Ever since the news broke that the managed approach pilot was to become permanent, shortly after the murder of Daria Pionko in December 2015, the “managed area” became national news. At the time, as a small organisation supporting sex workers in Leeds in support of the managed approach, we did not have the capacity to respond to the multitude and persistent requests from around the country but we soon noticed the impact on the women. Those that had chosen to speak to the press were frustrated their anonymity had not been guaranteed as agreed, others had their words twisted or unreported which created further anxiety, already heightened by Daria’s death. As an organisation it was frustrating to see that, in many cases, the reporting was inaccurate or just voyeuristic and sensationalist without due consideration for the women they had spoken to or the organisations working there. Even at the more quality end of the reporting the voices of the women and their needs and particularly the realities of their lives seemed hidden in academic and theoretic discussions about the pros and cons about a managed approach, decriminalization etc.
Despite the anxiety this has caused the women and the additional workload to organisations working with on- street sex workers, including our own, reading the comments are has made it clear that we still need to do more explaining and informing about the approach, the women that work on the street and how we support them. For instance, it was presented as if it was a new area chosen specifically – this is where women had been working for many years and evidence showed that the previous approach of enforcement had not helped relieve the concerns of business and residents alike.
There was hardly a mention of the support provided by organisations like our own. In particular, following the death in December, some people referred to Leeds “becoming another Bradford”. Ironic, given the fact that the concept of the managed approach and the trusted relationship between the women and the police enabled the swift arrest and charging of the suspect in relation to Daria’s death, therefore specifically preventing him harming more women. This was largely due to the much improved relationship with the police as part of the managed approach, which meant that sex working women had felt increasingly willing to share reports of as they knew they wouldn’t be prosecuted and their reports would be acted on. That this isn’t only restricted to this one incident: it is clear from our data on Ugly Mugs reporting, with just over 3 times as many sex working women in W. Yorkshire that are victims of an incident/assault (indoor and street) now willing to disclose their details and information about an incident or assault with the police, compared to the figures before the managed approach. (from 16% to 52% and 82% now willing to report in total – including anonymous reports).
The whole experience has made it clear that to us that we do have to do more to ensure make sure the voices of the women are not lost in the media interest or worse, because of the media interest. Thanks to the support of the Esmee Fairburn Foundation and Champollion, we were able to set out a strategy that would support this and as part of this, we have worked with the BBC with the aim of sharing a more human perspective of the lives and opinions of sex workers in Leeds and how Basis Yorkshire supports their needs. Given the time and effort this takes away from our frontline work, this is not something we can do on a regular basis. We have also just received £2000 from the Rosa Fund to enable us and the women themselves (both on the street and indoors) to further share the women’s experiences as sex workers through their “Voices from the Frontline” program. Our aim with this all is to shed a more human light and more factual and balanced reporting on those who are affected most by what happens with the managed approach.