No sex tourists please

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TAKE one massage parlour boasting a five-star service behind the expensive drape of its £11,000 curtains. Add a forthcoming sex multiplex, complete with "friction" dancing, to the handful of existing lapdancing clubs and strip pubs.

Throw in 20-odd licensed saunas, a couple of hundred street prostitutes, and mix with the most relaxed drinking laws in the country. Season with soon-to-be relaxed gambling rules, crank up the calls for cannabis cafes - and leave residents to simmer furiously.

With all these ingredients in the mix, it’s hardly surprising there’s concern that Edinburgh could be turning into the Amsterdam rather than the Athens of the north.

Certainly that’s the fear of the city council’s Tory group leader, Iain Whyte, who believes such seedy developments are a recipe for tarnishing Edinburgh’s international reputation. "My biggest concern is about the image of Edinburgh and that it could soon be perceived as a mini-Amsterdam," he says. "If it becomes known as a place where the sex industry is one of the biggest things in the city, it could take the tourism market down a seedier route. We have to be careful of our product and our market and protect our image."

Tourism chiefs also aren’t keen that Edinburgh gains an international reputation as a city of sin. "While we appreciate that there is a market for these sorts of establishments, we would very much prefer that Edinburgh continued to attract its tourists on the strength of its cultural, historical and architectural qualities," says a spokeswoman for Edinburgh and Lothians Tourist Board.

In other words, "no sex tourists, please". But in spite of these concerns, there appears to be a very definite expansion in the city’s sex industry.

Club 7, an upmarket massage parlour, is set to open its doors in York Place this week. The nearby London Street Sauna has just lodged plans with the council to double in size, and an application has been lodged to open a sauna in York Place’s two-star Ballantrae Hotel.

The US-based lap dancing chain Spearmint Rhino has also revealed it’s looking at three potential sites in the city with a view to opening a "sex multiplex" by the end of the year.

The city council insists the number of saunas has remained static, although it admits that most of the new applications have yet to be considered by the relevant committees.

But despite regulation of saunas, and a growing disquiet about their proliferation, there is some concern that the council actually has little or no power to regulate the growth in lapdancing bars and strip joints.

Currently there is no specific regulation of this arm of the sex industry, unless the pubs or clubs providing this entertainment fall foul of obscenity laws. In practice, any pub or club owner with an existing entertainments licence can introduce lapdancing or stripping without even having to inform the council.

Dougie Kerr, convener of the city’s licensing committee, says he’s not happy with such lax controls, and hopes that a national review of licensing legislation which is currently under way will soon give local authorities greater powers. "It’s difficult to regulate that type of entertainment within the current act," he explains. "I would like to see licensing of such places clarified within the act and recognition of the different types of operation and different types of problems that they have."

Jim Cowie, the convener of the Church of Scotland’s board of social responsibility, also wants to see the council have more control. "The sex industry will often exploit any loopholes they can use as a legitimate front to get away with as much as they can," he says. "We believe councils should have the authority to license and regulate and inspect these establishments - they need to be regulated."

Many visitors may already have the impression that Edinburgh has a relaxed attitude towards the sex industry, as the council was the first in the UK to license saunas. Officially, the council denies it licenses anything more risque than massage, but privately it knows it’s a pragmatic policy designed to get prostitutes off the streets.

"We ask the saunas if they are operating a brothel and they deny it," insists Phil Attridge, convener of the regulatory committee which licenses the saunas. "The problem is proving it. But if the police tell us that they are operating a brothel then they won’t get a licence."

Despite his denial that the council sanctions brothels, Clouncillor Attridge adds that the policy makes Edinburgh a safer place for women. In other cities, he contends, women are regularly propositioned and kerb-crawled.

However, safety didn’t appear to be too much of an issue when the city’s unofficial tolerance zone in Leith was dropped late last year, although SNP MSP Margo MacDonald is currently campaigning for official tolerance zones where prostitutes could solicit for business legally.

It’s a move Cllr Attridge would support, but not out of a desire to promote the sex industry.

"I would support this simply because it’s looking at disease prevention," he says. "Edinburgh’s approach has not been tolerance for tolerance sake.

"If you go back to the mid-1980s, Edinburgh had the tag of the Aids capital of Europe. Edinburgh’s was a purely pragmatic and disease prevention solution and nothing else.

"The fact that the vast majority of women were intravenous drug users and carrying HIV was a horrendous problem."

Cllr Attridge, though, does admit to being concerned about the upsurge in lapdancing clubs, if only because he feels it’s "morally a horrible career choice".

It’s impossible to gauge how much the sex industry is worth in Edinburgh, although American researchers have estimated that in the US it pulls in more cash than the cinema and music industries combined.

However, the city’s economic boom is certainly helping it along. According to ScotPep, the prostitutes’ support group, it’s not uncommon for women to be earning up to 1000 a week - tax-free, of course.

But ScotPep manager Ruth Morgan Thomas claims there has not been the expansion in the sex industry that was predicted with the advent of the Scottish Parliament. "Edinburgh has always had a significant sex industry because it’s the capital city. A lot of people felt that when the Scottish Parliament opened there would be an explosion. But I think the growth is a natural growth."

One significant change, however, is the number of prostitutes working out on the streets. In 2000, ScotPep had contact with 287 women, but last year that had dropped by almost a quarter to 218, and the figures have fallen again since the Leith tolerance zone ended in December.

Some of the former street prostitutes have "gone indoors" to work in the saunas. Although this is regarded as a safer option for the women, it can also give them less control over the clients they accept and which services they offer.

For those still working on the streets, Ms Thomas is keen that a legal tolerance zone is introduced. But she sees this as only a first step - ultimately she’d prefer that the UK followed Australia by legalising brothels so they can be inspected and regulated.

Despite its reputation as a Mecca for sex tourists, she’s not so keen for Edinburgh to follow the example of Amsterdam, which actually only legalised its brothels 18 months ago, and where window shopping takes on a whole new meaning. The red light district is such a tourist draw that its Prostitutes Information Centre offers a guided tour.

"Amsterdam is like a zoo," she says. "Women are on display and you get hundreds of thousands of tourists going to gawp.

"If you’re thinking Edinburgh will become a northern Amsterdam, I don’t think that’s likely to happen. There is an enormous cultural difference.

"If you look at the way that the sex industry operates, I prefer the Edinburgh system.

"We are not going to eradicate prostitution - our aim is to reduce as far as possible the violence and exploitation.

"But Edinburgh’s pragmatic approach has helped."