Managed street prostitution zones tackle sexual abuse and rape

Since October 2014, Holbeck (an inner city area of Leeds) has hosted Britain’s first official managed area for legal street sex work. The zone was recently thrust into the spotlight by the BBC3 documentary Sex, Drugs and Murder: Life in the Red Light Zone, which was heavily criticized for bias by sex worker organizations. It encompasses various streets where street sex work already took place, which are situated away from residential housing. From 7pm to 7am, there are no cautions or arrests for loitering, soliciting, or kerb-crawling.

The overriding impetus behind creating this managed area was to make sex workers safer and encourage community harmony. Following a 12-month pilot, Leeds city officials made the scheme permanent, with an evaluation report highlighting improved relations between sex workers and police, increased willingness to report crimes, better access to social and healthcare interventions from the third sector, and a more positive attitude from the local community.

Although the Leeds evaluation report was an important first step in analyzing this approach, there is now stronger international evidence in favour of managed street sex work zones. In the Netherlands, similar areas are called ‘tippelzones’. A new study, published this month in the peer-reviewed American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, examines how tippelzones affect crime in Dutch cities.

Although similar in many ways, tippelzones are better-equipped than the managed area in Leeds. The study’s authors—Paul Bisschop, Stephen Kastoryano, and Bas van der Klaauw—explain:

Tippelzones are equipped with a variety of features. They provide resting quarters with washing amenities, clean needles, and local medical assistance and include separate servicing areas where prostitutes remain with clients in a safe environment. Permanent supervisors or semipermanent task forces are assigned to monitor the tippelzone and neighboring areas. The task forces are either rotating groups of agents from the local police district or new hirings for cities with larger tippelzones (11 additional officers in Amsterdam).

Between 1983 and 2004, nine Dutch cities introduced tippelzones. The paper compares rates of registered sexual abuse and rape over time in Dutch cities with tippelzones to those without. It finds that in the first two years after a tippelzone opened, citywide rates of sexual abuse and rape plummeted by a third. The researchers argue that this drop is due to the opening of tippelzones rather than other unobserved factors: pre-tippelzone crime trends in various categories were similar across all cities. Moreover, they do not find evidence that crime trends were influenced by crime shifting to different cities as tippelzones opened and licensing regimes were changed:

Our results do not indicate any shifts in sexual abuse or rape due to spillovers. This is not surprising. The movements of prostitutes were limited since the closing of tippelzones in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and The Hague occurred simultaneously with the introduction of licensing systems in other cities which refused new entrants into tippelzones.

As the authors highlight, the effect of opening a tippelzone on rates of sexual abuse and rape is similar to the findings of a forthcoming paper by Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah, which explores the effects of Rhode Island’s accidental decriminalization of indoor sex work on rape. Managed areas are no substitute for the full decriminalization approach—which has been the case in New Zealand since 2003—but local authorities looking to curb violence against sex workers ought to emulate what has been done in Leeds and the Dutch tippelzones.