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 and houses 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. Supporters of the system say it has kept many women off the streets and provided a safe environment for those engaged in sex work.
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.
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.
Saunas across Edinburgh were business as usual after winning the first major challenge to their trade for
more than 15 years. Licences are usually renewed every three years but 12 of the 15 premises were hauled before the committee because the challenge issued was the same across the board.
Establishments throughout the city were granted renewed licences after the objector failed to make a good case. Main objector Mike Anthony had claimed that saunas and massage parlours are actually illegal brothels and that the authorities
turn a blind eye to the sex trade. He even claimed councillors on the committee would be allowing a crime to take place should they approve the licences. He told a packed committee room at the City Chambers:
I accept most of the councillors on this committee are new but councillors have been colluding with brothel keepers to this day. The council and police have reason to believe they are brothels and therefore operating as criminal enterprises.
However, after taking legal advice members of the committee, led by SNP councillor and retired firefighter Gavin Barrie, rejected the claims after the first hearing. He said Anthony had failed to supply any first-hand evidence. Barrie said:
The committee is not convinced there is sufficient evidence not to renew the licences. There is no evidence here, you just gave us a few websites to look at.
Prior to the decision lawyer Alistair Macdonald, representing Iain and Charles Haig, owners of Scorpio Leisure on Albion Road, suggested the objections against his client were of a personal nature and not concerning the way the business is run.
I would suggest this objection is vexatious and not in bona fide good faith. You have heard there are no objections from the police.
Edinburgh's sex industry is facing a double threat to its future after it emerged legal and political moves are under
way which could spell the end of the capital's licensed saunas.
A legal appeal against the city council's decision to renew a sauna license will be heard next month. Anti-sex work activists hope to use this as a test case to mount a wider assault on sex work.
While massage parlours are to be found in most major cities in the UK Edinburgh is noted for both the number of massage parlours and their high visibility. Defenders of the Edinburgh approach explain the status quo keeps female sex workers safe and lets
the sex industry be managed in a pragmatic way.
In the past the sauna operators have had few problems with the committee, but Mike Anthony, a moral crusader liaising with Edinburgh-based Zero Tolerance activist group, which claims that sex work is a cause of violence against women, objected to the
applications en masse, triggering an evidence session in the city chambers. However the objects were dismissed.
Anthony said :
I am not a moral crusader....[BUT]...What I am steadfastly against is any public authority colluding with organised criminals.
In another development, Labour, which runs the council in coalition with the SNP, appears to be preparing the ground for taking a tougher line on the issue. A new internal working group in Edinburgh is reviewing the party's position on the license issue.
A highly-publicised police raid on prostitution resulted in sauna bosses retaliating by drawing up a list of high-profile public figures who have used their services.
Fear of ending up on the list has resulted in many regular customers to refuse to use the saunas in favour of offsite liaisons in cars, hotel rooms and flats.
Some sauna sex workers are charging inflated prices for the unsafe locations and ither girls have gone completely off radar . Critics of the crackdown say the spread of the sex industry outside saunas poses a serious risk to public health as well
as the safety of girls and their clients.
Sauna bosses reprehensibly drew up a 50-strong list of police officers, lawyers and council officials who have used their services. They plan to use the list in court to lay bare what they claim is hypocrisy on the part of officials.
One sex worker said the list was hated by the girls and their clients. She said:
Girls are now getting calls from customers asking them to go to them instead of the client coming into the sauna because they're scared of ending up on the list.
As soon as the girls leaves the premises for a job, her safety is compromised greatly and now, because some of the girls are getting desperate, they're doing jobs that really aren't safe. They have no security driver, they have no mobile contact with
anyone to let them know where they are. It's really incredibly dangerous.
But because business has slowed down so much since the raids and then even more since the list was drafted, girls are having to do these jobs to get by.
Several individuals said to be linked to six saunas have been charged with offences including brothel keeping and living off immoral earnings.
Police Scotland has written to the city council arguing that if it grants licences for five saunas it should be on condition that no condoms and items of a sexual nature are allowed on the premises.
Sex workers' charity Scot-pep has condemned the police proposal saying it could lead to an HIV epidemic. Campaigners for a safer sex trade have said that any ban on condoms would not stop people having sex but it would result in unprotected sex and
higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Four Edinburgh saunas have been closed down by the council, but seven others have been given permission to continue operating.
Police Scotland failed to convince councillors that their reprehensible condition that no items of a sexual nature should be allowed on the premises should be imposed. The only additional conditions imposed, after being requested by police, were
an alcohol ban and requirement that the sauna be in good working order.
There were 13 sauna applications to be heard yesterday, five in public and eight in private. Licences were approved for Carol's Sauna, London Street Sauna, Ambassador Sauna, No Eighteen, Steamworks, Scorpio and New Town Sauna.
Speaking after the meeting, convener of the licensing sub- committee, Councillor Gavin Barrie, said:
The committee has carefully reviewed all the information presented, including information from any objectors and reports from Police Scotland. Each application was considered on its individual merits and of the 13 public entertainment licences considered
today, seven have been renewed.
Among the saunas that had their licence applications rejected last night were Blair Street, New Gentle Touch, Paradise and Dundas Street, though the decisions could be appealed. Two other decisions were deferred.
