It is an element of Edinburgh life that is hidden in plain sight. For years the city's sex industry has
operated alongside businesses and homes in some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods without many being aware of its existence.
Edinburgh's licensed saunas, a discreet front for prostitution, are widely regarded as a pragmatic way of managing the sex industry. They sit side-by-side with shops and houses with little to suggest to passers-by that they are anything other
than a convenient venue to enjoy a relaxing back massage.
Edinburgh's system is among the most liberal in the UK. Supporters of the system say it has kept many women off the streets and provided a safe environment for those engaged in sex work.
But this week 13 of the city's 15 saunas face a turning point. Their licences, which fall into the public entertainment category, are up for renewal on Wednesday and two objections have been lodged.
One long-time critic, Michael Anthony, has written to members of Edinburgh City Council's licensing sub-committee, pointing out that it is a criminal offence to operate a brothel.
It is well established that Edinburgh saunas are brothels, he wrote. It is a criminal offence to operate a brothel. Anyone assisting committing of crime also commits an offence. Accordingly, councillors cannot grant entertainment licenses, or
any other permission to operate a brothel.
For now, the future of Edinburgh's unique method of handling prostitution hangs in the balance. The closure of all or some of the saunas would change the face of the sex industry. Councillor Joanna Mowat, a former committee member, said:
We don't look too closely at what goes on in properties that are licensed for massage. But we may be pushed to change if Mr Anthony has evidence.
Police Scotland has written to the city council arguing that if it grants licences for five saunas it should be on condition that no condoms and items of a sexual nature are allowed on the premises.
Sex workers' charity Scot-pep has condemned the police proposal saying it could lead to an HIV epidemic. Campaigners for a safer sex trade have said that any ban on condoms would not stop people having sex but it would result in unprotected sex and
higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Four Edinburgh saunas have been closed down by the council, but seven others have been given permission to continue operating.
Police Scotland failed to convince councillors that their reprehensible condition that no items of a sexual nature should be allowed on the premises should be imposed. The only additional conditions imposed, after being requested by police, were
an alcohol ban and requirement that the sauna be in good working order.
There were 13 sauna applications to be heard yesterday, five in public and eight in private. Licences were approved for Carol's Sauna, London Street Sauna, Ambassador Sauna, No Eighteen, Steamworks, Scorpio and New Town Sauna.
Speaking after the meeting, convener of the licensing sub- committee, Councillor Gavin Barrie, said:
The committee has carefully reviewed all the information presented, including information from any objectors and reports from Police Scotland. Each application was considered on its individual merits and of the 13 public entertainment licences considered
today, seven have been renewed.
Among the saunas that had their licence applications rejected last night were Blair Street, New Gentle Touch, Paradise and Dundas Street, though the decisions could be appealed. Two other decisions were deferred.
Proposals to scrap the licensing of saunas and massage parlours in Edinburgh will be considered by councillors today. The number
of parlours has already been reduced after recent police raids.
Edinburgh is the only Scottish city to operate a licensing scheme, part of a tolerant approach to the sex trade.
If all are withdrawn, the saunas could stay open, subject to trading standards and public health rules.
Speaking last week, Gavin Barrie, City of Edinburgh Council's convener of the regulatory committee, said it was no longer appropriate to consider saunas and massage premises for a public entertainment licence.
Edinburgh City Council have announced that six saunas which had previously been granted entertainment licences would lose that protection in 28 days. The council has terminated the licences of six establishments: Paradise, The New Gentle
Touch, the Dundas Street Sauna, Scorpio Leisure, Blair Street Sauna and New Town Sauna.
The move marks a change in the city's long-standing tolerance of the sex trade and it follows a number of police raids, which were widely regarded as a sign that the policy of turning a blind eye to such premises over the past two decades had
come to an end.
But during a meeting yesterday, the council said the arrangement was no longer effective and decided it would be scrapped. This does not mean the saunas will close but they will now be open to more frequent raids by the police.
MSP Margo MacDonald, who supports the licensing of saunas, said that the raids flew in the face of promises to keep policing local after the merger of the eight distinct forces.
Representatives of sex workers said the decision not to license saunas could put them more at risk. The charity Scot-Pep, which campaigns for the rights of sex workers, said it was disappointed by the council's decision. Its spokeswoman said:
This will mean women are working in constant fear of traumatising and counterproductive raids on their workplaces. Premises will be driven underground, away from service providers such as health workers.
Sex workers in Edinburgh are facing increased health risks following the controversial police crackdown on saunas, a new report has
revealed. Fewer women are attending the specialist NHS clinic set up to support them, and reports show that sexually transmitted infections have increased.
A series of police raids on saunas in 2013, known as Operation Windermere, was seen as signalling the end of Edinburgh's traditional pragmatic approach to prostitution.
Now sex workers are also giving up on condoms, with saunas refusing to stock them because police can use possession of them as evidence of selling sex.
The report for the city council's health and social care committee, which draws together evidence from various agencies involved with sex workers, also said many women had moved away from saunas and now operated from other venues, like flats or
lap-dancing bars. The report also said:
There is no evidence that the number of women selling sex in Lothian has reduced, but they are not attending for support from NHS Lothian in the same volumes as in previous years.
Anecdotally, we hear of women now selling sex in other venues, such as lap-dancing bars, and more women are informing us that they are working from flats and advertising on the internet.
Chlamydia had increased by two per cent and cases of hepatitis B and C were also up. The report said:
The problem of unprotected intercourse may have been precipitated by fear of being found by the police to be in possession of condoms, which can be used as evidence to indicate the selling of sex.
NHS Lothian supplies condoms to saunas, but since Operation Windermere, many managers of these premises are reluctant to have condoms stored there.
Compounding this risk is the problem that these venues are quieter, and some reports have indicated that women are consequently competing for work and will practice unprotected intercourse in order to generate a larger income.
These findings come as no surprise to Scot-Pep who have long campaigned against aggressive enforcement action taken by Police Scotland against sex workers. Stewart Cunningham, Co-chair of SCOT-PEP said:
Since the police raided saunas in Edinburgh, the situation for sex workers has worsened dramatically.
Many have disclosed they feel increasingly threatened by law enforcement and the risk of arrest. Welfare agencies continue to work in co-operation with the police, which makes sex workers distrustful of them and reluctant to engage. This is reminiscent
of the experiences of Glasgow-based sex workers who have been working in a context that has prioritised zero-tolerance over a harm reduction approach for a number of years.
Traditionally, sex workers in Edinburgh felt better protected by the police than those working in Glasgow but with the enactment of Operation Windermere, where police raided sex worker premises and in some instances strip-searched women, this trust that
they could rely on the police for protection has gone.
One woman, who spoke to SCOT-PEP in the aftermath of the police raids, described the way she had been treated by officers: I felt very bad, so violated. I've never been so humiliated in my life.
Police Scotland also routinely use condoms as evidence in prosecuting sex workers, as the council has noted. This flies in the face of all international guidance and must stop.