It’s Legal to Sell Sex in Amsterdam, But Don’t Expect the Same Rights As Other Workers.

The famously permissive Dutch city is cracking down on prostitution, relocating sex workers, and discriminating against those employed in the industry.

A prostitute waits for clients behind her window in the red light district of Amsterdam on Dec. 8, 2008.
A prostitute waits for clients behind her window in the red light district of Amsterdam on Dec. 8, 2008. (ANOEK DE GROOT/AFP/Getty Images)

AMSTERDAM—For decades, Amsterdam’s red-light district has lured millions of tourists, sex workers, and business owners. Yet the infamous alleys of the De Wallen neighborhood—lined with coffee shops and windows featuring scantily clad sex workers—could soon face a transformation as local government officials strive to implement a new policy, set to increase the number of sex-work permits beyond De Wallen in an attempt to provide sex workers with opportunities elsewhere.

Since legalizing prostitution in 2000, the Netherlands has been increasingly vigilant in combating human trafficking and other forms of criminal activity. But critics say the current government has failed to tie the sex trade to increased crime. In 2009, a set of measures intent on preserving the central Amsterdam neighborhood of De Wallen and curbing crime rates resulted in Project 1012—a decadelong urban development plan named after the area’s postal code. The project notably limited sex work to two streets: Oude Nieuwstraat and Oudezijds Achterburgwal. This shut down many coffee shops and 112 sex-worker windows, resulting in a sort of gentrification of the sex trade—pushing many sex workers towards illegal work or abroad to Brussels.

Though the Netherlands has been a global leader in decriminalizing sex work, the stigma surrounding the profession remains. As the neighborhood revitalization project pushed sex workers further away, it’s often no longer in the interest of many independent workers to be registered under Amsterdam’s Municipal Ordinance, as required by law to be considered legal. That’s because sex workers often face safety concerns, worries that their line of work might be made public, and fears of losing their homes, children, and other methods of income.

To tackle this problem, the local city council members Alexander Hammelburg of the center-left D66 party and Femke Roosma of the GroenLinks (GreenLeft) party are looking at implementing a new policy to increase the number of permits beyond the red-light district, in hopes of establishing more anonymous hotels, brothels, or “anything different from the standard windows,” equipped with external surveillance and emergency buttons, according to Hammelburg. But that approach clashes with what many sex workers are increasingly demanding: the ability to book clients online and work from home.

For many sex workers who have built a community in the area and for whom tourists are clients, the potential changes are seen as an attempt to make up for the window closures, rather than an adjustment to the modern sex industry in the digital age and an effort to grant them similar rights to those enjoyed by other independent workers.

As the development plan came to a close this year, the chasm between Amsterdam’s sex workers and the city council has only widened. “Sex work is constantly conflated with human trafficking,” said Velvet December, the advocacy coordinator for Proud, a sex worker-led organization based in Amsterdam. “This, and 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 problems we see,” she added.

December, who works for De Stoute Vrouw (The Naughty Woman), the only lesbian escort agency in the country, echoes concerns that have long plagued the sex work industry. Sex workers are mostly seen as objects of desire or cause for criminal activity, and the industry is blamed for sexualizing women for profit, but in reality their calls for change are no different from those of non-sex workers. They just want a right to economic and moral autonomy.

Although the Netherlands is often lauded for integrating the sex industry into its labor market, the work itself remains on the periphery of the informal economy, which December said is often referred to as “criminalization through the back door.” The problem for governments is not just seeking to improve the lives of sex workers but also ensuring that sex workers’ needs and priorities are considered and included in future policies.

Since Femke Halsema became Amsterdam’s first female mayor in July 2018—having previously served as a member of the House of Representatives for GroenLinks and as the party’s parliamentary leader—Proud has been included in more discussions concerning prostitution policy. However, other sex workers and business owners are concerned they are being blamed for criminal activity and forced out as a result of excessive tourism, as city councilors have considered setting a maximum on the number of people in the area, and restricting or regulating group tours, in response to the city’s increase from 26 million to 34 million tourists from 2013 to 2017.

