Sex trade – a recurring story

Programme Name: Sex, Drugs and Murder: Life in the Red Light Zone - TX: 23/10/2016 - Episode: Sex, Drugs and Murder: Life in the Red Light Zone - Ep1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Sammie Jo working in Holbeck, Leeds. - (C) BBC - Photographer: Ben Blackall

Street life: Sammie Jo working in Holbeck, Leeds, as seen in BBC 3’s Sex, Drugs & Murder: Life in the Red Light Zone

One of the saddest parts of researching the 1960s London sex trade – the background to the Nude Killings of that time – was realising how little sympathy there was for the victims.

They were all prostitutes, young women who left what were often unhappy or broken homes, got into dead-end jobs in factories or as domestic servants, finally ending up soliciting in London. If they started life with little self esteem, what they had was badly trashed by the harsh street trade.

And yet the News of the World called them ‘scrubbers, cheap little tarts’, while the Daily Mail labelled them ‘good-time girls’. If there was one thing they were not having, it was a good time.

Jack the Ripper

Being murdered in such grim circumstances was not enough to evoke compassion from many in authority at the time.

The murders, which occurred mainly in 1964-65, were often compared to Jack the Ripper’s crimes, some 77 years before. Once again the victims were desperate women working the streets, and once again the culprit was never caught.

It was poverty that drove Jack the Ripper’s second victim, Annie Chapman, for example, into an encounter with the serial killer. Following the death of her ex-husband she tried to support herself by selling matches or flowers, eventually having little alternative but to prostitute herself.

Sex, Drugs & Murder

BBC 3’s current online documentary series, Sex, Drugs & Murder: Life in the Red Light Zone, is sobering proof that poverty and a poor start in life can still badly harm young people’s prospects and self-esteem.

This sensitive documentary follows the women working the Holbeck area of Leeds, an experimental ‘safe’ red-light zone intended to protect the sex workers. It looks like a grim, anonymous neighbourhood where danger still lurks. One woman has been murdered and another, Sammie Jo, stabbed in the neck.

It is painful viewing, with similarities to the west London street trade of the 1960s. The women back then were also frequently attacked and used drugs or drink to boost their confidence before venturing out. They were also trapped in a demoralising cycle of poverty and often depression.

It is hard to understand when reading about the 1960s’ victims or seeing the BBC 3 film how anyone could be cold enough to call the victims ‘scrubbers, cheap little tarts’. But let’s face it, most people don’t want to know about these lives, which is why the BBC doc is valuable.

Otherwise, as a French prosecutor in 1886 said: ‘The isolation into which their abject profession drives them delivers them all the more daily into the hands of murderers.’

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