It is 1986. The AIDS crisis is in full swing and sexual health issues acquire a public profile they have rarely enjoyed. In that year Edinburgh City Council did something very enlightened and far sighted. It decided it pursue a policy of pragmatic tolerance of brothels (or saunas as they are called there) by licensing them as places of public entertainment. With Lothian and Borders police supporting the policy, sex workers were able to work in relative safety and access sexual health services. As a harm reduction strategy it was an undeniable success.
AIDS is no longer a major issue, it seems, but the safety of sex workers ceratinly is and, just a few days ago another sex worker, Maria Dunque-Tujano, was murdered in London by a man who had previously attacked others. Sadly, as of this week, Edinburgh is no longer a safe haven or a place with an enlightened policy.
The story actually begins last April when Lothian and Borders Police was abolished as a national force was established in Scotland. Police Scotland immediately embarked on a radically different policy and, within days, suan raids had begun, allegedly looking for evidence of drug taking, crime and trafficking, as if the police had not been interested in these things before. Women were detained, held for several hours despite telling the police that, being normal women they had normal things to do like picking up their children from school. Money and possessions, particularly mobile phones, were taken and in many cases not returned. This was all in line with the way the political wind is blowing, where radical feminists and religious fundamentalists are driving policy changes that are based on ideology rather than facts. It was, in the circumstances, not a surprise that, this week, Edinburgh City Council voted to scrap the policy of licensing saunas.
This is bad news for anyone concerned about violence and sexual health. Under the licensing regime sexual health outreach workers visited establishments and ensured, for example, that there were plentiful supplies of condoms. Police Scotland now say that condoms in saunas will be considered evidence of unlawful activity. This a triumph for those who hold that all prostitution is violence against women, but for those who are concerned with actual violence against actual human beings it is a disaster, one that does not bode well for the development of pragmatic evidence based policy in an area that affects many thousands of often vulnerable women.