Window prostitution has been practiced throughout the Netherlands since the end of the 19th century, but such a kibosh is the first of its kind.
“[The ban] is really stupid,” says Felicia Anne, a Romanian sex worker who’s been working in Amsterdam’s windows over the last nine years. “We were always a tourist attraction. If you mind that, then you should go work for an escort agency. Honestly, the majority of the girls work with tourists. Most girls want more tourists, not less.”
Sunny, a 35-year-old Dutch transgender sex worker who works for My Red Light, a sex worker collective running its own brothels, told me it’s “divided a lot of girls.”
“Personally, I don’t mind the tours -- I think [banning them] will just make things worse because if you have really good guided tours, they explain how to behave,” she explains. “At least you have a possibility to educate people on life in the red light district.”
Sex workers were, more than anything, surprised by the announcement. “The city made the decision without speaking to anyone,” says Karin, who guides walking tours for the Prostitution Information Center (PIC).
As we’re chatting on mismatched chairs, Karin breaks away often to welcome visitors into the cozy retro space plastered with historic archives. She sells some memorabilia, helps an Irish documentarian looking for the district’s first sex shop, and has to turn down several tourists looking to join today’s tour. It’s already full.
Out the front window, I can see tourists’ heads swinging, taking in the iconic Oude Kerk (Old Church, and Amsterdam’s oldest building), PIC’s showy signage, and the Latin American sex workers’ quarter, all around the same bend.
Karin mentions the city’s report on the ban, which surveyed 101 representatives of De Wallen -- among them only 10 sex workers when around 400 do business in the windows between day and night shifts. “It’s hardly representative,” she says.
“It’s a bad decision,” agrees a Dutch sex worker spending time at the center on her day off. “This is just a part of Amsterdam.”
Why is the ban going into effect?
The city’s decision is two-fold -- not merely a moral objection, but also an attempt to address over-tourism. Tourism in Amsterdam has steadily grown over the recent years, jumping 11 per cent in 2018 to 18.5 million visitors.
In the red light district, drinking alcohol on the streets is rampant, albeit illegal, while marijuana, space cakes, and magic mushrooms are tolerated and plentifully available. Sloppy intoxication -- public urination, vomiting, accidents, and unruly behavior -- are commonplace.
Residents are complaining, a fair number of them in De Wallen, which has seen a growth in private housing and new entrepreneurship over recent years. Officials hope that the ban will rein in criminality and boost the economy by revamping the erotic district as an entertainment district.
“Amsterdam has this image of the city where you can do everything, you can use drugs, shout, go to a prostitute, all there out in the open,” says Vera Al, the deputy mayor’s spokeswoman, in a phone interview. “But the city board said we don’t want that image anymore. Tourists are welcome ... but they have to behave and obey the rules. We are going to be stricter.”
The ban on tour groups is just the latest measure on curbing tourism numbers
That’s no understatement. In 2016, hundreds of windows were shuttered to ease the number of tourists squeezing into narrow streets. Starting in April, tours have also been curbed, now only allowed to operate until 7 pm. (They were allowed to operate until 11 pm. previously.) The maximum size of tour groups has also been cut from 20 to 15. Al says more measures are still to come, particularly to continue addressing overcrowding and problems like human trafficking.