Guest post: a sauna-based sex working woman hits back.

This guest post discusses the politicking and media chat around Edinburgh’s sauna debate – I’ve provided context in the next paragraph, non-Scottish readers! – and I was so hyped that the author of this post contacted me, because she makes such a compelling and foundational point that the voices of women who work in the saunas are entirely absent from this debate, and that that’s not an accident or a coincidence. 

Context for my non-Scottish readers: Edinburgh currently has an informal policy of licensing saunas as ‘entertainment venues’, which self-evidently constitutes a licensed brothel system. This policy was originally put in place as part of the city’s HIV strategy, and has been so successful that sex workers were recently taken off the list of risk groups for HIV transmission. A legal case is due to be launched against the saunas next month, which is obviously putting them under threat of closure. This has led to a debate in the Scottish press.

Over to my guest … 

Yet another article was punished today about a proposed challenge to sauna licensing in Edinburgh. Yet again, there are no workers quoted in the article and no hint of recognition that their views might be under-represented in the debate. The same paper has run another article  today about the saunas, which despite the female journalist having tried to visit the sauna, still includes no direct quotes from sauna workers: only second-hand (better than nothing) information from escorts, who have managed to access the sauna workers through less devious means. I say female journalist, because I think female journalists tend more often to at least give lip service to the idea that major stake holders in news stories (in cases of labour and legislative oppression, the workers) should ideally be involved in reporting, at least as context, probably because women have more experience of not being listened to at all.

I have worked in a sauna, been an independent escort and worked at an escort agency. Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy working at the sauna, I absolutely oppose challenges to the existence of the saunas and I’d appreciate you listening to why.

The challenges to the licensing of the saunas oppose them on the basis that the saunas are brothels and that violence and exploitation are inherent in prostitution. The first point, I think is moot: they are brothels, and that is a good thing. Let’s not forget: Edinburgh saunas: 11, Edinburgh street workers: approximately 80. Glasgow saunas: 0, Glasgow street workers approximately 400. These numbers suggest that women prefer to work in saunas, when they have that option.

I have never worked on the street, but it is criminalised, so I would prefer not to. I didn’t say that Glasgow sex workers face more violence because they are street workers, but they face more police intervention into the way they work, which makes it more likely. Truth is, there is no good research comparing street work to sauna work anyway.

However, violence and exploitation are not inherent in prostitution. Do a wide scale survey of a wide range of styles of sex workers, in varying conditions and then compare it with nurses, bus drivers or any other service profession. The only thing perpetuating violence within the sex industry is state intervention in our rights.

Decriminalise pimping. First and foremost. If you are a model, singer, secretary temp or celebrity, you don’t call the people who get you gigs a pimp. Recruitment agents or headhunters are not pimps: they fulfill a need in the labour market and they are paid and recognised accordingly. Stop calling the people who organise safe places to work and find clients for sex workers pimps. The only reason that they are sometimes exploitative and engage in illegal stuff is because they are all by default criminals. Decriminalise, and the workers will be able to have the choice between good and bad management.

At the moment, independent escorting is not illegal, although your landlord can still ask you to leave if you are found escorting from the property. Firstly, some workers lack the business acumen or other organisational skills to make it as a self-employed entrepreneur. Some people don’t want the stress and hassle of finding their own clients or organising a place to work. Some people can’t work independently. Some people don’t want to, for safely. Some people want to turn up, work and go home. There is nothing wrong with that. Decriminalise brothel-keeping so that we can have good workplaces.

I would personally have liked to be able to set my own prices in the sauna. I have heard in Nevada in the brothels, there are negotiation rooms, where you go to discuss with your customer before you get to the bedroom.

I would have liked specified break times. I would have liked to choose what sex acts to offer and what safer sex precautions to use. I would have liked a rape alarm in the room. I would have liked holiday and sick pay, and other employee protections. I would have liked to be able to keep whatever I wanted in my room, and wear whatever I liked.

However, the fact that I didn’t enjoy the working conditions does not, under any circumstances negate the fact that I absolutely support the existence of the saunas. I am also not representative: WHY DO THESE DEBATES NEVER INCLUDE VIEWS OF THE WORKERS? No-one has seemingly ever asked the women about whether the saunas should continue to be licensed, or how they could be improved.

Maybe other women didn’t mind the working conditions I disliked: some women had been working there for over a decade. Probably some people don’t like the working conditions at McDonald’s or JPMorgan, they still choose to work there. Don’t even get me started on interning or workfare. I cannot believe that a single woman I met there would want the licenses revoked. Mostly because I chose to work in the sauna, and so did all the women I met there, even the ones who had paid men to help them cross borders.

The article that I read this morning mentions a misguided councillor considering regulation as a possible solution: this would be legalisation and not decriminalisation. To my mind, this would just create the same dichotomy: licensed and un-licensed, above board and under the radar. I have already said it a hundred times but please decriminalise, and bring the sex industry into plain view of human and labour rights like every other business and workplace.

Also, requiring workers to be health tested would be like making a law that workers in coffee shops have to pass a special coffee-making exam. There is no evidence to suggest that workers do not voluntarily test, or that the population are at any more risk from catching STIs from sex workers: in fact, the opposite is true. Ask any sexual health professional: sex workers rarely catch STIs at work. The other suggestion is that legalisation would help stop trafficking: the saunas are already regularly inspected to look for women who are working in the UK illegally, which forces those who aren’t to work in even less safe conditions. Trafficking, rape and coercion are all already illegal – therefore legalisation on those terms is pointless.

If you are a politician or policy-maker, please could you read about the issues and talk to people in the industry before you give your views?

Please decriminalise the entire sex industry, so that I and all my co-workers can choose our working conditions. By keeping the sex industry licensed and criminalised, you make it so that the sex industry is not just subject to normal labour and human rights. Here, the state is doing the exploitation.

Most of all, please go and speak to the women involved. It is desperately patronising when you are having debates about our livelihoods over our heads. Your complete lack of recognition of our agency or voice is complicit in keeping working conditions less good than they could be.