happening out there,” she says, gesturing to the street outside from her sofa. “And even those who think they’re not being harmed through sex work and who don’t have any substance abuse problems… I think some kind of trauma will catch up with them eventually.”
“The term ‘sex work’ shoves everyone under the same umbrella,” agrees former Holbeck resident Claire Bentley-Smith, a prominent Save Our Eyes member, ex-stripper and now artist. “But you can’t conflate a high-class escort with what’s happening on the streets. In my opinion, the term ‘sex worker’ was thought up by philanthropic organisations who just want to sanitise everything and ignore the gritty aspects. I have no issue with someone privately seeing a few clients out of choice, but that’s often not what the reality of it is: it’s desperate people with no other choice.” In her opinion, it’s not “as simple as ‘sex work is work’… but saying so gets you labelled as a vigilante”.
Eventually, Claire moved from Holbeck, citing her young son as a motivator. “Not everyone has the means to leave though, so I feel guilty.” She praises other pilot schemes, such as the one in Ipswich, Suffolk, that deployed a more Nordic model-like approach and saw the number of on-street sex workers drop dramatically (and long-term), thanks to wraparound drug, housing, and educational support. “[We need] to stop that horrific street trade of really drugged women standing on corners, with pimps profiting on their suffering,” she says. “I think it all boils down to the question of what society do we want to live in? Do we want one where, if given the chance, men can pay to f*ck young girls? Shouldn’t we be encouraging men and boys to have wonderful, full, loving relationships instead [of being able] to buy a 17-year-old from a people trafficker?”
“I think it all boils down to the question: what kind of society do we want to live in?”
It’s the latter she fears decriminalisation will bring. That it will send a message that all sex work is okay, even in the circumstances where women don’t have a choice. As does Natasha, who now runs her own charity, Retrieve, that helps women recover from life-controlling issues such as addiction, mental health problems and domestic violence, as well aiding those who feel trapped by sex work. She is currently fundraising for a number of restoration homes for women, hoping to offer 12-month rehab placements, and when we walk through Holbeck together, Natasha makes a point of saying hello to all the on-street sex workers we pass.
She credits her strong faith (which came later in life) and children with helping her turn over a new leaf, and like Claire, fears that what her kids have witnessed in Holbeck could have a long-term impact on them. She also doesn’t believe decriminalisation is the answer. “It’s not okay to say, ‘Yeah let’s just legalise, or decriminalise, the entire sex industry and off we all go’. There would be absolute chaos. Healing wounds should be the priority, without judgement.”
As I walked away from Holbeck – towards the shiny, glass-fronted offices, pink-haired students and fairy-lit gastro pubs of Leeds city centre – I realised I’d been holding my breath all weekend.
Pushing people out
Holbeck’s Managed Approach, tested within one small area, clearly raised more issues than it solved for many. Yet, those in favour of decriminalisation argue that if a similar, better-funded scheme that relaxed laws was implemented across the country, it could make a huge difference for the better. Rosie Hodsdon from charity National Ugly Mugs (NUM), which supports sex workers who are victims of crime and has a database where they can report threatening clients, says different types of work carries different risks and levels of prejudice (race, gender and migration status also come into play).
“Sex workers themselves cannot be neatly placed into distinct categories based on their type of work, many do multiple types of work too,” she says, explaining that sex workers simply want recognition of their rights as workers, such as being able to unionise, and protection under employment laws, regardless of which forms of sex work they do. “Decriminalisation can only be the start of getting justice, and since New Zealand implemented decriminalisation in 2003, there’s no evidence of trafficking increasing. Sex workers are simply asking for access to healthcare, legal protection and an end to stigma.”
This is something that Gemma Rose, an OnlyFans content creator and enthusiastic stripper of five years, thinks about often. She’s always loved dancing and applied to be a pole dancer while working as a cleaner in McDonald’s, thinking it would just involve appearing on-stage in her underwear. The reality is, like all strippers, it’s a sales job and the money is made when people pay for private dances. At the start of her pole career, income was good, but Gemma says she’s now feeling the pressure; the total number of British strip clubs has dropped from 350 to 150 over the last decade. “Before the pandemic, I could easily make over £500 a night,” she shares. “Now, it’s a struggle to even make minimum wage. I’m privileged that I’ve chosen this line of work and can afford to travel further afield for it, but others are just being funnelled deeper into the industry.”
She adds that some club owners are also making it harder for workers too. Knowing each dancer must pay a ‘house fee’ to work for them, some are overbooking, knowing customers will be thin on the ground (due to a drop in disposable income). “We’re misclassified workers in the UK,” Gemma explains. “We’re considered self-employed by club management but have set hours, must wear a uniform and have strict codes of conduct. So why aren’t we entitled to a minimum wage or sick pay, to ensure we don’t go home with nothing? Clubs couldn’t operate without dancers.”
