I helped design Edinburgh sex industry policy. Be careful changing them – Tom Wood

Take care when you tamper with the regulation of the sex industry. Unintended consequences lie everywhere, writes Tom Wood.

The Western Bar and Burke and Hare lap-dancing clubs in Edinburgh's West Port (Picture: Jon Savage)
The Western Bar and Burke and Hare lap-dancing clubs in Edinburgh's West Port (Picture: Jon Savage)

If you live long enough you see most things come full circle, well-established policies are swept away by ‘modern thinking’ only to be recycled a few years later, hailed as new, dynamic and cutting edge. So it is with weary deja vu that I note that the wheel is turning again on our relationship with the sex industry and all its tentacles.

Like Glasgow, Edinburgh council is considering banning lap-dancing clubs with the usual references to the city’s “liberal attitudes to the sex industry” and the old trope that “historically Edinburgh has turned a blind eye to sex work”.

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As one of the people credited and criticised – almost in equal measure – for Edinburgh’s policy on the sex industry, I feel it’s time some facts were straightened.

First, the police approach to the sex industry in 1990s Edinburgh was not liberal, it was pragmatic and there was no blind-eye turned, just the opposite, the policy was driven by the hard-headed need for intelligence and early intervention in the face of a serious public health threat.

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We learned a lot about the sex industry in the 1980s, especially in the wake of the still-unsolved murder of Leith Street girl Sheila Anderson. To our horror, we discovered we had lost control, were out of touch, blind to much of what was happening on our streets and under our noses. As the decade wore on, with many more young drug-using girls on the streets and the real threat of an epidemic of blood-borne viruses like HIV/Aids and hepatitus.

The threat became acute, growing from a purely crime issue to one of affecting the health of everyone.

There was a real sense of emergency back then and it galvanised joint action by the health service, council and police in a way I had never seen, before or since.

Brave, sometimes controversial steps were taken, the establishment of a zone of discretionary prosecution – the so-called red-light zone, the support of prostitute help groups, needle exchanges, free condoms and, later, the licensing of saunas – all were put in place in short order.

It worked, the feared epidemic of blood-borne virus’s failed to materialise and the police regained their grip on the street-sex industry, avoiding at least some of the violent crime seen elsewhere.

It’s always difficult to claim success for something that didn’t happen, something that was prevented, but even so I have always felt that the health, civic and voluntary sector leaders of that generation, before my own, got scant recognition for bold interventions that reduced risk and harm.

And that is the crucial point, the sex industry will always exist and though you may reduce risk you will never remove it altogether. Licensing venues on the periphery of the industry give access and an element of control; drive it underground at your peril.

So a word of caution to this latest group of reformers. The policies of the past were not formed in a haphazard manner by fools, the sex industry is interconnected, tamper with one element and it will impact on others.

Perhaps it is time for reform and change in our regulation of the sex industry – the online world has changed much – but it would be wise to tread carefully and do your homework first.

Otherwise, you could end up doing more harm than good.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable