It’s a Saturday night in January and De Wallen, better known as Amsterdam’s red light district, is bustling. Groups of people stroll past souvenir shops, cafés, red-lit windows and sex shops. There’s a strong smell of marijuana in the air. On a bridge over a canal, a large banner reads: “0.0% zone. No alcohol in public spaces. €95 fine.”
Behind a window in a narrow alleyway, a woman in lingerie beckons two young men passing by. Security personnel in orange coats limit how many people enter the alley and try to make sure no one photographs the women in the windows. The number of tourists who visit the Dutch capital has grown tremendously in the past few years.
The district is known for legal sex work, but it also has a reputation for criminal activities, from the sale of illegal drugs to human trafficking. Last year, Amsterdam’s ombudsman, Arre Zuurmond, called De Wallen a “jungle at night” over which the authorities have no control.
“In recent years, our beautiful city center has been regarded as less of a cultural-historic area and more of an economic one,” explained Femke Halsema, Amsterdam’s mayor, in an email. She added:
The city’s first female mayor, Halsema — who has a master’s degree in criminology and sociology of law and previously conducted research in De Wallen during her studies — has made it one of her priorities to improve conditions for sex workers in the Dutch capital. She’s crafting a plan to address crime and crowds in De Wallen, reduce human trafficking and make it easier for sex workers to do business comfortably.
During an October municipal meeting, Halsema, who was elected in June, said: “I have no moral judgement about the work these women do, but I do have a moral judgement about the safety and circumstances in which they do their work.”
Amsterdam has been a hub for prostitution since the fourteenth century, even though sex work only became legal in the Netherlands in 2000. Since then, sex workers have been required to register at the Chamber of Commerce and pay taxes. They can work behind a window, in a club or brothel or at an escort agency.
Resources for and acknowledgements of sex workers are strewn throughout De Wallen. In the Museum of Prostitution, a former brothel, there’s a memorial to a woman who went by the name Chinese Anne; she was killed there in 1956. According to a sign in the museum, prostitutes are murdered every year in the Netherlands. Outside the nearby Oude Kerk, a church that dates back to 1213, there’s a statue of a sex worker named Belle. The plaque reads: “Respect sex workers around the world.”
Opposite the church is the Prostitution Information Center, founded in 1994. The center’s red walls are adorned with pictures of sex workers and the red light district. Books, calendars and T-shirts about sex work are for sale. Buttons read: “Where’s the proof?” in several languages.
“The proof that everyone is being forced,” clarifies Karin, a brown-haired woman who works there. By “forced,” she is referring to sexual exploitation — women who are coerced into engaging in sex work. Karin, who tells her clients she’s in her early forties but prefers not to reveal her true age, is not her real name. She is a nurse who also works as an escort for people with disabilities, such as psychiatric patients.
That stigma is real — as are the dangers. According to the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children, an estimated 4,300 people fall victim to sexual exploitation in the Netherlands per year. Fifty-one people in Amsterdam were sexually exploited in 2017, according to the Coordination Centre against Human Trafficking (CoMensha)/La Strada Netherlands. Only about 20 percent of victims — those reported by the police or other emergency service workers — are detected by CoMensha.
Last year, the Amsterdam Court of Audit researched existing efforts to reduce crime and enhance the economy in De Wallen. Despite many windows being closed and brothel-keepers being subjected to extra checks, the research found no decrease in human trafficking. According to the auditors’ findings, forced prostitution is a regular occurrence.
“The red light district is known around the world,” Jan de Ridder, director of the Court of Audit.
According to Halsema, the municipality is currently working on updating the prostitution policy with the help of sex workers, sex business owners, health care organizations, researchers, the Public Prosecution Service and the police. The results will be made public later this year, possibly by the summer, according to the mayor’s office. One of the options discussed is to issue sex work permits in apartments outside the city center, where clients can be recruited online instead of via the windows; online recruitment is not allowed for sex workers who work behind windows. According to a 2017 survey, many sex workers say the Internet makes their business safer, because it allows them to vet clients.
Every Saturday night, Karin, from the Prostitution Information Center, gives guided tours of the district, explaining the sex industry to interested tourists. She points to the windows that the municipality closed down around Oude Kerk, the church.
“The tourists misbehave, yet we’re the ones who are punished,” she said.
In an effort to counter human trafficking, the central government of the Netherlands wants to register sex workers. At present, when those who engage in sex work register with the Chamber of Commerce, they can do so under the ambiguous category of “personal services.” That way, the exact nature of their work is not visible — and it remains unclear exactly how many sex workers are operating in Amsterdam. According to a study commissioned by the municipality, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people worked legally in Amsterdam during 2010.
Many of the workers are against registering explicitly as sex workers with the central government.
“Knowing the number won’t stop human trafficking,” said Sietske Altink, a researcher who developed a website about the heritage of sex work in the Netherlands. “Registering an already stigmatized group is perverse,” she said. “It could make it harder for them to find different work or a new place to live.”
Altink previously worked at De Rode Draad, an advocacy-support group for sex workers that existed between 1985 and 2012. Its successor, Proud, the Dutch union for sex workers, has around 400 members with different nationalities and receives a subsidy from the Ministry of Justice and Security.
On a cold, rainy January afternoon, Velvet December, a young woman with purple nails and long brown hair tied up in a bun, sits in the Proud office, which it shares with the Prostitution Information Center. She doesn’t use her real name for safety reasons, but her family and friends know that she works at a lesbian escort agency, in addition to being an advocacy coordinator and spokesperson for Proud.
Sex work “started as a side job while I was studying social sciences,” she said, “but I liked it so much I never stopped.”
She said there are many reasons why people enter this line of work.
“We’re all against exploitation, but making policies more restrictive isn’t a solution. Like any line of work, we just want good working conditions.”
Miriam enters the room. She’s been in the business for 25 years. She and Velvet watched as a group of men take videos of the women behind the windows opposite the office. “Like monkeys in a zoo,” Velvet said. Miriam agreed, both shaking their heads.
Last year, Proud participated in a study called Sex Work, Stigma and Violence in the Netherlands, which found that the industry has become less safe in recent years after several licensed sex businesses were closed. According to the study, 97 percent of sex workers who responded experienced some type of violence and stigma in 2017; 60 percent said they experienced physical violence.
”Because we’re portrayed as the scourge of society,” Velvet said, “we’re treated badly more often.”
Both women wonder about the mayor’s new plans. They say some of the women in the red light district are willing to work in another part of town, but others don’t want to leave.
“We don’t want to work in an isolated area and get robbed on our way home in the morning,” Velvet said.
But they appear to have a measure of faith in the mayor.
“Halsema was also involved in lifting the brothel ban in 2000,” said Velvet. At the time, Halsema was a member of Dutch Parliament in the GroenLinks green party, and she advocated for lifting the ban against sex work.
Miriam adds, “If anyone can improve the situation, it’s her.”