Leeds' hidden sex trade: Police 'winning vice trade street battle'

Web-based escorting services may be booming but they are just one aspect of the fast-changing nature of red light life in the 21st century.

PAUL ROBINSON reports.

The writing appears to be on the wall for the conventional vice trade in Leeds as more and more prostitutes take the decision to sell their bodies via the internet.

* Click here to sign up to free news and sport email alerts from your YEP.

West Yorkshire Police say street prostitution in the city has reduced in recent years, a trend caused by a combination of the force's own proactive measures and changes in the way the sex industry operates.

* Click here to follow the YEP on Twitter.

Chief Insp Sue Jenkinson, responsible for policing in the city centre, told the Yorkshire Evening Post that today's street workers rarely - if ever - ventured into the heart of Leeds.

They instead tend to congregate in what she described as an "industrial area" on the city centre's outskirts, understood to include Water Lane and parts of Holbeck Moor.

And although she is far from complacent, Chief Insp Jenkinson believes that, even there, the scale of the problem is eminently manageable.

She said: "On a bad, untypical day, you would get no more than five girls - and it's a big area.

"It's not a street worker on every corner.

"You wouldn't realise it was being used by street workers if you were, say, just driving through."

Chief Insp Jenkinson also told the YEP that people selling sex indoors from premises such as massage parlours was "not a massive problem" for her team.

She said a number of high-profile raids had been carried out on suspected brothels in Leeds over the last year or so.

But she also stressed that each and every one of those operations had been mounted in response to intelligence received from the local community.

"The fact that the community has the confidence to tell us about things like this is a real positive," said Chief Insp Jenkinson.

"In the past they might not have come to us with concerns about sex workers, or indeed other issues."

Chief Insp Jenkinson also made it clear, however, that responding to community concerns was just part of the force's approach to prostitution.

She explained that while officers take all available action against those involved in running the trade, they also want to ensure the safety of the women involved.

"Our aim is to support these women - who are essentially being exploited - and to help them break out of that cycle," said Chief Insp Jenkinson.

"These are people that we know. The PCSOs (that patrol the area used by street workers] have a good rapport with them.

"They don't just collect intelligence about them, they get a lot of

intelligence from them.

"For us to be able to deal with this industry, we can't just use a big

stick all the time."

The YEP has reported this week on the rising number of men and women selling sex online via adult escorting websites.

One site alone has profiles for around 380 women within 10 miles of Leeds's LS1 postcode area.

The phenomenon is, however, only the latest chapter in the story of a vice scene that was burned into the public consciousness during the Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror.

Bradford lorry driver Peter Sutcliffe's 13 victims between October 1975 and November 1980 included a string of working girls.

He would later claim he began his killing spree after receiving a message from God telling him to kill all prostitutes.

But Sutcliffe's actions did little to deter women from taking to the streets, at least after his arrest in early 1981.

West Yorkshire's Chief Constable, Ronald Gregory, said in his annual report of 1983 that "good time girls" had swarmed back onto the streets of Leeds over the previous two years.

Mr Gregory also suggested that prostitution should be legalised - a call partly echoed eight years later by Coun Lorna Cohen, the then chair of Leeds City Council's licensing committee.

She said: "Let's not kid ourselves, there are already a number of dubious massage parlours in Gipton and Seacroft alone.

"If we registered brothels, they would be supervised by doctors who would give regular health checks - that is the prime consideration as far as I'm concerned."

Coun Cohen's comments came soon after the arrival of an important force for good on Leeds's vice scene, the Genesis project.

It was founded in 1989 by a small group of people, inspired by their Christian faith to help women trapped in the world of prostitution.

Just over a decade later, the scheme had five staff, including a three-strong outreach team visiting those working on the street as well as 30 or so massage parlours and private flats in the city.

Leeds also broke fresh ground in tackling UK prostitution with the opening of the country's first school for kerb-crawlers in 1998.

The 'John school' - named after US slang for a kerb-crawler - offered offenders an anonymous alternative to a court appearance.

It instead tried to teach them about the damaging effects their actions were having on prostitutes.

The scheme's work was welcomed by campaigners but funding problems led to its closure in 2000.

A more recent - and alarming - nationwide development has been the rise in the number of women working in vice after being 'trafficked' from abroad.

Research by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), however, indicates that Yorkshire and Humberside has less to worry about in this regard than other parts of the country.

According to ACPO, around 30 per cent of women involved in prostitution in the region are migrants, compared to a figure of about 95 per cent in London.

STILL HOPEFUL: Campaigners from Kirkstall Valley Development Trust at Abbey Milsl in Kirkstall. From left: Fiona Butler, Chris Hill, Paul Holdsworth and Adele Rae.

‘Solution’ at last for 12-year saga of historic Leeds mill’s fate?