One year of ….a compassionate and progressive approach to sex work

Let me start with that title.  I’ve changed the BBCs title (A year in the Red Light Zone).  And changed it for good reason.  An area that has had huge improvements in sex worker safety is misrepresented by that title.  It’s a tabloid headline for a reality TV show that has caused infinite damage and harm.  To those it targeted for stories, for the women they groomed to participate, for the community that feels deeply hurt about how a vibrant and compassionate place is represented to the world. And for our charity that has spent untold hours advocating for the women involved and responding to the damage this programme has caused and will continue to cause for years to come.  What the programme also fails to recognise is that Leeds’ approach to sex work has been ongoing for many, many years.  Basis has been operating in Leeds for nearly 30 years and sex work in Holbeck has happened for around the last 15 – the managed approach has been in place now for nearly 4 years.  The attempts by people in Leeds to respond to sex work stretches back as far as the Leeds Lock Hospital 164 years ago (and probably well beyond that) and I am still saying the same things in 2018 as my colleagues in 1854 were saying.

A year on…….if you’re wondering why this programme has been so damaging, think about this.  What is presented as a real life crime programme that you can physically visit, live caricatures of women that you can go to, speak to and talk with, a ‘dangerous place’ that you can drive through like a safari park, viewing the ‘attractions’, but not having to be involved in the complexity or messiness.  And that is just what has happened.  Women subjected to constant ‘drive bys’ from people that want nothing more than to look.  Verbal and sometimes physical abuse thrown at women who are presented as creatures of disdain – the reports from women of verbal abuse went through the roof when the programme was aired.  The fact remains that women are out there to earn money – the increased presence of either film crews or those who aren’t customers is a contributing factor in the displacement of women.  How do we know?  Women told us.  And that in itself is possibly THE most damaging aspect of this programme.  The huge success of the managed approach in reducing resident complaints and the increase in women’s confidence in Police and a positive relationship over the first 2 years is now forgotten.  The hostility and conflict caused by the displacement of women out of the area into residential areas is the single biggest threat to continuing our work on the safety of women selling sex.  Additional enforcement activity designed to respond to displacement breaks down the relationship of trust between women and authorities which had been very carefully nurtured over the first few years of the work.  Those women with the most complex of circumstances and the greatest need to foster good relationships with authority with have been caught in the crossfire – we now struggle to help them engage positively with services.  The result is those who we worked hardest to engage with are back in a destructive cycle of lack of trust, trauma and enforcement.  I heard the BBC editor talking about ‘balance’ and ‘giving sex workers a voice’ and can see some journalistic value in that.  The cynic in me can see the BBC’s wish to attract audiences and achieve ratings and the convenient ‘parking’ of what is usually an ethical approach to reporting.  What we now have is a group of women featured who most certainly do not represent all sex workers across the industry, not even all of those working on the street.  What the programme did do was target those most susceptible to payment and for women who went out to work to supplement their income or had children being babysat at home and who didn’t use drugs, they didn’t feature.  They didn’t feature because the BBC presented a risk to them – to their identity, their family and their work.  A year on, we have a log of complaints about the BBCs behaviour and how women have been scarred by their experience with the programme.  Only women with little to lose and a desperate need to earn money featured.

The airing of this salacious, unethical and untrue picture of sex work in Leeds on BBC One will inevitably draw scarce resource away from providing services to the women we work with as we deal with the fallout yet again.   There will be more anger and hurt for the local community and yet further work for us at Basis in calming the situation and trying to continue our work.  Who knows what this will mean for the women featured – there are consequences that can be predicted, but also those that are ‘unseen’.  The exposure of sex working women by the media to the public have led to very real dangers in their own homes. In airing this programme, the BBC have attracted not just those of us who quietly and anonymously work with women or those of you who feel empathy from your living rooms, but it also attracts those who women shouldn’t be exposed to; those who target sex workers.  I personally look at the faces of the women involved and see all the things they are and could be and it’s good that sex workers are humanised – the high rates of violence against sex workers show that dehumanising women is a sure fire way of them being vulnerable to violence and abuse.   Yes, we all hope (and the women did too), that some good would come of this programme, but sadly sex workers are still subject to scorn, derision, hostility, discrimination and abuse. The reality is that the BBC hoped for a ‘happy ending’ and being able to show this.  A year on, the BBC have left, however the women are still picking up the pieces of the damage this programme has caused.  We at Basis are supporting the women, as we have been and will be, no matter what.