Amsterdam sex workers to run their own brothels in the red-light district

In July this year, the world’s first prostitute-run brothel will start its business in Amsterdam’s red light district, as part of the city government’s plan to rid the area of pimps and gentrify the district. However, the plan of closing down old windows also victimised local sex workers.

By Michelle Chan

The Amsterdam government has been gentrifying the red light district by introducing upscale businesses to the area, including museums and boutique shops. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

Strolling down the narrow alleys in the red light district whilst searching for the 
Prostitution Information Centre (PIC), I was overwhelmed by the diversity here- just two doors away from the kindergarten and catholic church, skimpily dressed women was sitting in the windows and looking for potential customers.

PIC is a dark, warm cafe standing between a couple of windows. As soon as I stepped in, a young lady handed me a cup of green tea, then asked me to help myself in the reading area, where historical books about prostitute piled up. 

Prostitution Information Centre (PIC) was set up by former sex worker and author Mariska Majoor as an information resource and cake shop. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

“I think it’s a fantastic idea (to let sex workers run their own brothels),” says Mariska Majoor, founder of the PIC, “but the local government here is using this project as a crown for closing down windows,” she continues.

Project Own Window (Dutch: Eigen Raam) was commissioned by the Amsterdam city council December last year, which is seen as a trial with having sex workers run their own prostitution establishment.

Supported by HVO-Querido, a welfare organisation, the sex workers will manage the collection of 15 window prostitution spots, which are expected to be staffed in two shifts, seven days a week, by up to 50 different sex workers.

The project is going to give sex workers greater control over their working conditions, boost their entrepreneurial skills and help to combat abuses in the sex work industry, according to the city hall’s press release.

“It is good for the empowerment of sex workers,” says Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan at a press conference, praising the notion that more sex workers could gain more independence.

Amsterdam’s prostitution policy aims to make the city’s sex work industry clean and safe, and to give sex workers greater independence, said the city council. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

Crackdown on window brothels

The 15 windows spots included in the Project Own Window were among the original 83 windows that were to be closed as part of Project 1012, aiming to replace brothel windows with luxury boutiques, upscale cafes and art projects.

“ It’s just a way to attract more tourist and make more money, but you make the money over the bad of sex workers,” adds Mariska, “ that is so frustrating.”

The closing down of window brothels has sparked off fierce opposition from local sex workers. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

Named after the district’s postcode, Project 1012 was launched in 2007 following evidence that the area harboured serious abuses such as human trafficking, exploitation of sex workers and money laundering.

Government statistics showed that 192 window brothels in the inner city were closed since then, which accounted for 40% of the windows in the district, leaving only 290 open.

More than 200 sex workers marched through Amsterdam’s city centre to protest at the demonisation of their industry and the closure of the windows in April 2015, which was the largest such protest in Dutch history.

Sex worker union Proud feared shutting windows would force more prostitutes to work on the street, or over the internet, in a manner that made it difficult to prevent human trafficking, and impossible to monitor for safety.

Insufficient support from sex workers

“ Not that many sex workers are interested in running their own brothel. We just want to work how we do right now, ” says Felicia Anna, a sex worker from Romania who runs the popular blog Behind the Red Light District.

In March 2015,  there was a meeting organised for sex workers to inform them about this project. Only 24 sex workers, among 600 working in red light district, showed up, including Felicia.

“ Most of us aren’t interested in taking up more paperwork, rules and regulations. They (brothel owners) do all the paperwork, and we only have to work, ” said Felicia.

In the initial investigation report, the city government claimed they would need at least 45 to 50 sex workers to be interested for the project to succeed.

Despite the unpopularity, the bureau pressed on with the project, in which 15 sex workers participated eventually.

“ I never considered joining. They say the Own Windows will be steered by the girls, but actually, the boss is a ‘helping organisation’ that knows nothing about the work and always treats us like victims.”, says Zondares de Hoer, a former prostitute who worked in the red light district.

“ I wouldn’t want to work for people who think I am a victim,” she adds.

Lack of trust in local government

Mariska from the Prostitution Information Centre (PIC) tells that there’s a trust issue between sex workers and the city council after Project 1012.

“ The mayor said he’d be there and support the sex worker, but behind our back, they say one thing and do another,” says the prostitute advocate, “ The first feeling that we have (for Project Own Window) is… What’s behind that? ”

“ They make people think that it’s a completely sex worker-led project, in reality it’s not. I think the local government is steering it into the direction that they think is the best.” Mariska adds.

According to the city council, there will be a supervisory board to oversee proceedings and provide advice. Help organisation HVO-Querido has agreed to guide and support the sex workers in setting up and running the business for a period of at least two years.

While many think that the project is an excuse for the government to close down more windows, the city has been promoting Project Own Window as “a way for prostitutes to work without pimps”, implying that sex workers are working with pimps at the moment, which irritated many brothels owners and sex workers.

“ Brothel owners are not the ones who tell sex workers what to do. They only rent out the working facilities to them. Sometimes they don’t even know how things work, ” says Mariska,“ It makes current brothel owners look very bad, that’s not fair,” she adds.

Felicia Anna has written on her blog that “Politicians come up with this idea because they think we want this. But they never listen to us.”

“ We just asked you to stop closing down windows and give us back the windows that are still vacant. We didn’t ask to start our own brothel so that we could be pimp free. Most of us are pimp free, and we don’t need this brothel to prove that, “ says Felicia.

Empowerment of sex workers

Granted all the doubts towards Project Own Window, Mariska is cautiously optimistic about the project.

“ Now everybody is waiting to see what will happen. They (Sex workers) first want to see whether the project can prove itself,” says Mariska Majoor.

Meanwhile, Heleen Driessen, an advisor to Project Own Window, is looking to improve the working conditions of prostitutes, such as working hours and rental conditions during illness or holidays.

“ We want to create a positive working atmosphere and a nice meeting place: have a chat with colleagues while enjoying a cup of coffee in our lounge. Our profits go towards improving the position of sex workers: courses, insurance plans, etc,” says Heleen.

Overloading tourism

As many upscale businesses emerged in the red light district in line with the gentrification plan, it becomes more difficult for sex workers to rent a window.

Mariska describes various businesses are “biting each other” in the red light district, especially for tourism.

“ What happens now is that groups and groups of tourists squeeze themselves into narrow streets and stare at the girls at the windows like you are a special kind of money in the zoo, that’s not nice,” says Mariska.

New Restaurants and cafes with outdoor seats locating right next to the windows also makes it hard for sex workers to get customers, as most of them want privacy when buying sex service.

Large groups of tourists doing “sightseeing” in front of windows makes it more difficult for sex workers to look for target customers. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

“ Working in these windows is not lucrative anymore. Landlords are making less money because no one wants to rent their windows,” says Mariska,

“ That was the time when the project bureau 1012 would offer some money to the brothel owners to buy his building. He would say yes because he is not making money anymore.”

She hopes the government would restrict the group size of city tours visiting the red light district, especially for narrow alleys where prostitutes work.

“ Tourists are very welcomed in the red light district of course. We want to show this to the world. But it’s about behaviour and group size,” she adds.