In recent months, Edinburgh's saunas have been subject to a number of police raids, with condoms seized as 'evidence' and alleged sex workers arrested, as the council's previously tolerant attitude is rapidly eroding. With proposals to close down the city's saunas, due to the 'reputational threat' they suddenly seem to pose to Edinburgh's tourist industry, I can't help but despair at the complete disregard shown by the council for the impact this decision will have on the city's sex workers.
Having never heard a tourist on the Royal Mile complain that their experience of some of the richest culture and history in the world has been ruined by a set of inconspicuous lime green doors, I can't help but question whether this decision has less to do with Edinburgh's thriving tourist industry, and more to do with our reluctance as a society to accept that we are despicable, primitive beings, whose vices still necessitate a sex industry. We put a man on the moon, but we never evolved to a point where the demand for prostitution flat-lined, and this reality embarrasses us.
However uncomfortable we may be with the continued existence of prostitution, it is far more unsettling to imagine some of the city's most vulnerable women forced onto the streets, due to the misplaced objectives of a city council which believes that it is capable of eradicating an industry as old as Jesus Christ. It's time to stop pretending we can make prostitution disappear. It continues to exist because the demand for it has never subsided and, whether we like it or not, it's here to stay. Once we've accepted this bleak reality we are left with two options; we can allow women to be abused, or we can cast a light onto an industry that exists deep within the shadows and make the experience of sex workers as safe as possible. Once we accept the inevitability of prostitution we can begin to make progressive steps towards making it a less dangerous and abusive experience for those involved.
Don't get me wrong, as a feminist I oppose prostitution entirely - using a woman as a Kleenex does little to counteract that prevailing attitude that we are a decorative sex, which exists for the sexual gratification of men. However, as a feminist I'm also pretty set on the radical view that women don't deserve to get abused. Therefore, I've decided to accept the boundaries of society's potential for change and acknowledge that, if sex work is going to exist, then I want to safeguard those involved.
Proposals to close down Edinburgh's saunas have neglected to consider the reality that the city's sex workers will continue to operate, regardless of whether they are allowed to do so in a safe environment. The dangers these women will be exposed to on the streets are horrifying - dispersed from the known locations of the saunas, they will become impossible to reach and to offer support to. Margo McDonald, an independent member of the Scottish Parliament, has pointed out that this has regrettably been proven by the fact that, since the closure in 2010 of a 'tolerance zone' for sex work in Leith, there has been a '1000%' increase in the number of attacks on women in the area. It seems obvious that criminalising prostitution simply places vulnerable women in direct opposition with the law, making them less likely to report abuses.
In an attempt to address an uncomfortable issue, policy makers have depressingly proven to be misguided and inconsiderate. Proposals to close Edinburgh's saunas rest on the thoughtless assumption that sex work will somehow disappear if we remove its setting. The reality is, these changes will place some of the city's most helpless women into dangerous circumstances, merely to assuage our own discomfort with the truth that we, as a society, still require prostitution.