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6 March 2000

First blast of the strumpet

New Statesman Scotland - Differing policing policies indicate how clamping down on prostitu

By Kay Smith

The life of a prostitute in Glasgow is a hard one. Caught up in a vicious cycle of drug addiction, poverty and homelessness, she roams through desolate and dangerous streets taking on four or five punters a night and a heap of physical and sexual abuse, not to mention a caution or charge for breaking the law against soliciting.

In Edinburgh, 45 miles away, most prostitutes get on with their work of meeting a steady demand by men for paid sex in a more civilised fashion.

They work in the relatively safe conditions of saunas and massage parlours. They have receptionists who act as bouncers, and managers who have to meet regulations over building safety and hygiene. And, as long as it is just prostitution that they are dealing in, they are not bothered by the police.

The figures show how stark the differences in policing policies are. In one year alone, of a total of 743 women convicted of offences related to prostitution in Scotland, 642 were in Glasgow. Only five were in Edinburgh.

One reason for the difference may be that Edinburgh has been able to make advances in the evolution of what the police call vice control. In the 1960s, Lothian and Borders Police Force appeared comfortable with a prostitution scene that was predictably organised between the street scene around the Leith dockland area and one famous brothel in Danube Street in Stockbridge.

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By the seventies, however, on the death of Dora Noyce, its owner, the Danube Street brothel closed. There was also the advent of the drugs culture. Chaos began to reign as increasing numbers of girls of ever-decreasing age and maturity began prostituting to feed their habit. They knew little of the informal protocols that had evolved over the years on how to keep in with the police and to avoid their cautions and charges. Lacking in sense or protection, they were subjected not only to being charged by the police, but also to assault and extortion at the hands of clients, pimps and drug dealers.

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But by the mid-eighties, the city fathers decided to exploit a legal loophole. Under the Civic Government Scotland Act, saunas and massage parlours are now categorised as places of public entertainment. This means that they are licensed and inspected – to make sure that they meet regulations on building safety and provide sanitary accommodation. Receptionists double up as bouncers to control the most undesirable elements. Prostitutes are regulars – often with pressing financial problems to solve, but not just out to fund a quick score. There is a sporadic police presence, but one that is on the lookout for other things – the police know that prostitution is there anyway.

Until the findings of research by Glasgow University are published, it is still a matter of conjecture as to how safe these saunas are. Apparently, this research deals with the relative levels of violence experienced by prostitutes working indoors and out on the streets, in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leeds.

There are saunas in Glasgow. They are considered to be safer for prostitutes than street working, but they are unlicensed. And they only number 16 – nowhere near enough to cater for the city’s explosion in prostitution. Over 1,000 women are estimated to have worked in small pockets of the city centre over the past ten years – with 200 newcomers appearing on the streets each year.

One report, “Where is She Tonight?”, funded by the Rough Sleepers’ Initiative and published in January, is based on the data on prostitutes compiled through Base 75 – a drop-in advice, support and health centre in Glasgow’s city centre. It spells out the consequences for those involved: “Violence is a constant reality for many women involved in street prostitution. They regularly report violent attacks, rapes and robberies to the drop-in. They are regularly verbally and physically abused on the street while they are working – and not always by punters.” In the past eight years alone, there have been six murder enquiries into the deaths of street prostitutes.

And then there is the criminal justice system to deal with. The male pursuit of the female prostitute, kerb crawling, may not be against the law, but soliciting – looking for the business – is. Lothian and Borders Police have chosen to go for the legal fudge of decriminalisation. According to one officer, Strathclyde Police is faced with a street problem that now tops Edinburgh’s street scene seven times over.

But in contrast to Edinburgh, they chose to use the law at their disposal. After a series of cautions, a Glasgow prostitute can be charged – and then, in court, fined up to £500. Fining applies to many other offences, but in those cases the convicted are able to pay off the amounts over time. Prostitution is different. For some women, a continuation of the activity is the only sure way of finding the cash to pay off the fine. That is why, argue Lothian and Borders Police senior officers, it is counterproductive to set in motion the process leading up to fines.

But in Glasgow, in a snapshot survey contained in the “Where is She Tonight?” report, of 99 prostitutes 70 per cent had been fined. And a third were sent to prison for not being able to pay the fines. This hardly helps the agencies that are now trying to steer women away from prostitution.