A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Amsterdam is a city synonymous with picturesque canals, brick stone buildings and, of course, red-lit windows. Few places in the city attract as many tourists as the Red Light District, also known as De Wallen, which receives about 2.5 million visitors a year. But in recent years, the mayor’s office has cracked down on both industries in an attempt to reclaim the city from crowds of tourists deemed undesirable.
The Netherlands legalised brothels and banned sex workers from operating outside these designated spaces in the year 2000. Since then, it’s been the job of municipalities to manage red light districts – but in that same time, the number of sex work companies registered in the Netherlands has decreased from 1350 to 250.
Changes to Amsterdam’s Red Light District started in 2007, with the launch of the 1012 Project, named after the area’s postal code. The mayor’s office said the project was aimed at economically upgrading the district and fighting against an uptick in local criminal activity at the hands of foreign gangs, with a particular focus on sex trafficking.
One of the main measures of Project 1012 was government buyouts of window brothels and other buildings in the area, where they invited young designers and photographers to take over the spaces instead. Between 2007 and 2018, when the programme ended, the number of windows in the Red Light District went from 396 to 252. About 50 coffeeshops in the area also shut down. According to a 2018 report by the city’s Court of Audit, these interventions were successful in raising property prices but not in tackling organised crime in the area.
In 2019, newly-elected mayor of Amsterdam Femke Halsema pledged to continue closing down more windows in the neighbourhood, citing high crime rates, overcrowding and the alleged vulnerability of sex workers, particularly foreign women. The city has vowed to create an erotic centre in a soon-to-be-determined location outside of the centre, which will include dedicated spaces for sex workers and a permanent police presence.
But sex workers see tourism in the Red Light District as good for business – according to a poll by the sex workers union Red Light United, 93 percent of interviewees said they would like to stay in De Wallen. A 2021 study by the city of Amsterdam also found that only 10 percent of respondents were sure they would visit the Red Light District if it was located outside the city.
Sex workers also feel like concerns about their safety are being exploited to justify a gentrification process. They argue that closing windows actually intensifies overcrowding in the area, as tourists are now concentrated in only a few streets; they say the shutdowns also make them more dependent on brothel owners, since they have to compete for fewer spaces. In 2020, they came up with an alternative plan to address the city’s concerns, but said they felt the mayor wasn’t listening to them.
While the plans for the erotic centre are forging ahead, the community is trying to gain visibility and dismantle prejudices about itself. On the 30th of March, sex workers organised a protest against the erotic centre and the city’s recent decision to force windows to close at 3AM instead of the previous 6AM. Sex workers say the erotic centre will have fewer available spots than in De Wallen and also be less safe overall.
On the 31st of March, we attended the first edition of Whorehouse Cinema, a multi-day art and film festival at the Cinetol cultural centre in Amsterdam. There, you could enjoy some drinks with people in the industry, admire art installations, sit back and relax while watching a movie or a strip show, take workshops and dance at a scorching-hot party.
“We are used to seeing or reading one-dimensional, stigmatising stories about sex work in the media,” said sex worker and filmmaker Yvette Luhrs, who held a workshop on how to give a cinematic twist to your sexy videos. “But in the sex work community there is actually a lot of creativity and artistic talent.”
Intentionally curated as an art festival by sex workers, the event gave visitors a unique insight into the diversity of the community. “In addition to being sex workers, we are also artists and filmmakers, parents or even people with an office job on the side,” Luhrs continued. “That is interesting to a larger audience, but it’s also great for the sex workers who get to see their own lives represented in a more recognisable way.”
Unfortunately, the media continues to represent sex work through clichés and stereotypes that can infantilise industry professionals, turning them into a category that must be protected even despite their own wishes. That’s precisely what Luhrs and her colleague Mischa Tydeman are trying to fight against through Reimagining Sex Work, an image database and language guide created jointly by sex workers, photographers and journalists.
“I noticed that the same photo of a [specific] sex worker was often used in different articles,” Tydeman said. “I asked a journalist why, and she replied that was the only option on the ANP database [a Dutch news agency].”
This interaction launched the idea to make non-stigmatising images and language readily available to journalists covering the district. “Activists know: Studies and figures don’t convince people, stories do,” Tydeman continued. The photos can now be bought on the ANP database, and were exposed at an exhibition during the festival.
Tydeman was also involved in organising The Peepshow Hoes, a mobile, COVID-safe strip show that toured the Netherlands in protest back when sex work was banned by the government as part of COVID-19 restrictions. Although contact professionals like masseurs or hairdressers could get back to work after the most intense measures were lifted, sex workers were put out of business for a much longer time. On top of that, they were also the only professional category in the country excluded from COVID-19 emergency aid.
This year, the Dutch government also proposed changes to the Sex Workers Regulation Act (SWRA) which would tighten requirements even further, all in the name of preventing abuse. Sex workers would have to apply for an additional permit no other self-employed professional in the country needs, otherwise they’d risk a fine.
Interest group SAVE, which Tydeman is a part of, is concerned that sex workers won’t register themselves in the official system due to concerns about their safety and privacy. As a result, more sex workers might disappear under the radar and actually become more vulnerable to abusive clients. “We're fed up with this,” Luhrs sighed.
“The SWRA is a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, it is so negative,” Tydeman added. “As long as we are not treated equally as other working people, we will not be fully accepted.”
Although the municipalities have become more restrictive with licensing, “the number of sex workers has not decreased at all,” Tydeman said. In the past, sex workers could meet up inside brothels and private houses, exchanging tips on how to deal with difficult customers or simply having a drink together. “The Public Health Service, first aid services and the police would drop by from time to time,” she continued.
This social system kept the sex workers feeling safe and like they had a network to rely on. “That sense of community has now been lost because of all the regulations,” Tydeman continue. “Fortunately though, it is actually starting to come back again now, partly because of this festival.” But sex workers now fear it would disappear altogether with the new erotic centre.
To sex workers, the festival also represented a chance to connect and let go of these stressors. “It's a weekend where sex workers can be amongst each other,” Luhrs said. “Being able to share that togetherness is very special. And thanks to the festival, now the outside world can also be a part of it.”
“This weekend, we will stay in a hostel with a bunch of strippers, and we will strip and dance [at the festival],” Tydeman said at the beginning of the event. “It is such a nice group of diverse people: men, women and trans people. We will be together, having lots of fun and we’ll finally be able to meet our colleagues again.”
And that is especially important now that sex workers meet up spaces are increasingly disappearing. “I hope that many non-sex workers will swing by, but also local leaders,” she added. “So that they can get a better sense of the strong community that we are, and that it is surprising, inspiring and interesting. There is plenty to enjoy.”
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