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 in the New Town and houses in Marchmont, 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. It is at odds with the Scottish capital’s douce reputation, but supporters of the system say it has kept many women off the streets and provided a safe environment for those engaged in the world’s oldest profession.
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.”
Anthony is among a number of critics who argue that the council can no longer turn a blind eye to what really goes on behind closed sauna doors.
While it is illegal to run a brothel, the legality of a transaction between a sauna worker and a customer is a grey area. Selling sex is not illegal, but many of the activities that surround it – loitering, soliciting and running a brothel – are against the law.
Yet there is no doubt about what is sold in Edinburgh’s saunas. Claire, 42, who currently works in one of the most established venues, describes it as “the full service”. For clarification, she adds: “That’s sex. And a massage.”
The sauna where she works is far from sleazy. It resembles a homely, if slightly untidy, flat. “Everyone who works here is pretty stable and would not go and work on the streets, but a lot of the girls [working in other Edinburgh saunas] probably would,” she says.
“It [street prostitution] is dangerous. We always have someone working with us here. It minimises the risk a lot.”
Like many of the women who work in saunas, Claire believes that closing their places of work would force more women on the streets. Women working on the streets are thought to have more drug problems and sexually transmitted diseases than those working in the saunas.
Claire denies that women working in Edinburgh saunas are either exploited or forced. “We’ve made our own minds up to do these things,” she said.
However, the sex industry is facing challenges beyond licensing. Like other industries, it has suffered in the economic downturn.
Claire has made £60 in a week – two customers paying £30 each. “It’s just not paying the bills, even for the younger girls. It’s not worth sitting here for £60 a week,” she said.
The end of tolerance zones, initially in Coburg Street and then Salamander Street, in Edinburgh, in 2001, has been blamed for driving street prostitution further underground. Those who work on the streets are increasingly vulnerable and desperate, support workers say.
Previously, about 75 per cent of street sex workers were drug addicts, now it is more like 100 per cent, according to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.
The charity also says women are putting up with more violence from male punters than previously. But opponents of the saunas want to see a stand taken against all forms of sex for sale, rather than see one kind protected as the lesser evil.
Jenny Kemp, of Zero Tolerance, said: “We strongly believe that sauna licences should not be renewed. The buying and selling of vulnerable women who have less money and power than their punters is not a private matter – it harms the women involved, and it harms us all.”
One woman, who objected to the renewal of the licenses, but asked to remain anonymous, said: “I think the argument that brothels keep women safer is besides the point. From my point of view, women shouldn’t be for sale and actually to reduce the risks for the women working in prostitution is dealing with a symptom, rather than the cause of the problem of prostitution.
“No-one’s body should be for sale and, more importantly, no-one should think they have the right to buy someone else’s body.”
However, Scottish politicians have so far declined to criminalise men who purchase sex. A bill brought by former MSP Trish Godman was rejected and another, this time by Rhoda Grant MSP, is now out to consultation. The bill is designed to shift the criminality from the sex workers to their clients.
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.”