On the street where you live

Is there an acceptable face of prostitution? Melissa Benn examines chan ging attitudes in Britain's cities, while Steve Crawshaw and Sarah Lambert look at two European alternatives
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The Independent Culture
Things are pretty quiet on Ashley Road today, save for a loose knot of black-coated drunks on a corner and two teenage girls with heavily pencilled eyebrows marching unsteadily down the street. Nothing unusual in that, except that until the last year or so, Ashley Road in the St Paul's district of Bristol was famous as part of a tight network of streets at the centre of the city's thriving prostitution trade.

According to District Commander Superintendent Anne Summers: "It was getting to the stage where there were literally dozens of girls. A couple of community organisations were complaining to us. People couldn't go about their business without being accosted."

There are roads like it in every big city, grand Regency houses fallen on bedsit bad luck, a seedy, slightly threatening feel to the surroundings. With its wide pavements and side turnings into narrow back streets, dozens of girls used to hang out on thecorners waiting for the anonymous, cruising cars, residents of Ashley Road and neighbouring City Road say.

You can still see the odd one, a local man insists, but there are certainly no crowds any more. They have thinned out, thanks to the strategy of Bristol police. The "girls" have been worried off the streets by a special Vice Patrol van that tours the district, videoing women and car numbers. Punters and pimps are increasingly being targeted. And the police are turning a blind eye to massage parlours in the city. They are reluctant, however, to admit this. Instead, Supt Summers talks of "relatively minor" transgressions, of the parlours being "low on our list of priorities".

Bristol's approach is being echoed across the country. Earlier this month, Edinburgh council's licensing committee went public on its knowledge of what goes on in the city's massage parlours. The local police followed, agreeing that the parlours are not a priority when it comes to enforcing the law.

More radically, Birmingham council earlier this year announced that it was borrowing an idea from some of our European neighbours and was considering the establishment of a "zone of tolerance" - setting aside an area within the city solely for prostitution. Council representatives seem, even now, a little alarmed by the publicity given to their public musings on the issue. But they have kick-started an unsteady debate on the question within authorities from London to Leeds.

Is this informal deregulation a sign of a new liberalism, a moral Europeanisation of uptight Britain? Both police and local councillors are certainly less insular - or puritanical - than they once were. There is a general acceptance of the fact of publicsex, and a desire to look for new solutions to old problems. Prostitutes are less under the spotlight; attention and censure is being focused more on men. Several police forces now routinely contactpunters by means of their car licence numbers. Warning letters are sent to work and home addresses.

But this is less the dawning of a British Amsterdam than a nationwide pragmatism fuelled by complex factors: stretched police resources and a new anxiety among inner-city residents that touches less on sex than fear of crime. With its links to drugs and violence, public prostitution increasingly meshes with people's fears about the decline of our cities' public spaces.

Steve Sage, Community Beat Inspector for Bristol's St Paul's district, says: "Residents were complaining, yes. But their outrage is not so much about sex. It's almost as if prostitution is on a par with abandoned vehicles and overflowing skips. It's abo

u t the fabric of the environment. It sends a message of decline about the area."

Police forces are keen to show just how responsive they are to the public. Driving prostitution off the streets brings immediate public gratitude.

And it doesn't cost much - a touring van with a removable magnetic sign, two officers at most. Whereas, according to Insp Sage: "Massage parlours are resource-intensive. It takes maybe 10 to 15 officers to raid a place, and the community doesn't thank y

o u for it. If you did three to four massage parlours a day, they wouldn't even know it."

The problem, of course, is displacement. Prostitution may have moved off Ashley and City Roads. But residents in neighbouring Easton have already started complaining to their councillors that there are women soliciting along their main street, Stapleton

Road. It's the same story around the country. The trade doesn't stop. It just moves on.

Enter "zones of tolerance". After Birmingham's taboo-breaking talk earlier this year, the idea now has an odd status. Councillors, police officers and MPs will - mostly in private - offer and then withdraw the idea in the course of the same conversation.One minute "Utrecht" will be feverishly invoked, the next we are merely talking about "working parties". A Birmingham council representative says: "Our general position is, if Parliament could bring about a change in the law that allows local authorities to administer or manage prostitution, then this local authority would look at better ways of dealing with it."

Underlying some local authority caution is a recognition of real danger. Even if prostitutes supported the idea - and most of them do not - the unlikelihood of government or local authorities being willing or able to put proper resources into such zoningschemes could make them unsafe from the start. British cities already reflect the division between the wanted and unwanted, the safe and the risky, the rich and the poor. In this context, the vision of sealed off "sex ghettos" is the stuff of nightmares.

There are also practical problems, says Michael Pollak, principal community safety officer in Islington, London, a borough that covers half the King's Cross area. "Where, in cities, are there places where no one ever goes or wants to go? Even if the ideamade sense, there's hardly any piece of land in Islington where people don't live or work."

Most residents of the St Paul's district of Bristol shy away from the idea. "Oh God, no. Think of the violence with all those men and the women alone down there. It would be horrible," shudders a young woman. An elderly woman who has long been distressedby prostitution near to her home says: "Wherever you put it, children are going to roam.And what would they see?"

Sister Valerie lives and works in a religious community at the heart of St Paul's. "People always talk about harassment in areas where prostitutes work. But in a way there's less mindless vandalism. If people are coming looking for a woman, that's what they're looking for. They're pretty focused, bent on their business. If the women were siphoned off somewhere, they'd be less safe."

No one is much bothered by massage parlours, where, local people say, trade has recently picked up. The boom is evident from the street: fresh paint on the entrance doors and flash cars parked on the pavement. On the whole, they're safer for the women who work there. One Bristol prostitute talked of "always being frightened on the street, always having to watch my back". Women who work in the parlours say they are safer but they don't earn as much or have the control over their hours that they do on thestreet.

To many - residents and prostitutes - the answer is not deregulation by default, but granting prostitutes the right to work from their own premises, arrange their own working time, their own childcare, their own pay - and their own safety. No police officer or councillor, however, could sanction such ideas.

Parliament must make legal changes, either through decriminalisation - taking current laws from the statute book - or legalisation - enshrining a right to prostitution.

But for Maggie O'Neill, a senior lecturer in sociology at Staffordshire University who has been studying aspects of prostitution for the past five years, neither legal solution addresses the key issue. "What bothers me most about all the proposals being put forward - `zones of tolerance', official brothels or whatever - is that they all let the state off the hook about the problem of women's poverty. They amount to state sanctioning of the exchange of women's bodies for sex.

"The focus of attention will remain where it's been, since the 19th century, on women's bodies, women's sexuality. It's women who will remain under surveillance and regulation. And whether as organisers of the sex industry, as punters or as pimps, it's men who benefit on all fronts."