Red light district gets green light: the British suburb that legalized the sex trade

If you’ve watched The Wire, you’re familiar with Hamsterdam, the largely uninhabited neighborhood transformed into a de facto drug and sex work legalization zone by rogue Baltimore cop Bunny Colvin. Colvin’s idea is to concentrate criminal activity in one area, so that violence can be contained and social workers can find the clients that need the most help. On the show the concept works, but it doesn’t last. Prohibitionism is simply too entrenched in law enforcement, and the place is bulldozed to spare the mayor embarrassment.

Since last year a suburb of Leeds, England has been operating much like Hamsterdam. Holbeck has long been a hotspot for the sex trade. The industrial district has led a double life: by day workers weave palettes in and out of warehouses, and by night men and women rendezvous to buy and sell sex. In 2015, the city government made it legal for sex workers to operate on certain streets within a strict perimeter, provided they do so between 7pm and 7am.

The city is calling it a “managed approach,” intended to decrease the incidence of violence against sex workers and increase their access to social services. The program isn’t so much hands off as hands on — a way for cops and social workers to interact with a vulnerable group without just making arrests.

Now the year-long pilot program has ended, and it’s time for the city government to decide whether to implement the policy for real. The evaluation will be completed this month. Will Holbeck meet the same fate as Hamsterdam, an experiment too out of step with prevailing attitudes to continue, despite its successes?

The program has been effective so far — if not at decreasing prostitution, then at decreasing incidental harms. The city has designated a matrix of non-residential streets as decriminalization zones, and as a result the late-night sex trade has dropped off in surrounding neighborhoods where people actually live.

Access to support for sex workers is also on the rise. “If we have a managed area, we know where people are,” said a social worker, noting that the program makes it easier for service organizations to locate at-risk clients. Trust in the police has also grown, and the percentage of sex workers willing to report incidents of sexual assault has jumped from 26% to 51%.

District-bound sex work legalization is not an entirely new concept. Throughout modern history, cities have had red light districts, where sex work is common and police look the other way. The term refers to brothel signage on the 19th century American frontier, which was often red, signaling illicit business inside. While red light districts usually pop up on their own, American municipal governments of the late 19th century sometimes formalized them in an attempt to restrict prostitution to a single area.

Changing cultural attitudes in the United States during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century — including a growing anti-vice movement that successfully lobbied for a nationwide alcohol prohibition — led to the closure of many red light districts in the United States. San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and Chicago’s Levee, which operated relatively unimpeded for decades, were both shuttered in 1911. Prostitution continued, of course, but never again with the permissiveness of San Antonio’s Sporting District or New Orleans’ Storyville.

Europe was way ahead of the US on the legalization front. De Wallen in Amsterdam — the most famous red light district in the world, and the namesake of the corresponding legalization zone in The Wire — lifted its ban on sex work in 1811, while keeping the practice illegal throughout the rest of the nation. The Hamburg neighborhood of Reeperbahn (also called die sündigste Meile, or “the most sinful mile”), had long been a sex work hub, and was formalized as such in 1933 with the erection of large screens around the neighborhood’s perimeter, which blocked outside pedestrians’ view of the brothels.

But the Holbeck program goes a step beyond the red light district model. Unlike in De Wallen and Reeperbahn — where sex work is is highly commercialized and strictly regulated — sex workers in Leeds are turning tricks on their own (sometimes with a pimp, but never with a license like in Amsterdam) and are therefore more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Formal and semi-formal red light districts in Europe and America have usually existed to keep prostitution out of civilized society, while the Holbeck model is an intervention on behalf of working girls themselves.

While proponents of the program are proud to report that access to support services for sex workers has increased, some neighbors are still unhappy with the results. Many who work daylight hours in the district have complained that offensive litter — dirty underwear, used condoms, drug paraphernalia — has increased. Their response: not in my backyard. They’re hoping to get the program shut down at this month’s municipal hearing.

The complaints call to mind a scene from The Wire. Bunny Colvin shows off Hamsterdam to his friend The Deacon, who is appalled by the squalor he observes. “What in god’s name did you do here?” The Deacon asks. “A city of pain, and you’re the mayor.”

“They ain’t no worse off than when they were all over the map,” says Colvin. “Now they’re just in one place is all.”

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