Police Crackdown in Edinburgh Leads to Increased Health Risks for Sex Workers, Report Finds

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A report for Edinburgh council’s health and social care committee has found that the city’s sex workers are facing increased health risks following a police crackdown on saunas.

The report, which includes evidence from several agencies involved with sex workers, finds that fewer sex workers are attending the specialist NHS Women’s Clinic set up to support them—the first time attendance has fallen in eight years. The report also found that sexually transmitted infections have increased—chlamydia had increased by two percent and cases of hepatitis B and C are also up—and that condom use has decreased. Saunas are disinclined to stock condoms now because police can use them as evidence of sex work.

The report also says that many women have moved away from saunas and now operate from other venues. “There is no evidence that the number of women selling sex in Lothian has reduced,” it says, “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.”

“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 also adds that sex workers are fearful of reporting harassment and assaults to the police, “in case they are criminalised for selling sex.”

In the summer of 2013, soon after the formation of the new Police Scotland, which merged the country’s eight police forces into one, several Edinburgh saunas were raided in an operation known as Operation Windermere. Edinburgh had long taken a tolerant approach to prostitution, allowing sex workers to work out of licensed premises, but the formation of the new police force led to fears that the harder line “zero tolerance” attitude seen elsewhere in the country, including Glasgow, would be adopted.

To the Edinburgh Evening News, SCOT-PEP Co-chairman Stewart Cunningham said:

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

“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.”

And Independent MSP Jean Urquhart said:

“We need a dose of common sense about this. 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.