Sex and the city

Edinburgh and sex go back a long way. In the past, mention of Danube Street conjured up images of the naughty side of the staid capital city. There, in an elegant Georgian terrace at Number 17, Edinburgh’s most famous and semi-public brothel was operated. For 30 years after World War Two, it was run by Dora Noyce, the oldest girl in the oldest profession, and Scotland’s best-known madam.

This being Edinburgh, Noyce affected a genteel image and, according to urban legend, put Tory posters in her windows at election time. She also contributed to the growth of the post-war tourist industry. When the American aircraft carrier John F Kennedy docked at Leith, sailors queued round the corner.

Of course, Noyce’s establishment was often raided, though more for form’s stake. In 1972, when 71, she spent four months in jail. Her Edinburgh sensibilities were truly affronted: "It was very stupid of the court. I was just a burden on the ratepayers and goodness knows they have enough to put up with already."

When Noyce died in 1977, her girls attempted to keep working but times were changing. For one thing, Georgian houses were suddenly prime residential properties rather than unfashionable architectural dinosaurs. Number 17 became a family home.

Danube Street is a metaphor for the capital’s love-hate attitude to sex and the sex industry. Power and sex always go together, so Edinburgh has always had its dark side. And unlike Glasgow, with its mass Irish immigration, the power of the social influence of the Catholic Church was limited in the capital, where a certain Presbyterian hypocrisy has continued to hold sway.

The result, according to novelist Allan Massie, is that Edinburgh has long been "held in the grip of a dual identity: respectable and God-fearing on the one hand, rebellious and scornful in its debauchery on the other". Another city novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, captured this Edinburgh schizophrenia in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The first modern manifestation of Edinburgh’s sexual Jekyll-and-Hyde nature came immediately after the closure of Number 17 and coincided with the early whiff of the capital’s imminent economic growth. In the mid-1980s, Edinburgh achieved notoriety as the AIDS capital of Europe. The new disease swept through the city’s drug-addict community, transmitted by shared needles. But how had AIDS arrived so early in the city in the first place?

Rumours were rife that the initial point of contact had been through the jet-set lifestyle of some of Edinburgh’s gay community, especially within the legal profession. Calumny or not, AIDS struck down several prominent lawyers.

This was a plague that crossed class boundaries with impunity and with it, Edinburgh was gaining a reputation it did not want. The Edinburgh establishment reacted quickly. The City Council introduced a revolutionary scheme to provide free needles to drug addicts. The AIDS epidemic was stopped in its tracks.

But the affair had wider consequences. The City Council went further and decided to tolerate and regulate Edinburgh’s burgeoning massage parlours, primarily as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, by ensuring that prostitution was taken off the streets and the girls properly supervised. Edinburgh had become the first city in Britain to sanction brothels de facto.

In the early 1990s, there was another scandal in the legal profession known as the Magic Circle affair. A number of criminal cases in which prominent gays were acquitted, led to exaggerated allegations that a "gay mafia" at the heart of judiciary, had conspired to pervert the course of justice. The enraged legal profession demanded, and got, a full judicial inquiry. The substance of the allegations was dismissed but the investigation exposed a louche subculture of shady lawyers, rent boys and unscrupulous detectives.

In 1996 booming Edinburgh became more flamboyant in its sexual side with the arrival of lap-dancing clubs. A US import, this combination of public bar and sexual titillation, without the odium of prostitution, found a ready market. Having got used to the sex industry, Edinburgh took it all in its stride. Strait-laced Glasgow eschewed the phenomenon for a time, then grudgingly allowed topless dancing only.

But there is a harsher side to the Edinburgh sex trade, and one which has become a lightning rod for how the capital’s sexual politics is yet again at the crossroads. The toleration of massage parlours means that Edinburgh has a low number of street prostitutes: 75 per cent of the city’s 1,000 prostitutes work in saunas and only around 250 work the streets. Less tolerant Glasgow has some 1,000 street prostitutes.

For 20 years, Edinburgh’s working girls were allowed to work on Coburg Street, by Leith docks. But Edinburgh’s economic and social makeover has turned Leith from an industrial desert to a bijou village. Result: tolerance of street prostitution has evaporated.

Last year, Leith’s working girls were asked to move a few hundred yards from their traditional pitch which is now much too close to the new Scottish executive headquarters. The police suggested Salamander Street, but the residents objected and last December the zone was closed. This spat was less about sex than class. The new middle-class Leithers did not want the working girls at the end of their street.

At the same time, there have been increasing local objections in Edinburgh to renewing entertainment licences for massage parlours and lap-dancing clubs. Some of it is a feminist backlash against what it sees as the exploitation of women.

Mostly it is a reflection of the changing nature of the city and the growth of new middle-class areas in previously seedier quarters. So far, the council has stuck to its guns that the world’s oldest industry will not disappear, and that toleration and regulation is in the interests of the prostitutes and the city.