The debate over whether prostitution should be legalised is almost as old as the profession itself. Sam Casey met one ex-brothel owner and those on the other side of the argument.
IT’s difficult to imagine how different 72 Bayswater Road in Harehills must have looked when Raymond Telford bought it 45 years ago.
Back then the shelves may well have been lined with bonbons, liquorice all-sorts and sherbert dib-dabs.
Today, the former sweet shop, now called Spartan Spa, is fully kitted out with a steam room, sauna and jacuzzi.
It may sound relatively innocent – as, at first glance, does the venue’s website, with wholesome images, like rocks sprinkled with rain water; a happy-looking couple smiling in the sauna. But this is no ordinary health spa.
The ‘swinging’ section of the website is a giveaway – as are the blacked-out windows, the CCTV camera over the front door and the selection of dressing-up outfits in the bedrooms upstairs.
Spartan Spa is undeniably an adults-only destination.
Nevertheless, Telford claims he is now offering merely what is allowed under the law.
That’s because, in 2011, he was banned from running the place as a brothel.
Last month, as reported in the YEP, he was taken back to court for a proceeds of crime hearing, as a result of which he has been ordered to pay back £140,000 of criminal gains.
It wasn’t the first time he’s fallen foul of the law.
The 77-year-old – dubbed “the oldest pimp in town” by one national newspaper – had previous convictions for running a brothel, in 1986 and 1988.
Immediately after the latest court hearing Telford, a grandfather of five, voiced his belief that brothels should be legalised.
Sitting in the living room area of Spartan Spa, nursing a cup of tea, he reiterates that point of view – claiming it is better for sex workers to be able to work in regulated environments than on the street.
“The law of the land is there to protect the people of the land,” he said.
“A prostitute is just as much of a person as anyone else. They have got to be made safe. People may scorn them, but I believe they save a lot of lives, because if it wasn’t for them these men who are paying for sex might be out attacking women.”
Telford’s decision to open a brothel in the first place came about more by accident that design.
After buying it in the late 1960s, Telford, who has a background in construction, let it as a flower shop. At one point there was a seamstress upstairs.
He had intentions to turn it into a fish and chip shop but was denied planning permission. It was shortly afterwards, after meeting a woman who worked in the sex trade, that he turned to the vice trade.
He said he had always run the place responsibly, allowing charity workers in to talk to the women, ensuring they were regularly tested by doctors – and denying entry to undesirables.
He said: “We’ve got panic buttons in the rooms, we’ve got cameras on the door so we can see who’s coming in, the rooms are fitted with showers – it’s clean.”
Telford is staunchly unrepentant about his past. In fact, he claims he was doing the girls who worked in his brothel a favour – and keeping the public safe at the same time.
“People have needs no matter what, so if the punters aren’t coming to a place like this where are they going to go,” he said
“They’ll be picking someone up off the street, or molesting someone. As it is now, with them closing places like me down, they’re going underground. It’s more dangerous.”
He has some support.
Dr Sarah Kingston, an expert in criminology at Leeds Metropolitan University, has carried out research into the issue.
She said the criminalisation of prostitution could lead to increased health and safety risks for sex workers and clients and many residents, businesses, politicians and police officers she had spoken to supported a general move towards legalisation.
“In particular, taxing and regulating brothels in order to ensure the proceeds of sex work contribute towards the public purse and that brothels are properly monitored in terms of sexual health, but also to prevent victimisation, abuse or coercion of those involved in the sex industry,” she said.
“Research has demonstrated that although violence and victimisation is sometimes a feature of sex worker’s working lives; it is more commonly associated with street sex work.”
Dr Kingston said many police officers informally tolerated and saw the benefit of brothels.
“Further discussion about the possibility for legalisation is needed, as my research has shown very clearly that many people are in support of legalisation,” she added.
On the other hand, Object, which campaigns against the sexual objectification of women, is in favour of decriminalising those who work as prostitutes – but wants action against those who pay for sex.
Campaigns and policy officer Sophie Bennett said: “Prostitution is the ultimate form of objectification, where those involved are viewed and are treated as little more than goods to be bought and sold for sexual use.
“It is a human rights violation which, while affecting some men and boys, is profoundly gendered, often exploiting those who are disadvantaged by poverty or have caring responsibilities, and is defined by the United Nations as an act of violence against women.
“While a small minority argue that prostitution is a job like any other, the majority of women in prostitution describe their experiences in terms of violence, exploitation and abuse. In order to ensure victims of prostitution are safe we must work towards ending this exploitative industry.
“We therefore call on the Government to tackle demand by criminalising the purchase of women’s bodies for sexual use while fully decriminalising those exploited in prostitution so that they can exit the industry safely and permanently.”
Paul Akerman is the police inspector for Holbeck, which has a long-running problem with prostitution. He said: “We have to strike a balance between enforcing the law and helping the women involved, who are often victims themselves,” he said.
“I have to take account that this sort of thing can send people’s house prices down the toilet.
“On the other hand, while I’m no woolly liberal, I have to think of these women and the awful choice they have made.”
VICE: The law as it stands
Under UK law, the exchange of sexual services for money is not a crime, but related activities are.
These include soliciting in a public place, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering. Kerb-crawling is banned, providing it can be shown the individual was causing a persistent annoyance.
It is also an offence to pay for sex with a prostitute who has been “subjected to force”.
One prostitute is allowed to work from an indoor premises, but if there are two or more prostitutes the place is considered a brothel and it is an offence.
Debate on the legal position has centred on whether UK should follow the example of Netherlands, Germany or New Zealand and tolerate prostitution, or whether the country should make it illegal to pay for sex, like in Sweden, Norway and Iceland.
The government has in the past raised the possibility of loosening the prostitution laws and allowing small brothels in England and Wales.
But these proposals were abandoned amid fears they may encourage pimps and drug dealers.