IT’S Edinburgh’s open secret, known to every resident but not spoken about in polite society.
Now a councillor has sparked a debate after confessing to feeling “uncomfortable” about being on a committee which “turns a blind eye” to the Capital’s sex industry.
Tory Joanna Mowat said she sat on the city council’s regulatory committee and watched sauna licences being approved while everyone knew some of them could involve other activities. And she suggested it might be better if the council were able to licenSe brothels openly and use that as a way to stop trafficking and offer support to sex workers.
Councillor Mowat spoke out after a question about Edinburgh’s long-established “pragmatic” approach to prostitution was raised at an election hustings in the City Chambers.
She said: “This is an area I’m deeply uncomfortable with. On the one hand we have pushed prostitution off the streets so it doesn’t stare people in the face, but we are turning a blind eye to what is going on indoors.
“If we are going to tolerate the licensing of brothels, which is essentially what we do, perhaps we should actually license brothels, and part of the regulation would be to ensure that the girls – or men – are not trafficked, that they are tested, that they have access to medical support and that workers can go in if they want a way out of this.
“At the moment there is an industry the council is complicit in, but it is not doing anything to support those working within it.
“I sit on the regulatory committee and I watch us clandestinely doing this, pretending we are licensing saunas and it’s all about water temperatures.”
She said the sauna applications come up along with applications for taxi licences, houses in multiple occupation and marches. “It’s just something we do.”
She told the Evening News: “We are not doing anything illegal. What we do is correct and above board but there is something else going on in some cases and it is a grey area. The situation has evolved rather than officially being a position anyone has taken.”
Councillor Mowat said she had supported Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald’s efforts to allow tolerance zones.
She said: “It is a huge can of worms and I don’t think it would be particularly popular to open it all up, but it is worth having the discussion.”
Labour councillor Ricky Henderson, who also sits on the committee, told the hustings Edinburgh had turned a blind eye for decades. “If we as citizens want that position to change, perhaps we need to have that honest debate.”
Green councillor Steve Burgess said there was a need to look at the root causes of why women got into the sex industry. He said: “I don’t think the answer is to just suddenly refuse saunas.”
Ms MacDonald, whose proposals on tolerances zones were rejected at Holyrood, welcomed Cllr Mowat’s remarks. She said: “I’m glad to see someone appears to understand the reality of the situation and is prepared not to duck out of the issue.”
A GREY AREA
Edinburgh was the first city in the UK to grant saunas and massage parlours public entertainment licences in 1986. There are now around 20 premises in this category.
The “blind eye” approach was originally intended to tackle the problem of street prostitution.
It remains illegal to own, manage or run a brothel – anyone convicted could face up to seven years in jail.
Legislation passed at Holyrood in 2007 made kerb-crawling illegal in a bid to even up the law ,which up until then had criminalised those selling sex.
The Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act made it illegal to solicit a prostitute for sex. However, the legality of any transaction between a customer and a sauna worker remains a grey area.
Jenny Kemp of Zero Tolerance agrees that there should be a new debate on Edinburgh’s approach to prostitution.
But she said the campaign was opposed to councils licensing brothels.
She said: “Prostitution is defined by the Scottish Government as a form of violence against women and harmful to all women.
“A lot of people are not comfortable with what is going on.”
She said that Edinburgh’s approach was long-established but had not been revisited since a new requirement on public bodies to promote gender equality was introduced a couple of years ago.
She said: “If anyone still thinks it’s acceptable to purchase sexual services from women, that’s undermining gender equality.
“Our concern is the licensing process is not very robust at all.
“Many sauna licences, because they are renewals rather than new applications, are rubber-stamped and don’t go to committee unless objections are raised – but most people don’t realise there is an opportunity to raise objections.”