Edinburgh Cracks Down On Sex Trade

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The city moves to eliminate "saunas" as places of practice for sex workers

When people think of Edinburgh they think of the Scottish capital's fringe festival or maybe Trainspotting. If they're in the know, they might even consider the "saunas" in the Old Town neighborhood. Not only can you go there for a steam, but also for a steamy time with a sex worker if you're willing to part with a few pounds. But now the city is cracking down on the establishments, stirring debate about their legality and the quality of life for the workers inside. 

"It's been an open secret that the saunas were places where sex was sold,” Neil McCulloch of Scot-Pep, an NGO that represents sex workers, told the GlobalPost, “But that’s not how they were licensed. They were licensed as places of entertainment.”

As a result of lobbying from the Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), an advocacy group based in the UK and others, police recently conducted raids seizing condoms and arrested alleged sex workers and proprietors. After a month-long public consultation, officials are now expected to eliminate licenses for the city’s saunas and massage parlors in the spring. 

So who's in the right? According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2012 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, it is estimated that 20.9 millions persons are currently working in forced labor with 58 percent of all trafficking cases being for sex work. But how many of the 400 women in Edinburgh's 20 parlors are there unwillingly?

CARE believes that "a total ban on saunas would be a step towards ending the cycle of abuse of women," and dismissed claims that it would drive prostitution underground. But the council's deputy leader, Steve Cardownie, defended the status quo saying Edinburgh's sex industry operated "relatively discretely" under the current regime and did not have the large-scale problems with street prostitution and under-age sex workers suffered elsewhere in the UK.", notes a recent article in The Scotsman.

Ruth Morgan, who sits on the board of Scotpep – the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project – told The Scotsman, a ban on saunas would lead to sex workers being forced to work alone from private flats or in makeshift brothels. She added: "Saunas provide a safer environment for sex workers. If we criminalize the buying of sex then we'll be left with unlicensed premises run by the sort of people who would not get sauna licenses. You would create an underground industry which was much more dangerous for the women involved."

Instead of shutting down places for these women to work, Edinburgh could move to unionize sex workers so that they can be documented to prevent trafficking. By regulating such practices and removing the prostitute/pimp dynamic, sex workers could gain agency and better guarantee their own safety. After all, isn't that what the moral debate is all about?