Insight: Crackdown on Edinburgh saunas

'The capital is defying Police Scotland's crackdown on saunas'. Picture: TSPL
'The capital is defying Police Scotland's crackdown on saunas'. Picture: TSPL
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The capital is defying Police Scotland’s crackdown on saunas, but can either approach really tame the vice trade, asks Dani Garavelli

WORKING in a sauna in the dimly lit basement of an Edinburgh tenement building, Molly often whinged about her job, but she never felt she was putting herself at risk. “The things I hated about it were the kinds of things I have always hated about working for other people – the niggles about pointless rules,” she says. “They didn’t like us to have chipped nail polish, and after every session we had to change the beds and take the used towels to the laundry, but we had to do it in high heels in case anyone saw us – I got told off for doing it in my stockinged feet.

“It was very safe, though. Most of the clients were fine, but you were in a flat with ten other people and the walls of the rooms were really flimsy, so if you had needed help you wouldn’t have had to shout for it, you could just have spoken.”

On websites, men review their visits to city saunas in detached, sometimes demeaning terms, rating women for their prowess and sometimes criticising their lack of enthusiasm for particular practices. But Molly, who was once attacked while working from her own flat, says she never felt under pressure to do anything she didn’t want. “The men paid £30 at the door and then £50 to us [from which the sauna took a cut]. Mostly the stuff they were after was pretty middle of the road. But if they wanted something ‘off-piste’, then they had to pay extra and it was up to you to decide whether or not you were prepared to do it.”

Molly had not long left her job when 
officers from Police Scotland burst through the doors of seven of the city’s saunas, including hers, seizing documents and turning the women out on to the street. The raids in June had an immediate impact on the women involved; not only were they left shivering and humiliated on the street, but they were deprived of their income. “Some of them needed that money to pay for food and a place to sleep,” says Laura, another former sauna worker. “Why would anyone who cared about women do something like that?”

But the suspicion that Operation 
Windermere could signal the end of Edinburgh’s long-standing liberal approach to prostitution, which grants saunas public entertainment licences (so health and safety checks can be carried out) while turning a blind eye to what goes on inside, has also raised fears for the women’s long-term safety. Many believe the raids are part of the ongoing “Strathclydisation” of the newly unified force, with Chief 
Constable Stephen House bent on rolling out Glasgow’s hardline approach on sex work to the rest of the country. In Glasgow, where saunas are outlawed, more women work on the street and the focus is on cracking down on kerb-crawling and encouraging women to give up prostitution through the Routes Out project.

For prohibitionists, who view all sex work as a barrier to gender equality, this is the only sustainable approach, as to 
license saunas is to sanction the exploitation of women. Pragmatists, on the other hand, see prostitution as inevitable and regulation as the best means of protecting sex workers. “Saunas provide a safe environment, there is security on the door, rape alarms in the rooms and access to support services,” says Neil McCulloch, spokesman for Scot-Pep, which lobbies for the rights of sex workers. “Shutting them down would force women out into the streets and into private flats where the risks are so much higher.”

In Edinburgh, this east/west clash took on a surreal air last week, as the city 
council’s licensing committee met to consider 13 sauna applications – five of which were heard in public and eight in private. During the public hearings, reports that the police had uncovered evidence which suggested the premises were actually being used for sex were greeted with mirth by observers who had never doubted it. Revelations that, in one sauna, police had found scantily clad women, used condoms and “no purpose-built massage tables” provoked laughter from the public gallery.

In the end, Edinburgh City Council stood its ground, rejecting a call for condoms to be banned and renewing the applications of eight of the premises (six are to close, with at least three expected to reopen after making minor changes). Yet with criminal investigations ongoing, questions over the possible trafficking 
of women unresolved and Police Scotland apparently committed to increased scrutiny, the future of Edinburgh’s saunas and the women who work in them remains uncertain.

The ongoing controversy has yielded some insights into life inside these semi-clandestine establishments, which have become a feature of Edinburgh’s seamy underworld. The police inspections have offered tantalising glimpses of mirrored ceilings and walls, leather-seated sex swings, brightly coloured condoms and pornography streamed into bedrooms.

But according to consultant gynaecologist Dr Alison Scott, who runs a weekly sexual health clinic for sex workers and women with substance abuse problems, soft-focus images of harmless titillation peddled in some films and TV programmes are far from the reality. “Many of the women we see are very young 
and they all have low self-esteem,” she says. “There’s no Pretty Women or Belle de Jours out there.”

Scott set up her clinic seven years ago because she was concerned that women with chaotic lifestyles were failing to access NHS Lothian’s sexual services, and an outreach service quickly followed. Today, two members of the team – which includes a mental health nurse, a sexual health nurse and a representative from Another Way (a Sacro project which offers help with addictions, domestic abuse, housing and giving up sex work) – visit most of Edinburgh’s saunas once a fortnight: despite being licensed, two have refused the health workers access.

