Red lights or red flags – Sex Tourism in Amsterdam

De Wallen is one of Amsterdam’s famous (or infamous) tourist attractions.  Every year millions visit the city for its canals, nightlife, the Anne Frank house and the red light district. Is that OK?

Welcome to Holland, the Sodom and Gomorra of Europe.
An entire district of the city dedicated to prostitution and sex tourism. What does that look like? 15 year old girls from Africa or Eastern Europe working long nights while pimps collect their earnings at the door. Passports being held by the souteneurs as to ensure none of the girls escape, despite their fear for the police. High rates of – enabled – drug addiction, HIV and no chance of getting medical treatment. Weekly cases of murder, suicide and drug-related-deaths; pimps ruling and ruining the worlds of young women on a daily basis.

Not quite.

Although prostitution in Amsterdam did look like this for longer than we would like to remember, things have changed. Holland has a long tradition of ‘tolerated’ prostitution. Since 2000 however, window prostitution is a legal profession. This means none of the prostitutes or sex workers as some prefer to be addressed, are by definition criminals, and therefore do not need to fear persecution.*

Prostitution is legal; sex workers pay taxes
To be able to work in Amsterdam, a sex worker needs to apply for a permit. The city issues these permits and sex workers have to meet certain qualifications in order to acquire one. For starters, she (of he) needs to be a legal resident, or have a legal working permit. The permits are issued per person, and sex workers are not allowed to be employed in any other way than self-employment. All applicants are interviewed and have to answer a series of questions in order to prevent involvement, of a pimp. A sex worker needs to be registered as a freelancer at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, and have a legal accountant. The minimum age of a legal sex worker is 21 years. All legal sex workers are listed in a nationwide closed register.

Furthermore the rental of ‘windows’ is strictly regulated. Sex workers can rent a window for a daypart or nightpart only. (Rent in 2016; €100,- for a day, €175,- for a nightpart) Every time she (or he) wants to rent a window she needs to show her passport, money and her Chamber of Commerce registration. The rent company makes a photocopy of her passport and registration every time the sex worker rents a window, in order to show when he is audited. All legal sex workers at the Wallen are freelancers and thus pay taxes. Police carry out strict inspections in order to make sure no illegal prostitution or souteneurs are involved. Also, the liability was moved from the sex workers to the clients: clients are liable when they do business with an illegal sex worker – it is their responsibility to check their age and permit.

The red light district has the lowest criminal rates of Amsterdam
Legalisation has its advantages; sex workers at the Wallen have health insurance, a workers union, their own legal income and one of Amsterdam’s safest districts as their work place. Since prostitution at the Wallen became regulated, police regularly  inspect the area. As a result, there is virtually no violence or criminality in the area. (Unlike other Amsterdam areas – beware!) With the new regulations many windows were closed, and in order to ‘diversify’ the area, former windows were allocated as low-rent artist studios, fashion boutiques, and cafés. Nowadays, since the rent is low, many students have a room at the Wallen.

So there is no chance sex workers are being exploited? Unfortunately not; there is always a chance. Neither the city nor the police can control what is going on at home. Sex workers from the Wallen could be forced to give their money to their boyfriends or husbands once they go home. But arguably the Wallen are the one sex workplace in the world where exploitation is least likely.

Visit the Wallen
If you wish to visit the Wallen responsibly, you can. The unique mix of windows, studios, Dutch “coffee shops”, churches, bars and cafes within one of the oldest parts of Amsterdam make up for an interesting area – not only for sex tourists.

Basic Rules for a Wallen visit

  • Sex workers do not want to be photographed.
  • Sex workers are indeed working. Do not interfere with their business – unless you’re a client.
  • Sex workers are human beings like you and me, respect them as such. I.e. do not call them names or treat them like a human zoo.
  • For more info on sex workers and their profession, visit the Prostitution Information Centre located at the Enge Kerksteeg 3, 1012 GV Amsterdam.

*Note: this article is about legal window prostitution in the Amsterdam red light district. Other forms of prostitution in Amsterdam and the Netherlands are still subject to large scale malpractices such as exploitation, drug abuse, and human trafficking. This article does not promote sex tourism.

Written by Jantine Bresser

 

About the author

Helen Jennings

Helen has studied at the Universities of Goldsmiths, Kent, Jyvaskyla (Finland) and The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø) where she obtained a MA in Indigenous Studies. She has travelled extensively and has lived and worked in Canada, Scandinavia, and South America. Helen is particularly interested in cultural, indigenous, and spiritual tourism, ideas behind sensible ‘regulation’ and is convinced of the value of ethical and sustainable tourism.

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