Proposals to scrap the licensing of saunas and massage parlours in Edinburgh will be considered by councillors today. The number
of parlours has already been reduced after recent police raids.
Edinburgh is the only Scottish city to operate a licensing scheme, part of a tolerant approach to the sex trade.
If all are withdrawn, the saunas could stay open, subject to trading standards and public health rules.
Speaking last week, Gavin Barrie, City of Edinburgh Council's convener of the regulatory committee, said it was no longer appropriate to consider saunas and massage premises for a public entertainment licence.
Edinburgh City Council have announced that six saunas which had previously been granted entertainment licences would lose that protection in 28 days. The council has terminated the licences of six establishments: Paradise, The New Gentle
Touch, the Dundas Street Sauna, Scorpio Leisure, Blair Street Sauna and New Town Sauna.
The move marks a change in the city's long-standing tolerance of the sex trade and it follows a number of police raids, which were widely regarded as a sign that the policy of turning a blind eye to such premises over the past two decades had
come to an end.
But during a meeting yesterday, the council said the arrangement was no longer effective and decided it would be scrapped. This does not mean the saunas will close but they will now be open to more frequent raids by the police.
MSP Margo MacDonald, who supports the licensing of saunas, said that the raids flew in the face of promises to keep policing local after the merger of the eight distinct forces.
Representatives of sex workers said the decision not to license saunas could put them more at risk. The charity Scot-Pep, which campaigns for the rights of sex workers, said it was disappointed by the council's decision. Its spokeswoman said:
This will mean women are working in constant fear of traumatising and counterproductive raids on their workplaces. Premises will be driven underground, away from service providers such as health workers.
Police carried out inspections of Edinburgh's sex-for-sale saunas hours before a new system came into force that is likely to make brothel raids more difficult.
The prospect of endless challenges to the system led to councillors proposing that saunas should no longer be part of the licensing regime. The radical shift was approved in February and came in to force at midnight on March 7.
Prior to the change, officers conducted last-minute inspections of 12 saunas. No arrests were made. One insider said the 11th-hour inspections were undertaken as it was the last time police could freely enter the premises to check whether
licensing conditions were being met. Police will now require a warrant, voluntary admittance, or the use of other police powers to enter the unregulated saunas, which will now fall under the council's trading standards regime.
Margo MacDonald MSP said Police Scotland had destroyed a settled policy and made life harder for officers:
Last year's raids have backfired badly on the police. There was a successful policy in place for 30 years, but now the women have less protection and police will have less access to intelligence. Trust has been shattered.
Superintendent Matt Richards said: Police Scotland and partners planned and carried out routine inspections of Edinburgh's licensed saunas on March 7 as part our continuing commitment to harm reduction and protecting vulnerable individuals.
Sex workers in Edinburgh are facing increased health risks following the controversial police crackdown on saunas, a new report has
revealed. Fewer women are attending the specialist NHS clinic set up to support them, and reports show that sexually transmitted infections have increased.
A series of police raids on saunas in 2013, known as Operation Windermere, was seen as signalling the end of Edinburgh's traditional pragmatic approach to prostitution.
Now sex workers are also giving up on condoms, with saunas refusing to stock them because police can use possession of them as evidence of selling sex.
The report for the city council's health and social care committee, which draws together evidence from various agencies involved with sex workers, also said many women had moved away from saunas and now operated from other venues, like flats or
lap-dancing bars. The report also said:
There is no evidence that the number of women selling sex in Lothian has reduced, but they are not attending for support from NHS Lothian in the same volumes as in previous years.
Anecdotally, we hear of women now selling sex in other venues, such as lap-dancing bars, and more women are informing us that they are working from flats and advertising on the internet.
Chlamydia had increased by two per cent and cases of hepatitis B and C were also up. The report said:
The problem of unprotected intercourse may have been precipitated by fear of being found by the police to be in possession of condoms, which can be used as evidence to indicate the selling of sex.
NHS Lothian supplies condoms to saunas, but since Operation Windermere, many managers of these premises are reluctant to have condoms stored there.
Compounding this risk is the problem that these venues are quieter, and some reports have indicated that women are consequently competing for work and will practice unprotected intercourse in order to generate a larger income.
These findings come as no surprise to Scot-Pep who have long campaigned against aggressive enforcement action taken by Police Scotland against sex workers. Stewart Cunningham, Co-chair of SCOT-PEP said:
Since the police raided saunas in Edinburgh, the situation for sex workers has worsened dramatically.
Many have disclosed they feel increasingly threatened by law enforcement and the risk of arrest. Welfare agencies continue to work in co-operation with the police, which makes sex workers distrustful of them and reluctant to engage. This is reminiscent
of the experiences of Glasgow-based sex workers who have been working in a context that has prioritised zero-tolerance over a harm reduction approach for a number of years.
Traditionally, sex workers in Edinburgh felt better protected by the police than those working in Glasgow but with the enactment of Operation Windermere, where police raided sex worker premises and in some instances strip-searched women, this trust that
they could rely on the police for protection has gone.
One woman, who spoke to SCOT-PEP in the aftermath of the police raids, described the way she had been treated by officers: I felt very bad, so violated. I've never been so humiliated in my life.
Police Scotland also routinely use condoms as evidence in prosecuting sex workers, as the council has noted. This flies in the face of all international guidance and must stop.