At a time when online ads for sex work are increasingly taking precedence over walking the streets or renting a window, and with market changes allowing more sex workers to work from home—or in private, anonymous spaces—policymakers are considering increasing the number of permits beyond the red-light district. But they have yet to consider enabling sex workers to book customers online—a practice currently prohibited for sex workers by a General Municipal Ordinance. “We want to create extra opportunities outside of the tourist area,” explained Hammelburg, the city council member, suggesting that a transition into the digital sphere would only go so far as taking customers to permitted windows and brothels beyond De Wallen, reducing the tourist crowds in the area.

“You could still say that booking customers online, working from home would be illegal,” he said, “yet if you would do it from an official sex work space with a permit, it would be legal.”

But Amsterdam’s ombudsman, Arre Zuurmond, who has referred to the city as an “urban jungle” where “authority no longer exists” in the city center at night, spent eight months in 2018 meeting more than 100 local residents, police officers, and council officials to conclude what sex workers have long argued: They face employment barriers that other self-employed workers such as tattoo artists aren’t subjected to and face regulations that are out of sync with practice—requiring a permit to work from home or visit clients, and a prohibition on booking home-visit customers online.

“Many sex workers now come in contact with customers online,” the report reads. “Home reception is in many cases not allowed … the general picture is that the regulations are not sufficiently in line with the developments in practice.”

Legally, policymakers are obligated to cooperate with research carried out by the ombudsman. Yet as Zuurmond considers the possibility of facilitating booking clients online, sex workers have already taken matters into their own hands. Demanding autonomy, control, and opportunities for self-development, independent sex workers such as those at My Red Light, a window brothel in De Wallen run by sex workers, are collectively offering jobs, rooms, and blurred images of sex workers online. However, city councilors in charge of making policy decisions have yet to follow their lead.

Policymakers are exploring changes grounded in safety concerns, a desire to regulate, and attempts to deter tourists, but they fall short when it comes to addressing the nuances of the industry itself, which today includes working in windows, working from home, escorting, webcamming, and porn. That’s because the industry’s shift online has created new opportunities, independence, and more informal forms of sex work.

Existing windows and brothels in De Wallen have panic buttons, management, police, and colleagues nearby, a safety network that Hammelburg and others argue comes under threat if strangers were to book online and visit workers’ own homes, which often lack similar security measures. “If they’re spread out or working from home, you have no idea what’s going on. You have to make it very tempting for them to come and work in those areas—right now it’s too easy to work from home,” Hammelburg said, underscoring the main point of contention between sex workers and city councilors: the clash between convenience and safety.

As sex workers fight to establish renting conditions and working circumstances on their own terms, policymakers continue to argue for adequate safety and policing. But whether at windows or “tippelzones” (allocated spaces for street prostitution), as sex work transitions to the private sphere, there remains a political usefulness for councilors to maintain control over the trade by reinforcing the distinction between legal and illegal work, private and public spaces, and the difference between sex work and work. Though policymakers have every right to demand transparency from the industry, the act of defining what constitutes a legal and illegal sexual transaction reveals the core problem itself: The differentiation between sexuality and sexualized labor.

As sex work rapidly evolves in the digital sphere, blurring the lines of sexual commerce, Amsterdam’s policymakers are striving to take hold of its transactional nature—sex for money, and money for sex—despite the trade’s flourishing irrespective of the number of permits or windows available. Since the legalization of sex work, the conversation has barely evolved and remains based on the assumption that the nature of the transaction is inherently exploitative, dangerous, and worth policing.

All of this begs the question: What is the incentive to work legally? Sex workers are required to have a license under the Amsterdam Municipal Ordinance and register with the Chamber of Commerce to pay taxes and pay for health insurance, like any other independent worker. Yet despite being part of the legal labor market, sex workers do not receive many business services and social security measures that are typically granted to other entrepreneurs such as business bank accounts, sickness or occupational disability benefits, unemployment benefits, and pensions.

The issue isn’t solely how to create an environment in which health, safety, and anonymity concerns are addressed but instead a discussion of which workers deserve the full legal benefits of labor and which do not—and why. This year, Amsterdam city councilors will be provided an opportunity to keep one bad policy from supplanting another, to finally recognize sex work as a form of self-employment like any other, and to treat it as such.

Geneva Abdul is a global news assistant at the New York Times in London. Twitter: @GenevaAbdul

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