Sauna closures ‘could mean danger for sex workers’

Picture: Paul Chappells
Picture: Paul Chappells
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SAUNA workers today spoke of their fears that the closure of venues associated with the city’s licensed sex industry could leave them vulnerable to being raped or murdered.

Women working at saunas targeted by recent police raids said they would be compelled to work alone out on the Capital’s streets or from ­private flats if the businesses are closed down.

And the sex workers are terrified they may fall victim to pimps looking to live off their earnings, or murderers such as the evil Ipswich serial killer Steve Wright.

Each of the six women who spoke to the Evening News are based at saunas whose licence was suspended by councillors following the police swoops. And some said they had been strip-searched during the operation while accusing some officers of being “very aggressive”.

The women, who work at the ­Dundas Street Sauna, The New Gentle Touch and Paradise Sauna, said that closure would leave both themselves and men paying for sex vulnerable to attacks.

In one case, they described a regular client visiting a flat in the Capital to meet a prostitute who was slashed in the face and robbed by two men ­hiding there.

Mother-of-two Lee, who has worked in Dundas Street for a year, said she was strip-searched during the raid in June, and said closing down the businesses would leave people in her business more vulnerable to Wright, who murdered five prostitutes between October and December 2006.

She said: “I just can’t get my head around why they want to close us.

“They are going to end up putting women on the streets and in danger. Under the law, two women can’t work together from a flat so that’s not much better.

“The police could end up putting women at risk of getting raped, or murdered like in Ipswich.”

Lee, who is in her 30s, added: “I’d been struggling to get a job for a while before I started here. The customers here are lovely. Many are older and want someone to talk to, or they might have an unhappy marriage but don’t want to leave their wives.

“I’m trying to put the thought of closure to the back of my mind.”

Blonde Crystal, 32, who was previously an escort before starting at the sauna one month ago, said: “A lot of girls can’t work in ‘normal’ jobs for various reasons. I was in a car ­accident and need to have ongoing operations. I have a business degree from college, but I can’t work in an office job at the moment where I have to sit at a desk because of my disability. I have a daughter and this job is the only way I’ve got through the recession.

“We also get visits from women from the Spittal Street clinic who give us health checks and advice on things like housing. That wouldn’t happen if we were hidden away in private flats.” The women are gathered around a coffee table in the sauna’s red-­carpeted lounge while downstairs are six bedrooms with double beds and mirrored walls. Five women work on different shifts during the week and choose their own hours.

Crystal added: “We have a regular client who went to a private flat and two men jumped him when he got inside. They slashed and robbed him. He came back here with scars on his face. That’s how dangerous it can be.

“Gangsters and pimps start getting involved when you have private flats. Since we’ve been threatened with ­closure, I’ve already been contacted by men asking if I want them to be my driver.”

Louise, 39, who has worked at the sauna for three years, said: “There was about 15 officers on the raid who were shouting and being very aggressive. They found sex toys and were asking the girls what they were for.

“We were interviewed in the lounge but never told why or asked if we wanted a lawyer. After the police had been here for six hours I was strip-searched, which was really degrading. I assume they were looking for drugs but no-one does drugs here. The whole experience was ­frightening.”

Louise, who is wearing a white top and cut-off denim shorts as she waits for clients, added that the majority of their ­customers are “retired, elderly, widowed or ­handicapped”.

She said: “Often they are just guys who want a chat because they’re lonely. This might be the only female company they get and they might not have the confidence to go to pubs and things. It’s not about the sexual ­services. It’s about the talking and the massage and the friendliness.

“I don’t understand how they try to close some of the saunas but not them all. They’re all run the same way.

“The saunas have been open in Edinburgh for years and it’s been fine. The police visit to check everything’s OK and there was never a problem here.

“The neighbours are friendly to us and they don’t think we’re crazy people. This is a nice area so it doesn’t attract trouble.”

