When I was wee, there was a shop near to where I lived, beside the hairdressers and opposite the library which I remember always thinking was sort of weird. It didn’t have any windows and the door was all black. On the front there was a single picture of badly painted mermaid – topless with her long flowing locks just about covering her tatas. No-one ever seemed to go in or come out and when I asked my mum what it was a shop for, she just told me that she didn’t know.
Had I been able to read, I would have learnt from the shop sign that this was The Mermaid Sauna – one of Edinburgh’s many brothels. A long-established and long-tolerated part of the city, there are thirteen such saunas across Edinburgh. Even the posh areas have them – at least two in the New Town and one in Marchmont which presides on the same street as a yummy-mummy coffee place and an organic veg shop. ‘Ambassador Sauna’ lies above one of the city’s busiest lapdancing clubs on the ever-busy thoroughfare Lothian Road. These Edinburgh ‘institutions’ are certainly not hidden and the names don’t fool anyone (naebody’s going to ‘The New Gentle Touch’ for a hot stone massage) – everyone knows they are venues where sex is bought and sold.
Edinburgh’s saunas exist and operate so brazenly because unlike Glasgow, where a zero-tolerance policy to prostitution (street or brothel) is operated, since the 80s it has been the policy of Edinburgh City Council to “turn a blind eye” to the true business which takes place on these properties which they licence for entertainment purposes. Exactly how this policy originated I’m not sure but essentially, the thinking behind the tolerance of these venues appears to be based simply in a pragmatic belief that it makes both for safer environments for sex workers and safer streets for Joe Public as it helps keep associated crime at bay. Basically it’s neither a moral or ideological position – merely one to keep the streets of Edinburgh posh and the headlines at bay.
However all of this has changed in the last couple of weeks during which half of these saunas have had their licences suspended due to “licencing infractions” and were ordered to shut up shop. This follows two waves of raids which were carried out on the saunas in June, resulting in seven people being arrested and charged with brothel keeping and the very Dickensian “living off immoral earnings”. It now looks as though the remaining venues will be targeted, possibly resulting in an eradication of all of the city’s saunas.
It is not my intention to talk here about sex work as an ‘issue’ and the various feminist interpretations of and opinions on what sex work means and represents. Nor do I wish to delve into and bore readers with my personal views on sex work. However, what I do want to comment on is this – in the midst of the furore of the raids, the council’s moralistic report to the licencing committee (particular highlights include the outrage at the “santa suit” and “7000 condoms” found at one sauna), and their hilarious faffing with shitey silly reasons for suspending licences, the voices of the women actually working in these venues are almost *entirely* absent.
This is not ok.
Across the mainstream reporting of both the raids and the licencing suspensions, I found only one article which explicitly sought the views of the women working in the saunas, and even then it was consigned to a line. As a quick round up:
The Scotsman, 20th July – views of Police, city councillors, Margo Macdonald MSP, a council representative, and the police again. No sex workers.
The Scotsman, 27th July – views of Margo M, a sauna owner, Scotpep, and a police insider. No sex workers.
The Edinburgh Evening News 25th July – views of a senior council figure, Margo M, a sauna owner, the police, a city councillor. No sex workers.
STV online 25th July – views of a city councillor, the police. No Sex workers.
…..and so on – the views and voices of those actually *working* in the saunas are entirely absent.
It is, of course, very possible that the sex workers caught up in Edinburgh’s sauna debacle (“Operation Windemere” in police-speak) don’t really want to speak to the media. It is entirely possible that the journalists for Scotland’s esteemed media outlets (ahem) tried to talk to these women but were met with no response. Possible, but unlikely, given that sex workers in Scotland have managed to previously speak out about the industry and how, from their point of view (gasp!), it might be best managed, or given that The Herald seems to have had little problem talking to women in Edinburgh’s sex industry only a few months ago.
People always have a fuck load to say about sex work, particularly in feminist circles. Like porn, it is one of the most dividing issues for feminism, tending (broadly speaking) to either take the “sex-positive” or the “vulnerable and exploited” route. I find this really stagnant, something which I personally attribute to the relative incompetence of feminism (in the broadest sense) to hold discussion and debate around issues concerning sex and “being sexual” with any nuance. In my mind, this is one of the most enduring problems when it comes to sex work as a “public” issue for debate – it is an issue discussed, celebrated, deconstructed, criticised and moralised over more often than not without any substantial reference to or consideration of the opinions and voices of those who actually work in the industry.
The media coverage of the Edinburgh sauna raids exemplifies this entirely. Public discussion on this overnight and not at all insignificant transformation in Edinburgh’s approach to the management of prostitution has been almost entirely dominated by the narratives of the police, elected representatives and senior council officials. Meanwhile the sex workers concerned, having been subjected to some pretty distressing events (doors hammered down in the middle of the night, being hauled out on to the street and publicly questioned, their personal possessions seized by the police), have had their voices and stories entirely sidelined and silenced in the mainstream reporting and public narratives around the Edinburgh sauna raids. Instead they’ve been spoken for by those who claim to be “representative”, either in branding the sex workers “vulnerable” or as empowered business women just wishing to be left alone.
To me this is absurd. Whatever your beliefs about sex work, how can these be formulated, justified or discussed without reference to the direct experiences of those who have actually lived it? Further to this – ideological perspectives aside, the “practicalities” of what should be a collective will to ensure the safety of those who work in the sex industry, unequivocally cannot truly be understood if the voices and experiences of sex workers are not sought and listened to. Everywhere and every day, women, their realities and their lived experiences are ignored, side-lined and diminished. This complete disregard for the experiences of the women involved in the Edinburgh sauna raids is just another example of that. This is so incredibly problematic as not only does it perpetuate the norm of ignoring women’s experiences and opting for an authoritative (often male) narrative in its place but it also impacts deeply on the ability to have inform our debates, policy and opinions around sex work and what it actually means for the women involved. Prostitution will always exist and it will always be contentious but if meaningful changes in its management are going to be made and if the hows and whys of involvement in prostitution are going to be debated and understood with substance, the voices and experiences of those at its core are the ones that we need to listen hardest too, not some PR guy from the council.
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I wrote to Edinburgh Council and asked for their policy and when did they make the policy, and they responded to say there was NO POLICY and there are no minutes of a council meeting. I have lived in Edinburgh all my life, I lived in the 90s in Henderson Street when Coburg Street was the “red light district” and shared a tenement with a sauna. It was brutal, I witnessed women being assaulted by pimps, partners and punters both in my stair and in the street. The police never took it seriously when I reported it. When I witnessed a brutal assault outside the sauna I had to intervene (it was before mobile phones so couldn’t phone the police),. My limited experience of the sex industry in Edinburgh has not been one of benevolence to support “sex workers”. The council provide no services to sex workers of any kind unless they are “offenders”. Services are provided by the NHS and voluntary sector paid for by Comic Relief money!!! Edinburgh has taken the stance it has to allow business men to make business. I have been to the licencing committee when they grant licences to saunas and the only health and safety they discuss is the temperature of the water and how often the towels are washed. The women who work in the saunas are not mentioned. The police have colluded with the turn a blind eye/don’t rock the boat for as long as the council have.
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