Guest blog from Lauren Fox
Lauren is a sculptor who lives in Edinburgh. Her blog is www.laurenffox.blogspot.com and she tweets as @WeldedRockets
Let me start by introducing myself. I am a woman. A feminist (gasp!). I believe in equality. For all. I detest violence against women, and the power imbalance that leads to general acceptance of subordination of any minority makes my blood boil. But I am not an idealist.
Prostitution, as so commonly described in recent months in the press, is the 'oldest profession in the world'. Actually this isn't entirely true. Pimping is the oldest profession in the world. But let's not get distracted. Women and men have sold their bodies for sex since as far as anyone can remember. So, realistically, it isn't going to suddenly stop now. But I feel very strongly that there are ways it can be made safer, things we can and should be doing to protect women working in the sex industry. (It's important to mention at this point that men are also exploited and abused as prostitutes within the sex industry - I am not unaware of this. But for the purposes of this blog, which is hosted by Zero Tolerance, an organisation focussed on violence against women, I will refer to the women involved.)
To this end, last November, I found myself at Edinburgh's City Chambers, 50% of the total number of objectors to the relicensing of one of the 'saunas', whose license was up for renewal along with 14 other saunas in Edinburgh. Saunas in Edinburgh are well known for being brothels, and Edinburgh is apparently one of the UK's top venues for sex tourists, as sex is so easily found and bought, behind closed doors of course.
Since 2001, when the unofficial 'red-light-zone' was scrapped by police in Edinburgh, prostitution has moved behind closed doors. And while the argument goes that this is safer for the women ‘sex workers’, as they are off the streets, I believe that the current system of licensing saunas is so flawed that there is no reason to believe prostitution behind closed doors is any safer for anyone. The fact that the women are out of public view means in itself prostitution, and the issues around it are out of sight, and thus more likely to be out of the mind of the general public too. And the unmonitored, unregulated closed door means that potential abuse, exploitation, violence and trafficking is also out of sight, rendering the women working as prostitutes even more vulnerable than before.
Unfortunately Edinburgh City Council refuses to acknowledge any of these issues. And, it seems, they would actually rather claim ignorance than any sort of responsibility at all. Which is a shame, as the councillors are elected representatives of the public, and are supposed to represent the likes of you and me. So, the transparency of the charade at the City Chambers on November 6 took me a bit by surprise.
The Licensing committee is made up of 12 councillors from across the city. One of whom, the vice convenor, is my local councillor and actually helped me in the process of submitting my objection to the committee. As an objector I was invited to appear before the committee, alongside the applicant (which makes this process intimidating from the start) to state my objection. After apparently being indulged long enough to state my objection, the councillors unanimously agreed to vote to relicense the sauna in question, without even leaving the room to consider what I had said. The potential that they were relicensing an existing, unmonitored brothel, and thus aiding and abetting criminal activity was apparently not of interest or concern to them, and my objections fell on deaf ears.
Even more amazing, was that when my co-objector stated his (lengthy and thorough) objection at the beginning of the session, which included the availability of evidence on the internet to prove what was happening in the saunas, he was asked if he 'believed everything he saw on the internet'. It really blew me away that not only is it up to members of the public like myself, and like him, to find and bring evidence to the councillors, but that their one question to anyone during the proceedings was to try and discredit him. This is amazing because of the transparency of the collaboration between the Council, the Police and the people that are running the brothels/'saunas'. At least we could have been humoured by our objections apparently being taken seriously and investigated. But no. A unanimous vote passed for all of the licenses. Even my councillor who cared enough to help me object decided to vote to relicense. This is not necessary - a majority vote would pass the motion, not everyone needed to comply. But not one single councillor decided to even raise enough concern to investigate the issues brought to their attention by me and the other objector. Which makes it quite apparent that they are also under pressure to ignore, to turn a blind eye, or however they justify to themselves the complete disregard for fairness, safety, and even the law.
I was offered the chance to appeal the licensing committee’s decision to the Sheriff Court but at a cost – there is a standard administration fee of £80. As this is something I could not afford I was left with no choice but to drop the appeal.
All of this makes it clear that the council can, or will, do nothing to help change the current situation of the unofficial approval of brothel-keeping in Edinburgh. There has to be a better way than this. And however we regulate prostitution, we should provide more support to the women working in saunas that are not making a choice, but are forced into prostitution by poverty, cycles of abuse, violence, homelessness and powerlessness. I am not worried about women like 'Laura', a prostitute and 'high class escort' recently interviewed by Radio Scotland's The Investigation, who is apparently happy and empowered by her chosen line of work, which she loves. Laura is in the minority. Most women do not love ‘working’ as prostitutes, research suggests that the vast majority work get involved in prostitution because they feel they have no choice, and they are affected by the issues just mentioned. Which makes it all the more sickening to read the explicit, disgusting and graphic 'reviews' of prostitutes written by 'punters' available online. This is not fair, this is not equal. This is about imbalance of power and violence against women. And all of us that sit back and do nothing, or walk past a sauna and look the other way, are complicit in sustaining Edinburgh's denial of the issue, and disregard for some of its most vulnerable citizens.