By Hannah Martin,
It’s been two years since the BBC documentary, Four Pounds For Sex revealed Liverpool as the second cheapest place to buy sex in the UK after London. After the documentary aired, there was a lot of media attention and people wanted to know how the situation was going to progress. Since the big headlines faded away in 2017, there hasn’t been much coverage as to how the sex industry in Liverpool has progressed.
During the aftermath of the documentary, Liverpool council said stricter policy would be enforced to try and diffuse the number of sex workers on the streets. Residents in certain areas where street prostitution had become commonplace, such as Sheil Road in Kensington had expressed annoyance at the situation. Amanda Vale, a teacher from the Kensington area said, “They were out all hours, not just at night time – my kids were seeing them on their way to and from school. And there’s always used condoms dropped around the place, every day.”
Mersey Mash launched an investigation earlier this year to find what’s happened to sex workers since the 2017 “police crackdown” in Liverpool’s “red light district”. We spent four weekends out with local charity, Streetwise to find out what had taken place since the 2017. Here’s what we found out.
We spent a rather cold March out with Streetwise with many of the girls we met shivering cold, they told us that even though they’d been out in worse over winter they were still freezing. Streetwise offer respite to girls over the weekend with a place to sit, get warm, chat and eat. There was a variety of different personalities that came on to the Streetwise van from chatty to quiet, happy to sad, young to old and they all had different stories to tell.
What effect has the police enforcement had?
Helen who runs Streetwise said: “There are hardly any women on Sheil Road now, a lot have moved to the industrial area between London Road and New Islington or near the Mcdonald’s on Walton Road. The police have completely alienated themselves in the eyes of sex workers now. Fewer attacks are reported because the police have become less trusted because of how they behaved over the last couple of years towards the workers. It’s made it so much harder to reach out to these women now and offer them the support they need.”
We spoke to Charlotte, a 21 year old from Huyton who’s worked on the streets for two years, she said: “No one liked Sheil Road, it was dodgy but at least people could keep an eye out because it was a busy area for us. Now, because they police were always there making arrests, all the girls have gone god knows where. We’re constantly moving from one place to another and a lot of us have found other ways to do the job that’s not on the streets. It’s even easier now for crimes to go unnoticed and unreported.”
Possible Red Light District in Liverpool.
Despite claims that the new approach in Leeds in failing, there have been discussions amongst Liverpool councillors suggesting applying a legalised “managed approach” to a chosen area in the city. Councillor Wendy Simon spoke at the Kensington residents meeting in March 2019 and put forth the radical idea of trailing a legalised red light area district away from residential areas.
Cllr Simon: “Thoughts have now moved to providing a safe zone away from a residential area.”
Under current UK laws prostitution itself is legal but a number of associated activities are not including: owning or managing a brothel, pimping and kerb crawling, meaning many sex workers try to work in secret.
So far the only city to pilot a legal area for prostitution is Leeds but it’s fallen under heavy fire for a number of reasons. The local politician who helped mastermind the zone in Leeds admitted the women working the streets were still at risk of violence and neighbouring residents had seen a surge in sex and drug-taking in their streets, parks and woods, sometimes in full view of children. Kerb-crawling men are meanwhile evading prosecution from the police’s “hands-off” approach.
But perhaps Leeds council just executed the idea wrong. It seems that even though there’s talk of not just the Leeds red light district shutting up shop, but also Amsterdam’s famous and liberal red light area – there are still many who argue that decriminalising sex work is the best way forward. Sex workers around the world have been protesting to have their trade legalised
Economist, Alison Schrager however, agrees with decriminalisation. “When people find out I’ve spent time researching brothels, they have many questions. Mostly about why women do the work, but also about the men. They expect the men to be monsters, creeps who are cheating on their wives or acting out dark fantasies. Many are surprised to learn most of the customers I met are just lonely. Some have a hard time connecting yet still crave intimacy, some are elderly widowers or disabled, and, yes, some are just creepy. Seeing it up close, I understand why the demand for sex work exists and why it always has and probably always will. I’d even argue it fills a function in our society, a side most people don’t want to acknowledge exists.
We contacted Cllr Wendy Simon for a direct comment but had no response.
Where are they now?
We spoke to the women about their housing options and where many of them stay at night. Many expressed that Sit Up, a charity ran homeless shelter is too dangerous to be comfortable enough to sleep.
Charlotte told us, “It’s just two rooms, mixed male and female and all sorts happens there, there’s no way I could sleep. I’d choose sleeping anywhere over that place, even the streets.”
Sex worker, Lynette, 33, said; “It’s honestly the worst place you could think of to spend the night, it’s like a living hell. People there have lost their minds and you’re supposed to sleep on the floor with them and another 30 odd people you don’t know – it’s terrifying.”
A young woman, 25 years old called Rebecca had been in the profession for seven years told us that she’d spent the last year trying to avoid her abusive ex-partner. She explained that when she found a new address it was only a matter of time before he’d find her, when we asked her how, she said: “Because he’d offer people blow and they’d tell him. That’s the problem on the streets now, everyone has a price. The girls don’t look out for each other, so don’t even get me started on the men.”. The Imagine If charity recently housed Rebecca in a private room and they also do a selection of work related courses – Rebecca told us she’d signed up for nail technician training. She said, “I can’t believe how lucky I am to have my new place, there’s a huge request list. It’s great there so far, I have somewhere to call home and there’s security as well. The last time I stayed at Sit Up, I woke up to someones hands in my sleeping bag.”
The Imagine If charity do great work for vulnerable people in Liverpool but their spaces are limited. The project manager for Imagine If, said: “It’s so hard to pick who deserves help the most. We offer long-term support and help get lives back on track which is obviously amazing but unfortunately we can’t help everyone and there are so many left behind.
Helen from Streetwise said, : “The sex industry is changing, so many women are moving online – there are websites where punters can pay for the women’s time and it’s all done electronically. In some ways its safer than standing on the street but it also comes with new issues that we haven’t yet dealt with effectively. Women are going in to homes or hotels and a lot of the time they’re the only people who know about it – the pick up hasn’t been witnessed. Nobody knows she’s there or even on a job at all – our main concern is their safety and this is a challenge for us.”
Right now due to budget cuts, government funding to support vulnerable members of society is showing no sign of increasing. Charities such as, Beyond the Streets and Streetlight and also sex worker communities like Ugly Mug are the best forms of support for sex workers who seek help.
Ugly Mugs circulate descriptions of ‘ugly mugs’ to warn other sex workers about dangerous people and situations. Descriptions of clients who the worker felt was dangerous are provided by the workers to Ugly Mugs and from there alerts are sent out to sex workers who a registered with the community, with a description of the dangerous client.
“There are lots of ways you can get involved in supporting National Ugly Mugs. Find out how you can help us to fight stigma and potentially save lives.”
Full names were not given in this article to protect the women’s safety.