Louise said she is living in fear about being driven into the shadowy world of private flats.

She said: “I’m worried that will happen if we’re shut down. Other girls might end up on the streets. Then there’s the danger that pimps move in and force you to work for them. Some are involved in dealing drugs and that exposes women and clients to that.

“The police said they were looking for human trafficking but that’s just ridiculous. No-one running a sauna would allow it to go on. I would report it to police myself.

“The women want to work and earn money, often to support children, and working in a safe environment can help them rise above ­problems they might have had in the past.

“We’re really frightened about ­closing but we’re trying to stay ­positive and hope it works out.”

At the Paradise Sauna in Roseburn Terrace, four women in high heels and negligees are gathered in the lounge, a TV set quietly tuned to a music station in the background. Each takes turns making cups of tea and coffee from a small kitchen. Next door is a room with a four-poster bed with red sheets and a mirror alongside it.

Ten women work in the three-room sauna during the week on various shifts.

Red-headed Romanian Sandra, 36, who has worked there for three years, said she was also strip-searched ­during the June raid. She said: “I was very scared. Nothing like that has ­happened to me before.

“I like working in the sauna. It would be dangerous in a flat by myself.”

Short-haired Vivian, 27, who has worked there for two months, was present during the raid. She said: “The saunas keep the women and clients safe in regulated and licensed establishments. It seems perverse to change that. All that will happen is it will be driven underground and the police are cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

“It may take a woman being raped or killed to show them the errors of their ways. I started working here to pay off debt which had left me struggling for years. I feel able to hold my head high because I’m paying the bills and not relying on benefits.”

At The New Gentle Touch sauna in Argyle Place, Marchmont, 33-year-old brunette Pixie said she got a “real fright” during the police raid where officers were “very aggressive”.

She said: “They were asking about human trafficking but only me and one other girl work here. I don’t do drugs, I don’t even drink, so I’ve got no clue what it was all about.

“If they’re taking this approach it’s going to mean more women on the streets.”

‘The job allowed me to overcome my addiction, provide for my kids and feel good about myself’

LOUISE started working in saunas after a split from her husband left her alone to support her two children.

The 39-year-old was also battling an addiction and said she entered the city’s sex industry in a bid to earn money and give her life “structure”.

She said: “After being married for a few years that relationship ended and I found myself unemployed. I had developed an addiction and was having a lot of problems that left me feeling suicidal at times.

“I was trying to bring up my two kids after my ex left, and it was hard on benefits. I was trying to earn money and give myself some structure to overcome my addiction.

“I responded to an advert for a sauna and was asked in for an interview. They were very nice and I started the next day.”

Louise said she worked in the city centre sauna and soon felt “safe and comfortable in the industry”.

She added: “You start to get the same clients and you get to know them as people, building up a relationship.

“They are often vulnerable people who just want some female company. I later stopped for a while and tried to find mainstream employment but that was difficult. I thought if I wasn’t working I could end up in a bad place again so I started back and that’s been three years now.

“The job allowed me to overcome my addiction because I was providing for my kids. I was paying rent and feeling good about myself.

“I wanted my kids to have a normal life and not be sucked into crime or something. I didn’t want our lives to hit rock bottom.”

Louise said that the saunas act almost as a therapy group for the often troubled women where they can discuss their lives.

She said: “It’s like a family here. You share problems and experiences. A lot of the women have been through similar things.

“People probably think we make lots of money, but that’s definitely not the case. We’re self-employed and only get a tip from the clients. But it’s enough to pay the rent and live on. And I’m saving a little bit for the first time in my life. I never thought that would happen for me.”

• Critics saw the raids as a move away from Edinburgh’s more tolerant attitude – but police have denied a change of policy. MSP Margo MacDonald has demanded an explanation from Chief Superintendent Mark Williams over allegations of heavy-handed policing during the raids. Chief Supt Williams said officers dealt with the women with “sensitivity and compassion”.