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Heat Is Off on Edinburgh 'Saunas' : Scotland: Officials argue that prostitution isn't about to go away. They say regulating the establishments is safer and more hygienic and reduces street soliciting.


EDINBURGH, Scotland — A year or so ago Frances noticed that City Hall had dropped "no prostitution" from the fine print in the annual license for her sauna business.

She had never let the stipulation stop her brothel anyway. But now Frances has really begun to relax.

Edinburgh--home of the High Kirk, the main Presbyterian Church in Scotland, and the burial place of the Calvinist reformer John Knox--is the first city in Britain to license brothels.

"We masqueraded as massage parlors and saunas, but there was never any question of the girls being qualified massagers," said Frances.

A thin, chain-smoking woman in early middle age, she laughed at that thought. "Though some of my girls do wear white uniforms--the clients like it."

The licensing policy is no laughing matter for church leaders. They have strongly criticized Edinburgh Council, accusing it of taking the law into its own hands.

In Britain, like most European countries, brothel-keeping is illegal. So is soliciting. But it is legal to be a prostitute--or to work in a brothel.

City officials argue that prostitution isn't about to go away. They say licensing the saunas is safer and more hygienic and reduces street soliciting--with the attendant pimps and drug pushers.

Police have kept hands off the brothels, in what Assistant Chief Constable Tom Wood calls a "pragmatic view."

Edinburgh officially clothes its policy by licensing 23 saunas or "executive massage" establishments as "places of entertainment."

A license costs 500 pounds ($800) a year and is awarded after environmental health officers check the premises for hygiene and safety. There are no examinations, such as AIDS tests, required for the prostitutes.

For 12 years Frances has presided over a parlor with discreet cabins and gentle lighting where massages mean sex; where the women work regular shifts; and where, said Frances, "a young, attractive girl who is good at the job can earn between 80 and 300 pounds ($130-$480) a shift."

Like many of the saunas, Frances' business is in Leith, the partly gentrifying dock region of the Scottish capital that overlooks the gray waters of the Firth of Forth.

The council, controlled by the left-of-center Labor Party, first acknowledged its policy in November. Officials have been less open about the policy since a group of Leith residents filed a lawsuit charging that the council exceeded its powers.

Support for the brothel policy cuts across political lines.

Tom Ponton, a council member from the Conservative Party, lauds the change.

"These saunas are really brothels and everybody is turning a blind eye," said Ponton, a pub owner. "It's keeping people off the streets. I think what Edinburgh is doing is courageous."

Whatever happens, there is no sign Edinburgh will stop the licenses.

"Edinburgh is being very progressive," said June Taylor, a former prostitute who runs Shiva, a help group for prostitutes supported by the local state-financed health board.

Shiva operates a clinic for prostitutes two nights a week in Leith.

"A lot of women in the sex industry don't want to discuss their worries with their doctor because of the stigma," said Taylor. "They might be back with the kids the next day. They need a non-judgmental environment."

The clinic dispenses condoms and offers AIDS tests.

Frances, chatting in Taylor's apartment, talked almost primly about her own hiring rules: no drug addicts, no girls under 18, no one working for a pimp.

Taylor estimated Edinburgh has about 270 prostitutes--120 in the saunas, 110 on the streets, and the rest working as call girls from apartments.

Edinburgh's leaders contend it has far fewer streetwalkers than in Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city 45 miles to the west, or even in London's main red light district centered on depressing streets around King's Cross station.

Church leaders are unmoved.

"It doesn't make it right just because it's more comfortable," said Roman Catholic Archbishop Keith O'Brien.

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