It was a cool summer evening when Jenni* took her first step into prostitution on the bleak Leeds industrial estate that has become Britain’s only official red light district.
Within hours, the neatly dressed mother-of-two from a comfortable background earned £150. She was hooked on the money to pay for her crack and heroin addiction. “All morals and principles went out of the window,” she says.
The 36-year-old former insurance worker had turned to drugs to cope with the fallout from post-natal depression following the birth of her first child. It took her a year before she escaped the “managed red light zone” in Holbeck and started to get her life back on track after entering rehab.
She is writing a book about her experiences of legalised prostitution, which critics say has sanctioned violence, exploitation and crime.
Jenni tells of the constant threat of robbery, sex tourism, exploitation by traffickers, and women so desperate for drugs they sold sex for just £10.
It comes as Theresa May hinted yesterday that Britain might adopt the Nordic model which decriminalises prostitutes, provides help for them to exit the profession, and makes paying for sex a criminal offence.
Unlike some of the other prostitutes, Jenni focused on building a client-base of “regulars”. It meant she netted more than £2,000 a week which she spent on drugs for her and her husband. Food, tea and condoms were provided by charities working in the zone.
Dressed smartly each day in a check skirt, she made sure she had her “fix” before going on the street so she did not suffer drug withdrawal symptoms.
She says other girls were dangerously erratic. “They’d turn up at odd hours. They’d come down poorly because they hadn’t saved the drugs from the day before. Some would do it all that night and then end up looking rough, looking desperate, then do things for tenners,” she adds.
At least a third of the women did not use condoms despite outreach workers promoting safer sex. “The men would go round asking for girls who would do it without a condom… and pay an extra £20 for it,” says Jenni.
The zone, designed to crack down on pimping, was in reality a magnet for men seeking to exploit the women by charging them for protection. “There were loads of young lads who were basically glorified pimps,” says Jenni. “There were more and more attacks before I left, of people coming into the area to rob the girls, knowing they were on their own with money. But because of the deteriorating relationship with the police, the girls didn’t report anything and just felt less and less safe.”
“A guy in a car approached me as I was walking down the road. I saw rope and tape on the floor. He tried pulling me in. I was wrestling to get away.
“Men in cars, obviously looking for girls, stopped and chased him off.”
She worked in the zone alongside 30 English women and 20 East Europeans, who, she believes, had been trafficked into the UK.
“The only girls who were controlled in any way were the foreign girls. They would turn up with these men who would tip them out from a minibus,” says Jenni. “Sometimes one of them would stay and watch the girls while the others followed them about, keeping a really close eye on them. We used to say they probably came over here thinking they were going to work somewhere nice and have ended up doing this. I felt really sorry for them.”
Such was the lure of the zone that Jenni had “regulars” from the south of England. Most were married.
Some just wanted to talk rather than have sex. One bought her a phone and underwear as a Christmas present.
“In a weird way, I felt I had more power than them but that was only because I had built up such a clientele that I could choose who and when and how, and even prices.
Some, though not her regulars, were dangerous. “You do get some sleazy guys down there that say, ‘If I’m paying for you, then I’m paying for what you’re going to do whether you like it or not’. You do get that, maybe things their girlfriends won’t do,” she says.
Not once, she says, did she have an offer to help her quit prostitution from either of the main charities working in the area. She also says the women are not safe because they often leave the area to go to dangerous secluded spots with clients.
Her biggest criticism of the managed zone is the failure to offer women a route out of a world where drugs are rife. “All the girls are down there because they’re dependent on drugs. I don’t believe it’s their choice to do it,” she says. “The key is to stop the drug use and it will stop the girls having to work for drugs.”
“The Managed Approach has also led to clear improvements in the way that sex workers can access a range of services; including drug and alcohol, sexual, physical mental health, housing and other support services,” he said. He challenged evidence of men travelling significant distances to the zone.
*Jenni’s name has been changed to protect her identity