Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As travelers overwhelm De Wallen—the neighborhood known for its sex industry—the city considers changing its appearance or moving it altogether.
Amsterdam’s red light district in its current form may soon be a thing of the past.
In a recent interview with newspaper Het Parool, Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema set forth various proposals for changing the city’s famous sex industry district, known locally as De Wallen. None of the proposals envisage any attempt to criminalize prostitution in Amsterdam, but all of them suggest a major overhaul of an area that has become increasingly unsatisfactory for pretty much everyone. Tellingly, much of this dissatisfaction doesn’t stem from the sex industry, but from a force that is increasingly being presented as Amsterdam’s Public Enemy Number One: tourism.
In recent years, Amsterdam’s red light district has changed dramatically. An area of ancient lanes barely a few minutes’s walk from the city’s dead center in Dam Square, De Wallen (“the walls”) has been a resort for sex workers and customers since the middle ages. It’s long been a tourist attraction as well, with visitors flocking to gawk at the area’s windows, in which sex workers sit to solicit customers.
Now, however, the crush of tourists risks becoming unmanageable. Local residents have to put up with growing noise and disorder, and sex workers reportedly find that their customers are scared away. While many sex workers themselves are skeptical of the changes, it’s arguably fair to say that no one is super happy with things as they are.
To Halsema’s credit, her outlining of the problem hardly smacks of moral panic. Here’s what she told Het Parool:
We must ensure that sex workers can work safely and independently. The women behind the windows have become a tourist attraction. They’re ridiculed, taunted and photographed without their permission. Additionally, human trafficking, fraud, and money laundering must be curbed. Thirdly, I would also like to see less disruption for residents and business owners.
To turn the situation around, Amsterdam is mulling four options, laid out on the city’s municipal website. They are as follows:
1. Closing the curtains
Many non-Dutch visitors flock to the red light district to gawk at the sex workers, creating gridlock on evening sidewalks. The simplest way to remove this congestion would be to remove the windows, without removing the premises behind them. Sex workers would thus still remain in place in De Wallen, accessible to visitors and via the internet without becoming a tourist spectacle.
2. Increasing capacity in De Wallen
Another possibility outlined by the city would be actually allowing more premises for sex work in the red light district—albeit not necessarily ones with working windows. Currently, legal brothels are strictly regulated, with all establishments required since 2013 to submit a business plan detailing how they will maintain safe working conditions. The city has taken a policy in recent years of reducing licenses where possible, and refusing any new establishments with windows. If it reversed this policy, the city might be able to spread the concentration of brothels more effectively across De Wallen, lessening congestion while keeping the industry in a space where monitoring to exclude pimps and traffickers might be easier.
3. Dispersing from De Wallen
If the sex industry were spread across the city, it might become less intrusive. That’s the reasoning behind proposal number three, which would see some windows closed in De Wallen and being replaced by new, less clustered establishments elsewhere in the city. This could possibly mean an overall increase in spaces for sex work.
4. Creating a new red light district altogether
Amsterdam could also go whole hog, shutting down the existing red light district and replacing it somewhere farther out of the city center. Instead of public windows, this could work as a sort of hotel open to drop-in and online visitors, a model already in place in Germany, where prostitution is also legal.
All of these solutions have potential setbacks. Increasing capacity could, if handled badly, make the industry even bigger and more intrusive. Spreading the sex industry more widely across the city—especially if it is to concentrate it all in one new location—could also face resistance from local residents who don’t want brothels next door, even if some small red light districts already function in other parts of Amsterdam without reports of widespread nuisance. Relocating everyone to a new alternative red light district, possibly on the city fringe, might potentially work, but would face a practical hurdle. Given that the businesses they run are not illegal, brothel owners in the red light district would need to be compensated if they are forced to move, which could be very expensive.
Predictably, the proposals have stirred up debate in the Netherlands, as they were intended to. For some commentators, the current state of affairs has to go because window prostitution is inherently unacceptable. “There is something else going on with window prostitution,” writer Elma Drayer wrote in newspaper De Volkskrant. “And no, I don’t mean the well-known list of recruitment, exploitation, human trafficking, and nuisance caused by the British … It is about [quoting Swiss writer Peter Bieri] ‘deciding that you don’t want to be a society where it is normal for human beings to be displayed as merchandise.’”
Others suggest that this concern with outlawing “display” has in itself a dehumanizing effect, because it pushes sex workers into places where, tidied away from the eyes of the sensitive, they experience more vulnerability and danger. Ina Hut of Dutch anti-trafficking CoMensha notes that of the 667 cases of trafficking discovered in 2017, the last year of measurement, the great majority were not in the windows, but in private homes and escort hotels, establishments of the type Amsterdam’s sex workers might be driven to if the windows close. Many people working the windows also see their bottom line under threat. As Foxxy, a sex worker and spokesperson for sex worker union Proud told Het Parool:
Sex workers are people and they are entitled to a workplace. Relocating those workplaces is not an option because then the customers will not know where to find the sex workers. Will Halsema also sometimes organize bus trips for them to [far flung harbor district] Westelijk Havengebied?
This skepticism about the city’s efforts is partly grounded in experience. Seven years ago, Amsterdam launched Project 1012 (named after De Wallen’s zip code), a scheme intended to reduce the number of windows and crack down on pimping. Widely criticized as a concern-trolling drive to make the district safe for gentrification, Project 1012 focused heavily on appearances but did little to meaningfully combat pimping or trafficking.
The project actually made anti-social nuisance worse by reducing the window districts’ footprint, sex worker and activist Lyle Muns told CityLab.
“Some of the problems in De Wallen actually stem from previous efforts to ‘clean up’ the area,” Muns said. “A little less than a decade ago, Project 1012 closed down about 40 percent of the windows in the neighborhood. What that actually did was concentrate all the ones that remained in a few narrow streets, which made the crowds and congestion in the area worse.”
This is the complicated terrain that Mayor Halsema’s administration must now negotiate. In a city where sex work’s legality is broadly accepted, many people still don’t want to live cheek by jowl with it. Some sex workers themselves suspect an attempt to tidy them away without concern for their safety, their welfare taking second place to a struggle that is really about land values.
All this takes place against a backdrop, meanwhile, where just about everyone is sick of tourism. If the city wants to broker a compromise that suits all parties, it certainly has its work cut out for it.