Edinburgh's hidden sex trade

WEARING only a flower-patterned bikini and flip flops, the young Thai woman politely explained the charge would be £60 for a half-hour massage.

The exchange might be typical of ones which take place every night and day in the city’s saunas.

But this was happening in a smart tenement flat on Leith Walk.

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The neighbours were oblivious to the fact the three-bedroom flat on the second floor was being used as a brothel, staffed by three Asian women.

The illegal business sprung up anonymously among new bars and restaurants on the Walk, part of a flourishing twilight world operating between the massage parlours and the street walkers.

But it is only one of a string of sex for sale establishments operating in Edinburgh from private homes in areas including Stockbridge, Tollcross and Dalry.

The extent of the illicit trade has been uncovered by an Evening News investigation.

Around 18 such establishments are thought to be operating in the city at any one time, with many of them regularly changing their location.

Our investigating team spoke to five of them who advertise their services in a tabloid newspaper.

Alongside Scots, many of the women involved were from Asia and Eastern Europe.

Our investigator was buzzed wordlessly into the common stairwell for his “appointment” at the Leith Walk brothel.

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Sukula, an Asian women in her late 30s, answered the door, after carefully checking him out through the peep hole.

She guided him forcefully by the arm into a spartan flat decorated only with a few glowing lotus flowers and some old Christmas decorations.

An hour earlier she had answered the telephone call for a booking and freely given out directions.

A pretty and petite Thai woman, wearing the floral bikini, appeared in the hallway. “Very nice to meet you. My name is Bea,” she said.

Sukula, who had still not spoken, hurried off to retrieve fresh towels while Bea pointed towards a narrow and dimly-lit bedroom.

It was clearly intended to be a different experience to the saunas, where clients may be encouraged to relax with a drink on a sofa, or watch a little TV after changing into a bathrobe.

Here, perhaps the more illicit nature of their enterprise spurred the women into moving quickly, apparently eager to get the customer back outside.

“We have two girls here,” said Bea as she flattened the covers of a small bed with an orange spread. “The other girl, she is Korean but she is not here right now.”

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As Sukula returned with the towels and hovered in the doorway, Bea explained that half-an-hour would cost 60 and one hour 120.

Bea – who said she was 24, but looked perhaps in her late 20s – said both prices included full sex. She immediately handed the proffered 60 to her partner, who scurried away to deposit it somewhere else in the flat.

As she did so, she passed another near-empty bedroom where only linen was piled up in the centre.

The living room to the far left had a camp bed and covers on the floor where someone obviously slept. A television in the corner was turned off, silent like much of the rest of the flat.

The room used by Bea had a soft orange glow from more luminous lotus flowers on the walls. A high-panelled mirror stood in one corner next to a single chair.

Bea said herself and the Korean were living and working from the flat, but would not say how many clients they received a day, only that the previous two weeks had been “not very busy”.

In basic English, with a heavy Thai accent, she said she had moved to the UK seven years ago after marrying an Englishman who she met while working as a beautician in Singapore.

Usually “working” in the Midlands, she had only recently come to the Capital for a “short time”.

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“You ask a lot of questions,” she said, adding that they move on from the massage, at which point our investigator made his excuses and left.

Neighbours and local traders were surprised to learn what was going on under their noses.

One resident in the tenement, who declined to give a name, said: “I’ve never heard anything while walking past that made me curious.

“As long as I haven’t noticed, I don’t mind too much, though I suppose it’s not the sort of thing you want in your back yard.”

A local shopkeeper added: “I noticed men coming and going, but I never suspected it was a brothel. You don’t expect that to be happening on your doorstep.”

The Edinburgh-based prostitute support group, Scotpep, estimates that at least 18 flats across the city are used by women selling sex.

Ruth Morgan Thomas, the group’s co-ordinator, explained that women selling their bodies from private homes are not necessarily breaking the law, although the men buying sex are.

The offence of brothel-keeping is only committed when two or more women, who may be together for safety reasons, work from the same home.

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The Evening News found examples of women apparently working alone and offering sex. Alexis, a 28-year-old Hungarian based in Balfour Street, quoted a price of 60 for sex.

Ms Thomas added women working alone often had a “maid” or “receptionist”, which was also legal, who could act as extra security.

She added: “Living off immoral earnings is illegal where someone is running the business. But a woman working on her own can employ someone.

“We believe that private flats are safer than street prostitution, which has become increasingly dangerous since we lost the designated zone.

“In our experience the neighbours are often unaware that the flats are being used in this way.

“They are run discreetly and make as little noise as possible.

“The police are quite aware of these flats and they monitor them. And the women know they are being monitored.”

In 2006, Scotpep volunteers visited women working as prostitutes in 12 flats, offering advice and support. Many of the businesses move around often, sometimes only operating for a six- month lease, although other women own their properties.

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The Evening News also spoke to a woman working from a property in Springwell Place, off Dalry Road. Our investigator was told two Scottish women were on duty, 59-year-old Alexis, and Angel, in her 30s. The price of sex was quoted at 70.

A pair of Scottish women, aged 26 and 38, were working from a flat in Tarvit Street next to the King’s Theatre in Tollcross, charging 60 for sex.

In Rossie Place, off Easter Road, Sheila and Lindsay, both in their 40s, were also offering their services.

Seven hundred women are believed to work as prostitutes in the city, with around ten per cent coming from outside the UK, according to Scotpep. The support group believes around half of the foreign workers are here illegally. On Monday, it was revealed that two illegal immigrants were found working as prostitutes in a Leith flat after police swooped on a brothel last month.

Twenty officers raided the flat in Ocean Way after two months of covert surveillance. Two women in their 30s, one Chinese and the other Thai, were detained and both now face being deported.

Last summer, police visited to saunas and private flats as part of Operation Pentameter – a nationwide initiative aimed at combating the rise in human trafficking.

Police continue to keep track of the private flats, including the arrival of new premises advertised on websites and newspapers.

Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald said the system of illicit brothels worked as a way of protecting women who would otherwise probably be working on the streets.

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She said: “The safety of women working in prostitution is one of my main concerns. If women are working indoors in flats, which we know they do, then they are better protected. These premises are usually very discrete.

“This is not to condone prostitution, but it’s better than putting people at risk.”

Lothian and Borders Police normally investigates illegal brothels only when there has been complaints or a suspicion of illegal activity other than prostitution.

A force spokesman said: “We would be happy to look at any information the Evening News has.”

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