Unsafe sex in saunas after police condom crackdown

Sex workers are facing increased health risks. Picture: Toby Williams
Sex workers are facing increased health risks. Picture: Toby Williams
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SEX workers in Edinburgh are facing increased health risks following the controversial police crackdown on saunas, a new report has revealed.

Fewer women are attending the specialist NHS clinic set up to support them – and reports show that sexually transmitted infections have increased.

A series of police raids on saunas in 2013, known as Operation Windermere, was seen as signalling the end of Edinburgh's traditional pragmatic approach to prostitution. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

A series of police raids on saunas in 2013, known as Operation Windermere, was seen as signalling the end of Edinburgh's traditional pragmatic approach to prostitution. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Sex workers are also giving up on condoms, with saunas refusing to stock them because police can use possession of them as evidence of selling sex.

The report for the city council’s health and social care committee, which draws together evidence from various agencies involved with sex workers, also said many women had moved away from saunas and now operated from other venues, like flats or lap-dancing bars.

A series of police raids on saunas in the Capital in 2013, soon after the formation of Police Scotland, was seen as signalling the end of Edinburgh’s traditional pragmatic approach to prostitution under the former Lothian and Borders force, although police chiefs denied there was any change of policy.

The report said the number of sex workers attending the NHS Women’s Clinic was down almost ten per cent since then – the first time it had fallen in eight years.

It added: “There is no evidence that the number of women selling sex in Lothian has reduced, but they are not attending for support from NHS Lothian in the same volumes as in previous years.

“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.”

Chlamydia had increased by two per cent and cases of hepatitis B and C were also up.

The clinic reported a fall in the use of condoms by sex workers since the police raids.

The report said: “The problem of unprotected intercourse may have been precipitated by fear of being found by the police to be in possession of condoms, which can be used as evidence to indicate the selling of sex.

“NHS Lothian supplies condoms to saunas, but since Operation Windermere, many managers of these premises are reluctant to have condoms stored there.

“Compounding this risk is the problem that these venues are quieter, and some reports have indicated that women are consequently competing for work and will practice unprotected intercourse in order to generate a larger income.”

The report added that, according to NHS Lothian statistics, around 50 per cent of women selling sex in Lothian are not from the UK and tend to be young and lacking in knowledge of risks of infection.

“They are therefore very vulnerable and at greater risk.”

Much of the time at the Women’s Clinic is taken up with trying to help women keep safe. The report said: “Women are encouraged to report harassment and assaults to the police, but many are fearful of doing this in case they are criminalised for selling sex.”

Sex workers’ support group Scot-Pep said it was saddened by the report’s findings.

Co-chairman Stewart Cunningham said: “The report shows a detrimental impact on the health and well-being of sex workers in the city following changes in Edinburgh’s tolerance and harm reduction approach.

“These findings come as no surprise to Scot-Pep who have long campaigned against aggressive enforcement action taken by Police Scotland against sex workers.”

And Independent MSP Jean Urquhart condemned the new police approach on prostitution as “crass stupidity”.

“We need a dose of common sense about this,” she said. “We could have seen that this would be the result. I just feel we are creating more problems than we are solving with the police approach.

“We’re trying to fix a 
problem that wasn’t there, which is always frustrating because there are only losers.

“What we have lost is a genuine care for the health and welfare of sex workers.

“Whatever was intended by the strong line taken by the police – perhaps aided by the council – has not actually achieved what they wanted.

“The idea it would somehow stop prostitution is just naive.”

She said using possession of condoms as evidence against women for selling sex was “the height of nonsense”.

“We try to encourage the use of condoms in every other context,” she said.

Health committee convener Ricky Henderson said the fall in use of condoms appeared to be an “unintended consequence” of police action.

But he said the council was keen to get across the message there were services available to sex workers. He said: “We need the police to be as supportive as possible on the harm reduction agenda.”


By Stewart Cunningham, Co-chair of SCOT-PEP

Since the police raided saunas in Edinburgh, the situation for sex workers has worsened dramatically.

Many have disclosed they feel increasingly threatened by law enforcement and the risk of arrest. Welfare agencies continue to work in co-operation with the police, which makes sex workers distrustful of them and reluctant to engage. This is reminiscent of the experiences of Glasgow-based sex workers who have been working in a context that has prioritised zero-tolerance over a harm reduction approach for a number of years.

Traditionally, sex workers in Edinburgh felt better protected by the police than those working in Glasgow but with the enactment of Operation Windermere, where police raided sex worker premises and in some instances strip-searched women, this trust that they could rely on the police for protection has gone.

One woman, who spoke to SCOT-PEP in the aftermath of the police raids, described the way she had been treated by officers: “I felt very bad, so violated. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life.”

Police Scotland also routinely use condoms as evidence in prosecuting sex workers, as the council has noted.

This flies in the face of all international guidance and must stop.