This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Amsterdam’s iconic Red Light District may soon disappear. Known locally as De Wallen, in non-pandemic times the central neighbourhood packed with coffeeshops and brothels is usually crowded with tourists gawking at sex workers. The area contains some of Amsterdam’s most valuable properties, but, as residents protest, has been degraded by mass tourism.
Mayor Femke Halsema, from the Green Party, now wants to relocate sex workers from De Wallen to a large building outside the city centre. The exact location is still unknown. Halsema said it would take another three to ten years to build it, but plans are underway since most of the city council supports the motion.
Halsema, Amsterdam’s first female mayor, said the measures are necessary to guarantee sex workers’ safety. She said sex workers in De Wallen have to deal with aggressive tourists, illegal sex work and human trafficking, and that if they were to all work in the same building it would be easier to provide them with support.
But sex worker associations are pushing back against the idea that working outside De Wallen would be safer. Quirine Lengkeek, chairwoman of SekswerkExpertise – a network of sex workers, advocates and researchers – is concerned about the precedent set by other cities. “It’s what happened with Het Nieuwe Zandpad [a former red light area] in Utrecht,” she said. “Years ago, they shut down the brothels, but the plans to relocate sex workers never came to fruition.” As a result, many of Utrecht’s sex workers are operating illegally in unsafe areas.
In 2000, the Netherlands made sex work legal. Professionals now have to register with the Dutch Chamber of Commerce so they can pay taxes and obtain a licence. Once registered, they are permitted to rent a space in a brothel, which can come at a high cost. Brothels also need to obtain a licence from local city councils to operate. That’s why cities across the Netherlands can (and often do) shut down sex work facilities if they suspect their owner to be involved in criminal activities.
Sex worker Yvette Luhrs, who is running for local government, doesn’t think the council’s plans for De Wallen have sex workers’ interests at heart. Without a space to rent, people might need to work without a license, which will put them at risk. “Some clients abuse their power with illegal sex workers,” Luhrs said. “They know they can’t go to the police.” Window sex work is safer, in her opinion. “But these places are disappearing left and right,” she said.
According to a 2018 study by the Dutch union of sex workers PROUD and the AIDS prevention centre SoaAids, sex workers who work out of window brothels are less likely to experience violence than in other locations. The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant reported Amsterdam’s new centre will offer around 100 workspaces, about a third of De Wallen’s estimated 290 rooms. It’s also unclear how much sex workers will be charged for rent or how the project will be financed, since the market research agency SITE indicated the city will likely need to rely on private investors to fund the construction. “Banks won’t be interested without a guaranteed return on investment,” Luhrs said. “Halsema is actually selling the entire Amsterdam sex industry to a couple of private investors.”
A 2019 survey by the sex workers union Red Light United found that 90 percent of sex workers want to stay in De Wallen. They fear they will lose clients if they move, plus the neighbourhood’s location brings them international business. Lengkeek from SekswerkExpertise said some workers prefer a more quiet brothel with local clientele, but “it is not up to the municipality to make that choice”.
“I’m not against an erotic centre per se,” said Mary*, who’s been working in De Wallen since 2016. “The problem is that it will replace De Wallen instead of adding to it.” She said she likes working in the neighbourhood because its busy crowds provide sex workers with anonymity and make them feel safe after they stop working. “You can get off at 5AM without being noticed. You simply blend in,” she said.
During their shift, the visibility of sex workers in the windows is a big plus. “The police and social workers regularly stop by,” she said, “And sex workers can greet each other from the windows.” The windows also allow workers to take a look at their clients before they come in, and for colleagues to keep an eye out for each other. “We share information with the whole neighbourhood,” Mary said. “I’m afraid this community will be lost in a new environment.”
The city council’s main concern is tourism in the area. Yet a 2020 survey of young foreign tourists by the municipality of Amsterdam found that only 3 percent would no longer go to De Wallen if there weren’t any sex workers. The neighbourhood has other tourist attractions, like coffeeshops and bars. In the same study, the majority of respondents said they wouldn’t visit the sex work centre the mayor wants to build.
Despite the Netherlands legalising sex work, the profession remains highly stigmatised. Mary is worried that confining sex work to a walled-off building out of sight will only make it harder for people to think of it as a valid profession deserving of respect. “We’ll never be able to change the image of a sex worker being a victim instead of someone who has ownership of their body,” she said.
A 2019 report by the non-profit window brothel My Red Light also found removing sex workers from De Wallen wouldn’t impact tourism. And yet, the city of Amsterdam has attempted to do this multiple times. In 2007, the municipality launched “Project 1012”, named after the neighbourhood’s zip code, shutting down many coffeeshops and windows to replace them with boutiques and fashion studios. The alleged intent was to reduce crime, but a report by the Amsterdam Court of Audit later determined crime rates didn’t budge.
The plans to gentrify the 1012 district were paused and resumed once mayor Femke Halsema took office in 2018. Her administration came up with four scenarios, one of which proposes the relocation of sex workers. Halsema told VICE World News that nothing was finalised yet, and emphasised that this is only one of the options. However, the Prostitution Information Centre, which provides resources to anyone curious about sex work, received a letter in November of 2020 stating that most council members wanted to move forward with relocation.
Lengkeek said sex workers’ voices were largely marginalised in the decision-making process. “Once in a while we get an invitation to meet with the council, but usually our feedback falls on deaf ears,” she said. “We suggested building the sex work centre next to De Wallen, but they never listened.” Mary is also frustrated. “We couldn’t be more clear about the negative repercussions,” she said.
Sex worker Felicia Anna, who met with the council, believes the entire legal sex work system is not focused around the needs of sex workers. For instance, the city often justifies reforms of the district as an effort to fight human trafficking. But if a brothel owner suspects a sex worker renting a room in their establishment has been trafficked and they want to report it to the police, they risk a €25,000 fine or the loss of their permit for simply being associated with trafficking. This is part of the city’s zero-tolerance policy towards traffickers, but it ends up “actively discouraging people to report exploitation”, according to Felicia Anna.
“The idea that a sex work centre is safer [than De Wallen] is obviously not based on sex workers’ opinions,” said Luhrs.
*Name changed. Mary’s real identity is known to VICE.