The death of Daria Pionko shows there is no “safe” way to manage prostitution

Daria Pionko was supposed to be safe. Or safer, anyway. That, at least, was part of the thinking behind the “managed prostitution area” established in the Holbeck area of Leeds in June 2014 and officially announced the following October. It was also a tidying-up exercise, in response to locals’ concerns about living alongside street prostitution. By suspending the laws on kerb-crawling and soliciting between seven at night and seven in the morning in one non-residential part of town, Leeds City Council hoped to draw all the city’s outdoor prostitution to one unobtrusive place.

Alongside this effective decriminalisation, a Sex Work Liaison officer was appointed to work with women in prostitution, who are often (and reasonably) too fearful of the law to appeal to it. On top of this, outreach workers reported that the area made it easier for them to bring them health and social care to women in prostitution. If you have any concern at all about the wellbeing of women in prostitution, those are both excellent developments – as is the release of women from the threat of prosecution, breaking the grim cycle of punishment and crime that catches so many.

None of this was enough to keep Daria Pionko safe as she sold sex, though. Early on 23 December 2015, the Polish national was found unconscious within the managed area, and pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. Police described the head and face injuries that killed her as “brutal”. On 3 January 2016, 24-year-old Lewis Pierre was charged with her murder. He was not the first man to be charged with a violent crime against a woman working in the managed area. In September 2014, Abdul Fulat picked up a woman from the managed area and subjected her to a prolonged, violent sexual attack. Two months later, Anthony Riley raped and robbed a 27-year-old woman who had been selling sex there. Ten months after that, the council declared the managed area “a success”.

And then there’s the violence that doesn’t necessarily make it to court or reach the headlines. An evaluation conducted for the council in September 2015 claims that introducing the managed area led to an increase in reports to Ugly Mugs (a scheme that collects details of crimes against women in prostitution). From any perspective, more women reporting acts of violence against them is a good thing, especially if it means fewer men getting away with it (it’s possible that Fulat and Riley’s victims would never have reported their attacks before the managed area). But there’s a horror underlying that success. Every single mark on that tally is a woman abused, a woman brutalised, a woman put in fear.

Violence is never far away from prostitution, and one thing that the managed area couldn’t do was make women feel protected: “Amongst sex workers,” says the evaluation, “there was not a sense that the Managed Area had improved safety for the street sex workers as fear of crime persisted.” (For its part, the council says: “the area is regularly patrolled and officers take a robust approach to any offences against sex workers”.) Despite no longer being at risk of arrest for selling sex, the women felt that there had been a reduction in policing that left them vulnerable – and although the evaluation ascribes that threat to an abstract entity called “crime”, there is of course an agent behind every act of violence, and that agent is generally a man.

Yet in official documents about the managed area, the punters are astonishingly absent, gently muffled in circumlocution. “Consider the place where the sexual transaction happens as the place where there is most risk for sex workers,” runs one recommendation from the evaluation, as though danger were a matter of geography: it’s not being away from the managed area that creates the risk, it’s being isolated with a man who has paid for sex and feels entitled to take his satisfactions from a female body. There’s a suggestion of “[i]mproving the physical spaces to design out violence”, but no conception that you could “design out violence” from the men who actually commit it.

Because the problem with prostitution always comes from one thing without which it could not exist at all: the men. A man who pays for sex knows that the woman he’s paying anticipates no satisfaction from the encounter beyond a financial reward that she may direly need (after all, there’s be no need to pay if she was having sex for her own genuine pleasure), and yet he doesn’t find anything obnoxious about purchasing her consent. Maybe it’s even a turn-on for him. How much do you have to dehumanise a woman to think it acceptable to use her like that? How much easier to be violent to someone you already see as inferior?

Less than a month after Daria Pionko’s murder, the council decided to make the managed area permanent. Councillor Mark Dobson told the Telegraph: “Sex work remains – as last month proved – an extremely dangerous and fraught occupation. But it’s incumbent on us to make it as safe as possible.” Two rapes, a murder, multiple other attacks. As safe as possible. Leeds’s managed area policy is flawed, but its focus on the women’s needs suggests a genuine potential to do good. It cannot succeed, however, if it cannot admit that the dangers of prostitution are fundamental to its economy: there can be no prostitution without punters, and there can be no safety for women with punters. You can exile prostitution to an industrial estate. You can install extra bins for the used condoms and other detritus. But when you’re picking up the bodies of murdered women and calling it an occupational hazard, the obscenity of prostitution should be impossible to ignore.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is sarahditum.com

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