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Edinburgh can't afford to ban its sauna sex trade

Not everyone is fond of the world’s oldest profession. But that doesn’t give Scotland's new consolidated police force the right to sweep thousands of individuals under the rug

It’s no secret that Edinburgh’s ‘saunas’ tend to sell punters a little bit more than just a nice massage or a healthy steam. It never has been.

In fact, the City Council has turned a blind eye to what goes on in these establishments for the last 30 years, and agreed to license them as ‘entertainment venues’ so long as they were quiet, unassuming and didn’t cause a bother. In turn, sex workers were kept out of sight and given a safe environment in which to practice their trade.

All of that is about to change. Now, Scotland’s newly-centralised police force is dead-set on killing the arrangement – and the plan is bound to blow up in the city’s face.

After holding a public consultation, Scottish police chiefs have apparently decided the city’s permissive view of saunas poses a severe “reputational and financial risk” to Scotland’s top travel destination. Yet, as more and more tourist dollars continue to pour into Edinburgh each and every year, something doesn't seem quite right here.

Despite the fact that these neon-coloured establishments aren’t particularly hard to find, they don’t seem to chase anyone away from the old town. After all, the record 1.9m festival-goers who descended upon Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival last August didn’t seem to mind. Executives at Virgin Money don’t seem to care either, as they’ve recently agreed to renew their lucrative sponsorship deal with the festival for another three years. And Hogmanay revellers? Something tells me they couldn’t care less.

So, let’s not kid ourselves – this isn’t about how sex work affects Edinburgh’s sterling reputation or its enviable tourist trade. It’s about how one, overly centralised police force is choosing to address what should be a devolved, city-specific decision.

When Scotland’s eight police forces decided to merge last year, the government vowed the nation’s new, single police force would continue operating in devolved, city-specific clusters. Yet as we’re forced to sit and watch Edinburgh’s delicate (but tolerable) sex trade being targeted just as Glasgow’s was 10 years ago, it’s hard to take that pledge seriously. Like it or not, what works in Glasgow doesn’t necessarily work in Edinburgh – and, as crime continues to rise in the Scottish capital, there are claims it’s become crystal clear that the country’s consolidated police force is not basing its approach on what does and doesn’t work in Edinburgh.

In the last five years, there have been just nine reports of crime at the city’s dozens of saunas. That’s because these establishments provide pseudo-regulated places in which sex workers are relatively protected from exploitation and abuse. That in itself is invaluable, and the city can’t afford to let it go.

If the Edinburgh City Council decides to bow to the will of police chiefs who don’t seem to understand the unique dynamic of power in Edinburgh, will it stop women (or men) from prostituting themselves?

Of course not. What it will do is push them out into unlicensed establishments, where they’ll be subject to unchecked abuse. Worse yet, more still will end up on the streets, exposing themselves to all manner of mistreatment and violation. Or, in police speak, they actually will start posing “a reputational risk” to the Royal Mile. Because at the end of the day, that’s what really matters, isn’t it?

Now, there’s no dancing around it – not everyone is fond of the world’s oldest profession. But that doesn’t give us any right to sweep thousands of individuals under the rug. Edinburgh’s sauna workers will keep on doing what they do, with or without a license; therefore, is it not more trouble than it’s worth to displace them? Whether Scottish police bosses would admit it or not, their actions stand to do serious damage to a situation that is, if not perfect, at least stable. They would do well to keep that in mind before kicking open this particular hornet's nest.