“The woman from Another Way deals with issues such as housing, which is 
really important, because if you haven’t got a roof over your head you aren’t going to pay attention to your health,” Scott says. The sexual health nurse gives a short educational talk and offers one-to-one consultations, but the main goal is to encourage women to attend the weekly clinic where they can be properly assessed and referred on to other services. “We see around 20 women a week in the saunas. Eight or nine ask for a one-to-one and maybe 17 or 18 a week turn up at the clinic,” Scott says. “They come in for testing, immunisation against Hepatitis B, contraception and pregnancy worries.” With almost a third of indigenous sex workers suffering mental health problems and/or substance abuse, psychological support and the building of self-esteem is also a priority. “We try to provide a humanistic, holistic, non-judgmental, welcoming environment, without condemning what they are doing but without supporting sex work either,” she says.

What Scott’s work has highlighted is that the ethnic demographic of sex workers is changing, with a rise in the number of women from outside the UK, particularly Eastern Europe, coinciding with a rise in the rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Concerned by the trend, Scott started collating figures and discovered that women from outside the UK did indeed have higher rates of both unintended pregnancies and STIs. Their unintended pregnancy rate was twice that of the UK women, with 60 per cent of them having undergone abortions, and 14 per cent of them had suffered gonorrhea within the previous 12 months (compared with 2 per cent of the UK women and 
1 per cent of the general population). The chlamydia rate in UK and non-UK women was the same: a worrying 20 per cent.

“The women who are not from the UK are incredibly vulnerable,” Scott says. “They don’t speak English very well, so they find it difficult to negotiate the use of condoms – we try to educate them and empower them so they feel they have the right to insist on them and not to do things they are unhappy with.”

Although it is difficult to prove, Scott also fears some of the women who come to her clinic have been trafficked. “We see girls of 17 or 18 who don’t speak English who have very high rates of STIs and your heart just goes out to them, but you ask them: ‘Are you OK here, are you happy here?’ and they say ‘Yes’, so what can you do?” To try to help these women, the sexual clinic has introduced a telephone translation service, and representatives from the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance have agreed to sit in the waiting room in the hope that any woman 
who is in that situation might find the confidence to admit it.

The fact that life in Edinburgh saunas is not ideal has led groups such as Zero Tolerance to oppose their licence applications. They believe the risks faced by women who work in them are underplayed and that the council’s acceptance of them gives them little incentive to support exit services. “Some of the women we have spoken to say the fact the guy has paid a door entry fee means women in saunas are less able to vet them or to say no,” says Zero Tolerance co-ordinator Jenny Kemp.

But for Scott, the women’s vulnerability, and in particular the rise in STIs, merely underlines the importance of making 
sure the women are somewhere they can access health services. “We need to regulate saunas properly so there isn’t criminal activity in the background of it and so 
the women are properly cared for,” she says. “These women are having sex 
with men who are having sex with their partners – this is a significant public health risk.”

Molly, who now works independently, believes the flaws in the sauna system lie less in the potential for exploitation and violence, but in the way it places all the power in the hands of a few owners. What she and Laura want is for sex work to be decriminalised as it is in New Zealand. “A friend of mine has worked out there, and if you want to work with friends out of a shared flat, you don’t have to get a licence, the state trusts you to be grown up and look after each other,” she says. “That puts all the power in the hands of the workers. If you prefer to work for a manager you can, but you also have the option of 
setting up a co-operative.”

In Scotland, however, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. The SNP’s document Safer Lives, Changed Lives on tackling violence against women presents prostitution, pole-dancing and pornography as innately harmful to women, although Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has failed to get cross-party support for her Criminalisation of the Purchase of 
Sex Bill, which would bring Scotland in line with Sweden.

Scot-Pep says Grant’s first bill, which criminalised kerb-crawling, made life harder for sex workers as men became less willing to pick up on main roads or spend time on negotiations. “It has changed the clientele too,” McCulloch says. “Men who have wives, kids, jobs – something to lose – are less likely to take the risk, while those who already have criminal convictions are not so worried.”

Meanwhile, Scott’s outreach work provides a lifeline for women whose lives are fraught with difficulty. “One sex worker told me the clinic was the only place she could be herself,” she says. “She had been someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s prostitute and at every stage she had to hide parts of herself, but in the clinic she could finally relax.” The fear is, if the saunas go, women like her might move to the streets and slip off the radar.

“In my experience, women who work on the streets don’t come to clinics,” Scott says. “They are invisible, a faceless group who will not present to their GPs and say: ‘I’m a sex worker’ because they’re afraid of judgment. You do feel nobody is thinking about them.” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1