In the 1980s, city leaders in Edinburgh took a radical approach to prostitution in the city which would see it become the first in the UK to effectively decriminalise sex work.
It came as Edinburgh saw a rapid increase in the number of heroin users in Scotland in the 80s, with cheap bags of heroin flooding the city and growing numbers of intravenous drug users.
Of course, this was combined with the early signs of a new, deadly illness which would go on the dominate public health concerns.
Street prostitution in the capital remained centered around Leith, where women walked the streets hoping to earn cash to survive.
Prior to the 1980s, Edinburgh population of intravenous drug users was estimated to be below 200, but as that population exploded city leaders sought to tackle these problems.
And it was a liberal approach they adopted, one that would go on to see the city’s sex industry flourish.
The Daily Record reports that in 1982, Edinburgh became the first city in the UK to effectively decriminalise brothels.
Instead of looking to shut them down, the council opted to grant massage parlours and saunas entertainment licences making them subject to regular safety checks by the fire service and the police.
Whilst officially still a crime, it created a situation where the authorities turned a blind eye to the reality – that sex was sold behind closed doors.
The number of saunas in the capital would go on to double between 1990 and 2000, rising from 12 to 27, with as many as 15 women working in some places at one time.
Edinburgh Live told recently how a similarly radical approach was taken by health authorities grappling with the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Doctors in the city quickly linked the virus with intravenous drug use, and lobbied for needle exchange programmes in a bid to tackle to rising infection rates which saw the capital dubbed the “Aids capital of Europe”.
Speaking in 2000, Councillor Phil Attridge, then-convenor of the council’s regulatory committee, explained the city’s approach.
“We don’t condemn and we don’t promote prostitution. We just try to control it.
“We decided to give saunas entertainment licences when HIV and intravenous drug use was at its peak in the city.
“Licensing meant we could regulate where the saunas were and who owned them, and hopefully keep our streets safe.”
He added: “I’m not sure why we decided to call them saunas. It’s a catch-all name.
“But there’s no point in turning up with a towel for a stay in a steam room – many of them don’t have real saunas inside.”
In 2009, a court case ruled women who worked at Scorpio Leisure in Leith’s Albion Road, near Hibs’ Easter Road stadium, weren’t liable for VAT payments over their cut of door fees.
In her judgment, Lady Paton detailed the sauna’s practices where customers were greeted at reception and charged an entry fee of £20 for 30 minutes and £35 for an hour. The judge said patrons were entitled to “showers, non-alcoholic refreshments, television, newspapers (and) the company of a hostess during a sit-down in the general lounge area”.
Customers could then negotiate “additional services” in a private room complete with “a bed, mirrors and spa bath”, she added. From the entry fee, £5 was taken by the owners and half was retained as “rent” paid by the women for the room who then kept the rest.
And whilst some residents did complain to the council, prosecutions were rare and a 1995 poll of Edinburgh residents found 85 per cent backed the saunas remaining open.
And despite controversy and crime, including the 2002 murder of Billy Sibbald, a publican who formally owned the Orchid House sauna in the New Town, the saunas remained largely untouched despite challenges by campaigners to close them down.
But in 2013, they faced their most serious threat when attempts were made to close them for good.
The newly-formed Police Scotland raided various saunas and 11 men and women were charged with brothel-keeping and living off immoral earnings.
But this push to close them down was halted in court after details of a secret deal made in the 80s emerged.
The document was signed by politicians, police and a senior Crown Office official in 1986 amid fears the city would be devastated by an Aids epidemic. Lothian and Borders Police, Edinburgh Council and NHS officials agreed saunas could have prostitutes on the premises if they promoted safe sex and supplied condoms.
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As a result, a decision was taken in 2015 to drop all charges.
In recent years, intense competition from the boom in sex-for-sale in private flats advertised online and now enforced closures under coronavirus lockdowns have taken their toll but Edinburgh’s saunas continue to cling on to survival.
-- to www.edinburghlive.co.uk