Police Scotland Dropped Brothel-Keeping Charges in Edinburgh


In the 1980s, in response to rising HIV infections, Edinburgh City Council developed a licensed brothel system giving “saunas” public entertainment licenses knowing that sex was being sold on the premises. The local police force, Lothian and Borders Police, supported this system and would perform annual inspections on the saunas and support the renewal of their licenses. For 30 years, this system functioned in Edinburgh, and for the most part, sex workers inside saunas were left alone and able to work safely.  SCOT-PEP at that time was funded to deliver services to sex workers and would regularly do outreach in the saunas.

In 2013, the eight police forces in Scotland merged under the name Police Scotland. Unfortunately for sex workers, the Chief Constable at the time was widely known for his zero tolerance approach to sex work and high enforcement of the prostitution laws.

In 2013, Police Scotland launched “Operation Windermere”, which involved raids on many of the Edinburgh saunas. This was done to try and find victims of human trafficking and also because there were suspected “links to organised crime” in the saunas.  “No trafficking victims were found,” said Stewart Cunningham, Co-Chair of SCOT-PEP, “they then spent months trying to find charges to lay and nothing was uncovered in terms of organised crime. The only thing the authorities did was lay charges against the sauna owners for brothel keeping and Edinburgh City Council then withdrew their support for the sauna licenses seeing the end of this important harm reduction measure in the city.”

According to SCOT-PEP, the rights of sex workers were violated during these raids. Some of the sex workers were strip-searched, and others had their money and belongings seized by the police even though they had committed no crimes themselves.

One year after withdrawing the sauna licenses Edinburgh City Council released a report to evaluate the impact that Operation Windermere has had on sex workers in the city.  In this report the,

“NHS [National Health Services] Women’s Clinic reports that during the last year, it has become apparent that condom use among sex workers in Lothian is less than the previous year, for vaginal, oral and anal intercourse. There has also been a slight increase in rates of sexually transmitted infection in the last year (Chlamydia increased by 2%, blood borne viruses hepatitis B increased by 0.7% and hepatitis C increased by 0.5%). In addition, the number of women attending the clinic service has decreased for the first time in 8 years. Consultations are down 9.8% compared to 2013. 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.”

In addition, the report found that,

“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.”

It is clear that Operation Windermere and the destruction of the licensed sauna system has had a detrimental impact on the health and safety of sex workers. Sauna owners are now no longer allowing condoms on the premises, because they are scared the condoms will be used as evidence of sex work. For more information on the effects of criminalising condom use, please read the Criminalising Condoms report by Open Society Foundation.

Just recently it was revealed that the authorities are now dropping the brothel-keeping charges against the sauna owners.  Stewart Cunningham said, “in early March 2016, we found out that after almost 3 years Police Scotland has decided to drop the brothel keeping charges against the sauna owners.  The entire police operation was a waste of time and money and the consequences were enormous. The license system was destroyed and the damage will take years to fix.  Sex workers no longer trust the police and this is a concrete example of the harmful effects of this kind of enforcement approach.”

SCOT-PEP recently worked with a member of the Scottish Parliament (Jean Urquhart MSP) to propose a Prostitution Law Reform Bill to decriminalise sex work.  The proposals were lodged with the Scottish Parliament on the 8th of September 2015 and a public consultation was held.  The results of the consultation, which showed that 70% of respondents were in favour of decriminalisation, are available here.