Police Scotland to roll back of 30 years of HIV prevention – placing lives at risk


Police Scotland to roll back of 30 years of HIV prevention – placing lives at risk

Police Scotland, who ironically now operate under the strap-line of ‘Keeping People Safe’ have shown just how irresponsible the new single force is prepared to be in relation to placing the public at risk.

In a bizarre and dangerous move, Police Scotland have written to Edinburgh’s licensing committee, asking that new conditions be added to sauna licenses - including that ‘no items of a sexual nature will be permitted on the premises’. This would in effect ban condoms from saunas - contradicting every safer sex message ever promoted in Scotland.

This development comes after months of Police Scotland insisting, both publicly and privately to SCOT-PEP, that the June raids did not herald a change in approach to Edinburgh’s pragmatic policy of licenced saunas. Clearly Police Scotland have been dishonest about their true intentions, and now the mask of ‘protecting vulnerable individuals’ has truly slipped.

Furthermore, the police are now widening their focus from venues where they believe sex may be being sold to include gay saunas in this latest round of objections. This can now only be seen as a morality-driven, outright attack on behaviour and communities that the police see as undesirables. Putting the health of sex workers and gay men at risk is not an acceptable or defensible policy.

Sex workers will be forced to choose between police attention, and the ability to protect themselves in a safe workplace. One woman, who spoke to SCOT-PEP in the aftermath of the police raids in June, described the way she had been treated by officers: "I felt very bad, so violated. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life. I’ve never experienced anything like that before”. At the time, sex workers were issued assurances that their workplaces were not the target. These assurances have been rendered baseless by the latest revelations that there is an intention to treat safe sex supplies as justification for intimidating and traumatic raids.

This direct attack on sex workers and gay men demonstrates the extent to which the police are engaging in homophobic and misogynist policing tactics not seen since the worst excesses of the early 1980s. Police Scotland would do well to remember their disastrous strategy of closing suppliers of injecting equipment that directly led to the HIV epidemic in Edinburgh in the 1980s.

One gay man commented: “Sex workers, gay men - who's next? I lived through the HIV epidemic the first time round; I don’t want to have to live through it again”.

The idea that it is acceptable to use condoms as evidence - which is what the new conditions will allow the Police to do - and the targeting of the workplaces of sex workers in this way, challenges both common sense, and internationally recognised guidelines on workplace safety and HIV. The World Health Organization this week stated:

‘... where law-enforcement officials use condoms as evidence of sex work, governments should take actions to end this practice. Condoms should never be considered to be evidence of sex work, either in official laws or through unofficial law-enforcement practices, and condoms should never be confiscated from sex workers.’

This guidance also repeatedly and explicitly states that the full decriminalisation of sex work is the crucial underpinning of an effective HIV strategy. With both the UN and the WHO backing the decriminalisation of sex work, Scotland will look increasingly out of step on the world stage if we continue to endorse police raids on workplaces, and the use of condoms as evidence - and that’s without even touching upon the apparently state-sponsored homophobic harassment of gay men. With the Commonwealth Games just around the corner, perhaps UK LGBT activists concerned with Russia’s homophobia should turn their attentions closer to home. Sex workers are well aware of the intersection between attacks on sex workers, and attacks on the LGBT community, especially as so many sex workers are LGBT. The Stonewall Riots were started by LGBT sex workers. This joint attack must highlight to the mainstream LGBT movement that sex worker rights are an LGBT issue, too.

One of the other additional conditions Police Scotland wish to see added to the licences is ‘procedures’ to ensure that  there are ‘no medical contra indications to providing the services requested by each client.  Such an example would be a staff/client medical questionnaire.’ Whilst this might appear to allude to a simple waiver being signed to indemnify a masseur against client injury, it also leaves to door open to a raft of ‘procedures’ such as mandatory HIV testing. Mandatory testing is not only completely ineffective, but is also an outright breach of the human rights of sex workers - consent is the basis of medical ethics - and inevitably leads to increased demands from clients for unprotected sex.

Cat, a sauna-based woman, said, “Condoms as evidence is really scary. They’re going to perpetrate these traumatic, horrible raids, and for what? To find condoms in my purse? All women should be afraid of these developments, but sex workers especially. What if they confiscate my condoms and I still have to work that night?”

This new tactic highlights what sex workers and sex worker-led organisations have been saying for a long time: that where any aspect of sex work is criminalised, sex workers suffer. This is why we are calling for the full decriminalisation of sex work. This position is supported by UNAIDS, WHO, and UN Women - among others.

When sex work is criminalised, even if “indirectly” (i.e. managers and clients are criminalised, but not sex workers), sex workers are the ones who bear the brunt of the effects of criminalisation. One example of this is where police use condoms as evidence of sex work. While ostensibly targeting managers, it is clear that the people who really suffer in this scenario are sex workers: comparatively few managers will actually be prosecuted, but all sex workers will have to trade off their own sexual health (and indeed their autonomy in protecting their own health) to avoid giving the police ‘evidence’ that they have engaged in transactional sex.

In South Korea, where clients and managers are criminalised and condoms are used as evidence, HIV transmission has spiked. Nobody should have to weigh their health against the possibility of a police raid.

The sauna system in Edinburgh was put in place  as a pragmatic approach to tackling HIV. Sex - including commercial sex - is a simple fact of life. Practicing safe sex is imperative to keep everyone safe. The condom is a technology that has enabled serious progress in terms of reducing STI and HIV transmission. Putting in place policies that jeopardises years of progress and advances in public health is incredibly dangerous - not to mention unjust.

The sauna system has persisted in part because it was efficient in stopping the HIV epidemic in Scotland in the 1980s, but also because it has been a pragmatic compromise that keeps sex workers - mostly women - safe. In Glasgow, where this historical compromise has not been in place, police raid premises and shut working flats, driving women out onto the street - another indication of how laws aimed at managers have a terrible impact on sex workers.

It seems now that Edinburgh will follow Glasgow's lead, and drive women out onto the street rather than let us work in discretion and safely indoors. This appalling strategy by Police Scotland MUST NOT be allowed to continue.