This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Hidden behind a facade of blacked-out windows and ambiguous language about their true purpose, "saunas" have long been a feature of Edinburgh's streets. The services offered within these establishments tend to go beyond those offered in the Scandinavian steam rooms that bear the same name. Anyone who frequents the seven or so saunas in the Scottish capital are looking for more than a place to relax—they're there to buy or sell sex.
For several decades, this semi-legal arrangement was tolerated by city authorities and local police, with premises licensed under public entertainment legislation. This seemed like a pragmatic arrangement for all concerned—for the authorities, it kept sex workers off the street. And for sex workers, it kept them in the safer environs of a shared workplace. Two years ago, though, something changed, with the police launching a sequence of sauna raids across Edinburgh. Within a few months, the council had announced plans to crack down on the number of licenses being issued, with both closures and prosecutions following. This followed the merger of Scotland's eight local police forces into one national body in April 2013, with a subsequent streamlining of policy.
On Tuesday, Edinburgh City Council's Health and Social Committee will meet to consider the progress of their "harm reduction strategy" towards sex work after its first year. Their report makes for grim reading, offering the first official acknowledgement that far from reducing harm, the ramping up of police raids and ending of sauna licensing has seen the city go backwards in terms of the safety and protections offered to those working in the sex trade.
Condom use among sex workers has reportedly fallen, the prevalence of STIs has slightly increased, and, for the first time in eight years, the number of sex workers attending a specialist NHS clinic has gone down—by nearly 10 percent—with no corresponding evidence to suggest that the number of women selling sex has been reduced. Perhaps most concerning is the report's admission that the rise in unprotected sex may be "precipitated by fear of being found by the police to be in possession of condoms," which it says can be used "as evidence to indicate the selling of sex." Consequently, and as a result of the raids launched two years ago, sauna managers are said to be "reluctant" to have condoms stored on site. With saunas no longer supplying this basic protection to their workers, it concludes that this "could lead to increased risks of unprotected sex." It states that over the last year, chlamydia has increased by 2 percent, hepatitis B by 0.7 percent, and hepatitis C by 0.5 percent.
The convenor of the council's health committee was quoted in the Edinburgh Evening News on Friday as conceding these outcomes have been an "unintended consequence" of the new approach. But for sex worker led advocacy organization SCOT-PEP, which is based in Edinburgh, the negative implications of the crackdown were entirely foreseeable.
"We're really disappointed that they would make such a naïve comment, because it ignores the voice of sex worker led organizations that have put up our hands repeatedly and said, 'This is what's going to happen,'" SCOT-PEP's Anelda Grové told me. "So in one way, we feel vindicated, but this isn't a positive as it's a bad outcome for sex workers."
Grové added that she questions the authorities' understanding of the concept of "harm reduction" in light of how the raids and closures have played out, although is hopeful that SCOT-PEP can now work more closely with the council to try different approaches in an effort to reverse the negative trends that have emerged.
SCOT-PEP have been particularly critical of an insistence by Police Scotland that condoms can be used as evidence of criminality, which the council report notes is making sex workers more vulnerable. "Our position is that this is incredibly dangerous, because it discourages condom use in general for sex workers," says Grové. "The police have said that this is not their policy but we haven't seen that."
For more on sex, watch our doc 'The South Korean Love Industry':
In fact, in 2013 the police even went so far as to request that the council attach conditions to sauna licenses prohibiting all "items of a sexual nature," which would include condoms. This move was slammed by HIV charities and while it doesn't appear to have been enacted, it has compounded the atmosphere of anxiety around condoms created by the raids. With this in mind, it's maybe unsurprising that fewer women are now attending NHS Clinics. On this, Grové says: "They might feel that they would rather not access a service where any kind of information that's divulged could be used against them, or the agency that they work for, effectively exposing them to being criminalized."
It's possibly also the case that with fewer saunas, public agencies have simply lost track of where women are now working, making contact more difficult. The report states: "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."
While SCOT-PEP campaign for the full decriminalization of sex work, they argue that—in the interim—saunas provide a much safer way for sex workers to operate than the alternatives. "The police need to stop interfering in sex work in such a way that makes it look like it is illegal, because it isn't," says Grové. "Where people are being exploited and abused in a managerial situation, like in a sauna, that should definitely be addressed, but we actually had a good system with the saunas in that people who didn't follow the licensing rules were called out and could be pulled up for that."
It's particularly notable that the negative effects reported in the latest council study almost exactly mirror those predicted by SCOT-PEP in their submission to a council consultation in late 2013. Then, they warned that ending the tolerance approach to saunas would see sex workers increasingly isolated, with poorer access to support services, and that the availability of condoms would be reduced with "consequent public health implications."
With the council now admitting that all of these predictions have come to pass, it's perhaps time that they started paying more attention to what sex workers are saying—that's if they truly want to pursue a "harm reduction strategy."
Follow Liam on Twitter.