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

The “managed prostitution area” in Leeds has now been made permanent. And yet analysis of it fails to take into account the ever-present danger of male violence.

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 here.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage