SCOT-PEP response to Edinburgh sauna licensing consultation

SCOT-PEP response to Edinburgh sauna licensing consultation

Public Entertainment Consultation: Sauna Licensing

SCOT-PEP is concerned that removing saunas and massage parlours from public entertainment licensing will result in detrimental outcomes for sex workers.  Removing the system that has operated relatively successfully over several decades in Edinburgh will further displace sex workers to hidden venues, reduce access to sexual health and support services, and make them more vulnerable.

The recent hard-line stance demonstrated by Police Scotland has made this issue extremely challenging for the Council, has damaged sex worker’s trust in the police, and indicates how the new force will treat the saunas in future.  Raids drive an enormous wedge between sex workers and services including law enforcement, meaning they feel less safe in reporting abuses or violence perpetrated against them.  Sex workers are also best placed to identify and report instances of exploitation where they do occur. It is completely counter-intuitive for the police to take this heavy-handed approach on the grounds of ‘disrupting organised crime.’ The legal framework that best drives out ‘organised crime’ from sex work is full decriminalisation, which – as well as having the best outcomes for sex workers’ human rights and health – puts power in the hands of sex workers, rather than managers. If organised crime can be shown to exist in relation to the saunas – and no such evidence has as yet been produced – then it seems strange to further encourage that by driving sex workers, managers and workplaces, underground.

As unlicensed saunas face constant police surveillance and raids, many sauna workers will feel compelled to move to places where their business will not be prone to disruption.  The NHS (which currently supplies saunas with condoms) and other service providers will lose important contact with sex workers as they disappear off the radar into a plethora of private flats or onto the streets. It is hard to see how the proposal to deliver ‘support and assistance’ to sauna workers will be achieved if they are forced into hidden venues.  When forced underground, sex workers have less power to insist on condom use and are more vulnerable to police and client violence and extortion.[1]

There is evidence both in terms of health-outcomes, and in terms of testimony from women within our network who are current sauna workers, that condom use within the saunas is either supported, or mandated. Due to this, and due to the workers’ own desire to look after their health, condom use is currently very high. Any change of policy should be required to evidentially demonstrate – with reference to other jurisdictions – that at the very minimum, condom use would not be negatively impacted. Best practise for any proposed policy would be to evidence that it would further support and encourage condom use, beyond even the existing high usage. It seems that some groups consider condom use merely an ideological pawn to dismiss in pursuit of an abstract goal – “the end of prostitution”. As a group comprised largely of people who actually currently make their living selling sex, SCOT-PEP cannot consider condom use to be an abstract debating point. We hope that Edinburgh City council – with a legal requirement to protect public health, which includes the health of sex workers – will agree.

Private flats are unlikely to keep stocks of condoms on the premises as they are likely to be used as evidence of brothel-keeping in any prosecutions.  This has been shown to be the case in the current prosecutions by Police Scotland against the latest World Health Organization guidance[2] which recommends that countries should ‘end the practice of law enforcement officials using condoms as evidence of sex work.’

The Council’s pragmatic approach has served Edinburgh well for many years, as evidenced by the fact that there are ten times fewer street sex workers in Edinburgh than in Glasgow.[3] While we absolutely support the right of sex workers to work in the environment that suits them best – which can include outdoor work - the risks faced by street workers are well documented and include increased exposure to violence and coercion, as well as negative health outcomes associated with higher levels of criminalisation. In essence, if new proposals seek to further criminalise the workplaces of sex workers, Edinburgh City council will be doing to indoor sex workers what it has already done to street-based sex workers, and we note with profound concern that in the aftermath of the scrapping of Edinburgh’s street tolerance zones, recorded violent attacks on sex workers went up by 95% within the space of twelve months[4]. That’s what happens when the workplaces of sex workers are criminalised. Is a 95% increase in reported violent attacks really the best practise you wish to emulate across the sex working population?

Licenses for saunas were originally introduced to curb organised crime and tackle the AIDS epidemic. Although the legal and health context has changed significantly in the intervening years, and significant numbers of sex workers already work through the internet, saunas still serve a useful purpose. Saunas provide a safe place to work for vulnerable sex workers who have more limited options, particularly migrant women who face a higher risk of exploitation. 

Given that Edinburgh’s longstanding tolerant position was developed with public health and women's safety in mind, it is disappointing that the spotlight has now moved away from harm reduction to a focus on criminal ‘justice’.  Abandoning the current pragmatic strategy will result in:

                ▪              Sauna workers being forced out of the reach of service providers

                ▪              Increased risk of violence and exploitation

                ▪              Isolation of vulnerable women

                ▪              Reduced access to health and support services

                ▪              Reduced availability of condoms and consequent public health implications

Elected members in Edinburgh have shown over the years that they are prepared listen to the evidence and to take bold steps to protect sex workers, in the face of extreme criticism.  As an alternative to dismantling the current licensing arrangements for sauna and massage parlours we urge the Council to support calls to change the current laws in Scotland in favour of the full decriminalisation of sex work, that is recognised globally as best practice by sex workers, sex worker-led groups, and by international agencies including UNAIDS[5], the Global Commission on HIV and the Law[6] and the World Health Organization[7].

[1] HIV and the Law: Sex Workers, published by Open Society Foundations

[2] ‘Implementing comprehensive HIV/STI programmes with sex workers: practical approaches from collaborative interventions’ Published October 2013 by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

[6] HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights & Health, Global Commission on HIV and the Law, July 2012

[7] Prevention and Treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections for sex workers in low- and middle-income countries: Recommendations for a public health approach, World Health Organization, December 2012