And while stripping is legal, there’s currently a push to shutter strip clubs across the country (in line with the Nordic model), which forces women like Gemma into taking on more private party bookings (without bouncers for protection). “Other people’s morals and opinions are damaging a job I love. Why is that ok?” she asks. “It’s so much more than what people realise too, it’s a job that helps others explore their sexuality in a safe space and is frankly, fun. Whether you agree with sex work or not, it’s not going away and criminalising it only makes things less safe.”
Current laws also heighten stigma surrounding the industry, making it trickier, even for those within it, to identify how they truly feel about their choices. One woman I spoke to said plainly, “I felt really ashamed after the first time I sucked a dick for money, until I realised it was because society had told me I should feel that way.” Another, Maedb, through her powerful poetry, says, “I didn’t feel sorry for myself before they made me, I don’t understand why everyone wants to ‘save me’ […] Criticise my way of living, paint me as a victim, blame me and my mother, but never the system.”
Both Maedb and her business partner, Carmen, are putting time and money into growing Sexquisite Events and are dedicated to offering sex workers paid creative work, however there are still barriers in place, such as difficulties finding venues willing to host their sex worker-led showcases.
Where do we go next?
We can all agree that people who work in the sex industry, especially those who are vulnerable, dealing with addiction or who have no other choice, should be protected and given well-funded help. No one wants pimps and trafficking. But it seems there’s a lot of confusion when it comes to everything else involved, including language – and exactly how we can keep anyone selling sex safe. Especially given the rise in people doing it out of desperation. Truthfully, this has been a difficult piece to write. Writing it also made me reflect on my own time working as a hostess in a strip club.
I mostly enjoyed it and could make good money, but I also knew (some, definitely not all) dancers had bad drug habits. I had to deal with sleazy men, hit-and-miss management and was judged for how I paid my rent during that year. Ironically, not just by those I dated but by customers too, some of whom would call the strippers names… and then a minute later ask for a dance. I’ll never understand why those providing a sex-based service are looked down on, but those seeking out said services aren’t. Why isn’t there an equally huge stigma attached to those cruising areas like Holbeck, trying to haggle broken women down? It’s unfair to be denied opportunities or looked down on due to your profession, or past.
I went into this story thinking the solution is obvious: simply listen to those with lived experience of sex work. But, from my interviews at least, many of those who’ve stopped selling sex have differing opinions from those still in the industry. Those currently selling sex seemed to prefer decriminalisation, hoping it’d make their tomorrow feel safer. Whereas those who’d left it behind preferred set-ups such as the Nordic model, as they felt, long-term, this would change society’s views on commodifying women and benefit everyone, particularly those who’ve been trafficked or do survival sex work. I see both points of view.
But, then I also think of women like Ellen, who’s facing criminal charges after the brothel raid and possible destitution because of the law (enforced by officers who are currently being called out for failing to protect women and girls). She’d been working in an environment she says she found safe. Now, she’s been forced into a situation with little protection. I understand why she’s so frustrated when raids and brothel closures are praised as ‘saving’ the women within them. I also think that criminalising those who buy or sell sex, hoping it’ll one day lead us all to a magical trauma-free, poverty-free land where there’s no demand and therefore no need for (mostly female) supply is probably a fantasy, too. Unless we truly and deeply nurture working-class communities, with better education, financial support and job opportunities, as well as changing how society views women overall. It can’t be ignored how tied-in class is to this debate either.
Not only does it contribute to how selling sex is viewed, but it’s a key reason why many turn to sex work in the first place. “Poverty is the real exploitation,” says Carmen. “Sex work is not the problem, it’s how sex workers are treated by society – by clients, police, politicians, laws, everyone.”
When Cosmopolitan UK pushed the government for a comment, after being bounced from department to department, a spokesperson finally said: “We recognise people are struggling with rising prices which is why we are protecting millions of the most vulnerable families with [financial support] and are allowing people on Universal Credit to keep £1,000 more of what they earn. The Government’s Household Support Fund – boosted by £500 million – helps vulnerable families pay for essentials.” They added “we have no plans to change the law around prostitution” and said that in the past six years, they’ve given £2 million to specialist organisations supporting those involved in sex work. But – to put that into perspective – over the same period, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could earn close to £1 million just through his personal salary alone. The funding to support this group of people is, clearly, lacking and laughable.
In an ideal world, there’d be no poverty. No addiction, no trauma. We’d know everyone doing sex work had made that choice for themselves – not out of coercion or desperation – and was treated fairly. Unlike the unhappy-looking women I saw on the streets of Holbeck. But this isn’t going to happen overnight and in all honesty, probably never will. The priority within our current climate must be keeping sex workers safe, no matter how or why they ended up in the sex industry. Personally, I’d love to see having a history of selling sex become a protected characteristic: it’d make a strong statement, help with employment opportunities and assist with giving people fresh starts. There are powerful arguments on both sides about what might help – and it’s beyond clear that both sex workers and any wider communities that could be impacted must be considered (and consulted) before anything the Holbeck experiment happens again.
* Name has been changed