Michael Fry: Different attitudes over brothels

Supporters of 'licensed brothels' say they are safer and more hygienic than working on the streets. Picture: Neil Hanna
Supporters of 'licensed brothels' say they are safer and more hygienic than working on the streets. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The differing attitudes between east and west towards legalised brothels highlights the difficulties which have arisen as a result of the amalgamation of Scotland’s police forces, writes Michael Fry

Fantastic shots in Sunshine on Leith remind us what a glorious urban composition the capital of Scotland is, with its beautiful classical buildings disposed across a romantic landscape of hill and dell and river and sky. In the whole world there is only a handful of places that compare with it: Rome, Athens, Prague – and then the list runs out.

But Edinburgh also has something these other great cities do not have. It has a seamy underside that contributes just as much to its character. This takes on physical form in the cityscape too, with the division between the order and regularity of the New Town and the jumble or jungle of the Old Town.

The division has been a rich source of literary inspiration, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde to the novels of Sandy McCall Smith and Ian Rankin.

What is more, the division reflects an actual social reality, between the Edinburgh of stuffy lawyers and pinstriped financiers together with their wives (the ladies who lunch) and the Edinburgh of drink, drugs – and saunas.

Edinburgh’s saunas are licensed brothels, have been that way for 20 years and were fully accepted as such by the old Lothian Constabulary. Before that, prostitutes used to walk the streets, most obviously in Leith but sometimes also in the centre of town.

They had in fact been walking the streets for at least 500 years. The city’s earliest judicial records are replete with cases of prostitution, which continued right through the Enlightenment and the supposedly prudish Victorian era.

Also hanging round the capital of Scotland there have always been plenty of men on commercial or legal or political business, far from home and with nothing much to do of an evening.

And there have been plenty of poor girls looking for rich male company. By mutual consent, prostitution satisfied the desires of both.

For all the city’s outward respectability, it has in practice accepted the consequences. There was an awkward and risky time about 1990, when AIDS arrived and spread through unprotected sexual intercourse. Suddenly a degree of regulation seemed imperative.

The saunas provided it. The girls came off the streets and went into their booths adorned by beds and mirrors, with gaudy condoms on sale at reception downstairs.

While not directly involving any public authority in the business of sex, the saunas made sure the services on offer were safe and hygienic.

But for purposes of public presentation and perhaps so as not to point up too sharp a contrast with other Scottish cities, notably Glasgow, Edinburgh’s licensed brothels have never been called by that name, though anybody passing by would have guessed at once what was going on behind the entry system and the frosted windows.

That was certainly true of one, now closed, directly across from the Torphichen Street police station. To say the least, the boys in blue could hardly have doubted what was going on just over the road.

Since things were not being named by their names, euphemism also entered into the regulation of these places, such as in rules on “public entertainment”.

In the controversy that has suddenly blown up in the relicensing of saunas in Edinburgh, the breach of these rules is being given as the reason for turning several applicants down.

I am unable to say whether these places are any more or less entertaining than on the last occasion they were relicensed. But one thing has changed: the fine body of men that used to keep an eye on them, the Lothian Constabulary, has since vanished, or at least has been subsumed in Police Scotland, our national force.

Police Scotland unifies all eight forces that used to exist, of which by far the biggest and busiest was Strathclyde. It would not be surprising, then, if the culture of the old Strathclyde force came to have the greatest weight inside the new national force.

Indeed the first chief constable of Scotland is Sir Stephen House, a son of Castlemilk who served as chief constable of Strathclyde from 2007 until his appointment to his present post last year. Sir Stephen made his name in the fight against Glasgow’s gangs. He is reported to have no interests outside his job and his family.

The unification of the police forces finally came about because of the squeeze on public expenditure in Scotland. It was something talked about for a long time, because the previous fragmentation had seemed no great advantage in a small country.

Yet there were differences in the cultures of the different forces that had counselled against change.

For example, the police in Glasgow, and in the west of Scotland generally, were far more puritanical about sex than the police in Edinburgh. This may seem strange in such a raffish city, but it is the same with drink: the licensing of pubs and the lengthening of opening hours always encountered much more tut-tutting disapproval in the metropolis on the Clyde.

In the same way, Glasgow has never been willing to countenance brothels, even if disguised as saunas.

Without a snug nest to call their own, the girls need to walk the streets, where there are no checks on the health of them or their clients, where they are vulnerable to violence and sometimes get murdered.

It seems a strange sort of puritanism that prefers a strangled corpse to a licensed prostitute, but that seems to be the way of things in Glasgow.

There must be some suspicion, then, now Scotland has a single police force run by the lads from Strathclyde, that they want to impose their puritanical standards on the permissive capital. Once again we deal in euphemisms, so that nobody actually says this is what is going on.

But some of the evidence given in the last few days to Edinburgh’s licensing court, that an ample supply of condoms had been discovered on the premises, including some used ones in a wastepaper basket, is reminiscent of the sort of detail that used to appear in the News of the World.

We might have hoped that the age of goggle-eyed prurience was dead, but no, in Police Scotland it is back with us.

So a place called a sauna turns out to be a brothel? Even if the plods are appalled, or pretend to be, I think the rest of us can live with this.

In the end, the most interesting issue may not be the continued existence, or not, of saunas, but the consequences of trying to unite into one of the different police cultures of Scotland – a problem of the very centralisation so beloved of the SNP government.