Veronica Wikman: Our creepy attitude to brothels

Scotland should stop colluding with sauna owners and follow Sweden in driving them out of business, says Veronica Wikman
It is hard to think of anything that undermines equality more effectively than prostitution. Picture: Toby WilliamsIt is hard to think of anything that undermines equality more effectively than prostitution. Picture: Toby Williams
It is hard to think of anything that undermines equality more effectively than prostitution. Picture: Toby Williams

Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833. Or was it? One could argue that it still exists. Ironically and shamefully, it is still legally possible to buy sex slaves in Edinburgh in the so-called “saunas” which is what brothels are called in Scotland’s capital.

There is, sadly, a failure among some men to establish close, physical relationships with women. However, rather than telling them where to go and get help to address their inadequacies, the City of Edinburgh Council recently decided to continue to condone and normalise the use of prostitutes by granting licenses to seven brothels.

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The fact that the euphemism “sauna” is used rather than the correct “brothel” is rather revealing. Euphemisms are the cosmetics of language. They are tools used to smoothen the sharp angles of something that would otherwise be too painful to handle. They are used to turn an ugly, distasteful truth into something less hideous, less unsightly – into something we can live with.

What kind of sexuality is it that the men who use prostitutes have the urge to express, that would be unthinkable within a normal, loving relationship? How will the attitude towards women and sex that prostitution propagates affect mainstream society?

We live in a society that embraces equality between men and women. But it’s hard to think of anything that undermines this idea more effectively than prostitution, wherein a woman is transformed from a human being and an equal individual into a simple commodity – a subservient sex servant. Why then should we accept it?

There is no reason to regard prostitution as something that we just have to put up with, like a disease in society that cannot be eradicated and which therefore must be contained and managed.

On the contrary, it is quite possible to use legislation to extinguish it, or at least drastically reduce it. Sweden first took the step to criminalise the purchase of sex in 1999. The effects have been very positive, and as could be expected, the very real threat of getting arrested has given the previous buyers pause for thought, and consequently the number of prostitutes has fallen dramatically.

According to a 2010 Swedish government inquiry, street prostitution has been halved, and whereas it was at similar levels in Sweden, Denmark and Norway before 1999, by 2008 it was three times higher in Denmark and Norway. In Sweden, as a result of the legislation, prostitution has remained very low. It is estimated that there are now only 300 street prostitutes and roughly the same number are involved in indoor prostitution.

The Rikskriminalpolisen (the national criminal police) has also found that the ban on the purchase of sexual services has had the welcome effect of acting as a barrier to human traffickers considering establishing themselves in Sweden.

Norway has since then followed Sweden’s example, as have Iceland and Finland.

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Those who are against a ban on brothels or the purchase of sexual services usually argue that it would just drive prostitution out onto the streets or underground. However, overall, this has simply not happened in Sweden. And this is hardly surprising. Why would you want to try and sell something which could only attract a very limited number of people – those willing to take the risk of being arrested?

It’s not difficult for the police to match up photos or CCTV film of kerb-crawlers’ registration plates with the DVLA register, and this information, along with the passport photos of the individuals concerned, can then be passed on to the tabloid press, who can publish them on their front page the next day. This has long been the modus operandi of the police force in Sweden, and has been hugely effective in combating street prostitution. It has also served to reinforce the strong feelings against prostitution held by the general public in Sweden, where nearly 80 per cent of the population support the current legislation.

Obviously, from a business point of view, the sex industry is an industry like any other. It operates under the same principles of supply and demand and costs and profits. It is therefore as responsive to measures taken to support or repress it as any other business would be. It cannot thrive if the conditions in the environment it inhabits become hostile to it. It will be weakened and then follow the course of any other industry in such circumstances, and it will die out or crawl away to a more conducive environment.

It goes without saying that if a brothel can run its business unhindered, through “liberal” licensing rules provided by accommodating (in effect, colluding) councils, and cost-effectively, thanks to international traffickers who can provide cheap stock from impoverished parts of the world – it will be a very lucrative business.

A street prostitute is the equivalent of a humble market trader. But a brothel, with its despicable exploitation of its merchandise/workforce, is the equivalent of a supermarket, and is consequently vastly more profitable.

What happens with profitable businesses? Well, they tend to expand. Is that what we want? No, it clearly isn’t, and I can see no reason whatsoever why Scotland cannot follow the example of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland and get the same results. The evidence is there: it clearly works. Isn’t it time to stop the handwringing exercises, the resignation, the despicable, euphemistic language and apologetic nonsense?

• Veronica Wikman is a Swedish freelance translator and writer living in Edinburgh.