Amsterdam's Red Light District: A Prostitutes Paradise vs the City Councils Concern

Beth Tighe discusses The Netherlands new restrictions on sex work tourism in Amsterdam's Red Light District

Beth Tighe
29th March 2020
Feature Image Credit: Erik Tange from Pixabay
The unique city of Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, which had a staggering 19 million visitors from all around the world just last year. But which of the city’s unique attributes draws these tourists in like moths to a flame? Is it the city’s artistic heritage, gothic architecture, or perhaps the infamous Red Light District?

De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Red Light District, consists of a network of alleyways and canals that house hundreds of legal window prostitutes who are illuminated by red lights. Prostitution was first legalised in Amsterdam in 1811 by the French. Despite the temporary ban of prostitution between 1911 and 1988, the Red Light District has historically been a significant tourist attraction for those who want to partake in activities that are often illegal in their own countries.

Recently, the city government is questioning the ethics of this industry. From the first of April this year, there will be stricter laws surrounding the Red Light District in an attempt to generate more responsible tourism. These legal reforms include capping the number of people on guided tours to 15, banning free tours of the area, and reducing the number of tours by issuing mandatory permits to a limited number of companies. Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema, has also proposed either removing the sex workers from visible brothel windows or hiding them behind curtains, which is in current discussion among the city government. Deputy mayor Udo Kock supports this proposition as she argues, “We do not consider it appropriate for tourists to leer at sex workers.” The government hopes this strategy will not only tackle existing problems of overtourism but also prevent the sex workers in the area from being objectified by these tourists. While this new responsible tourism aims to benefit the sex workers by creating a less objectifying environment, many of the workers do not view the changes in the same way.

“Any measure aimed against tourism is a measure against sex workers in the Red Light District.”

The industry generates approximately 625 million euros a year; therefore, the sex workers fear that these legal reforms will cause substantial damage to their businesses as fewer tourists equate to less profit. In protest towards the upcoming changes to the Red light District, the sex workers have formed a union called Red light United. The members of Red Light United argue that a colossal 93 percent of sex workers are hostile towards the changes and demand a reconsideration. They believe that “any measure aimed against tourism is a measure against sex workers in the Red Light District.” The workers acknowledge the issues that exist; however, they argue a higher regulation of photography in the area will benefit the workers more than merely limiting the inevitable mass tourism. For many of the workers, their involvement in the sex industry is a secret life. Therefore, photos taken of them by tourists could not only spill their secret profession to family members left in the dark but could also detract them away from actual paying customers.

Another major issue the government is concerned about is the existence of illegal pimping. While many prostitutes are self-employed, selling their bodies on their own accord, others are owned and controlled by a “pimp.” Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam however pimping is not, mainly due to the concern of women being sex trafficked against their own will. Pimping is becoming increasingly difficult to regulate and not even the city governments proposed reforms will tackle this problem. Velvet December, the chief coordinator of Proud (a sex-worker led organization in Amsterdam) highlights the increasing hostility between the city council and sex workers. December points out that “the dichotomy attached to it for categories of sex workers - the ‘happy hooker’ and the ‘poor victim’- leaves no room for the realities we face and to address the problem we see.” While removing sex workers from windows may reduce the risk of objectification by tourists, it may simultaneously endanger the prostitutes who are now controlled by their pimps away from public view.

Feature Image Credit: Erik Tange from Pixabay

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