Pin It
Amsterdam Red Light District relocation 1
Illustration Callum Abbott

Amsterdam sex workers on the ‘disastrous’ Red Light District relocation

It’s feared a proposal to close brothel windows and create an ‘erotic centre’ in the suburbs will put sex workers in danger

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

This week (February 1), Amsterdam city councillors announced that they would be closing the brothel windows in the renowned Red Light District, instead setting up an “erotic centre” somewhere in the suburbs.

The proposal was first put forward by Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema, and is said to be part of a “tourism reset”, which also sees a potential ban on tourists buying cannabis from the city’s cafes.

“Tourists are welcome to enjoy the beauty and freedom of the city,” said Dennis Boutkan, a member of the Dutch Labour Party, “but not at any cost.”

The plan has been criticised by sex worker rights groups and individuals who have spoken to Dazed about the threat to their income and safety. In 2019, Red Light United – the union for sex workers in the Red Light District’s windows – conducted a survey into the possible relocation, and found that 93 per cent of sex workers were against the move.

The group’s chairwoman Felicia Anna – who’s worked in the Red Light District for 10 years – submitted the report to the city council and the mayor, but received no response. “Considering the outcome of the last couple of city council debates, it seems they have no interest in listening to us whatsoever,” she tells Dazed.

Felicia says the proposed relocation would have a “disastrous impact on our work and income, since most sex workers don’t want to move there”. She adds: “This will lead to sex workers choosing to work illegally underground, rather than in his new erotic centre nobody asked for, and will therefore make them more vulnerable to violence and human trafficking.”

Even sex workers who do choose to relocate to the erotic centre will experience less safety in their work, Felicia states. “Windows make sex work easily visible from the street, and therefore more visible to the police who can ensure our safety and fight human trafficking,” she explains. “An erotic centre makes sex workers less visible to the outside world because everything happens inside the building.”

A 2018 report by sexual health non-profit, SOAIDS Nederland, and PROUD, a Dutch union for sex workers, found that women who work in the windows experience less violence than other sex workers. Felicia says visibility is the reason window work is the safest form of sex work in the Netherlands.

“This will lead to sex workers choosing to work illegally underground, and will therefore make them more vulnerable to violence and human trafficking” – Felicia Anna, Red Light United

During two recent consultations with Halsema and the city council respectively, Red Light United pushed for no window closures, and instead called for an expansion of windows in the area, which the group says “would lead to less pressure on the current remaining windows and make the area less crowded”. In fact, a 2020 study into the proposals found that removing the windows would likely have no impact on tourism rates, as two thirds of respondents said they would continue to go to the Red Light District just as often. 

Felicia says these proposals would “basically (mean) reversing Project 1012”, which began in 2007 with the intention of “cleaning up” the Red Light District. Named after the district’s postcode, the project aims to replace brothel windows with luxury boutiques, cafes, and art projects, and, unsurprisingly hasn’t been welcomed by sex workers and brothel owners. According to The Guardian, approximately 126 windows have been closed since the project began. In 2015, over 200 sex workers marched through Amsterdam’s streets in protest at the demonisation of their industry – window closures were stopped shortly after.

“The city has learned nothing from the decade of Project 1012. This is basically a continuation of this project,” says Felicia. She describes Project 1012 as "a complete failure”, citing a 2018 report by Amsterdam’s Court of Audit, which says the project “has not resulted in the desired economic upgrading of Amsterdam’s old city centre” nor “a breakthrough in criminal infrastructure”.

Lotte Alberg, the owner of strip club BonTon and sex club Club LV, has a very different view of the new relocation. “It’s not that they want the Red Light District gone,” she tells Dazed, “they want to have the new Red Light District and the old one. I think you can make something that’s better for the girls; you have a chance to make things different than they were before.” Alberg suggests the new erotic centre may boast bigger rooms and lower rent. 

Discussing why the council proposed a relocation in the first place, Alberg says it’s because the Red Light District is “too busy”. She adds: “It was dangerous at a certain point. So many people. And a lot of the tourists are just watching the windows and looking at (the sex workers) like monkeys. I don’t like that. I don’t think the girls like that.”

Alberg is hopeful that the proposed erotic centre will bring “more quality tourists”, adding that visitors and clients would treat the sex workers better if they had an opportunity to “learn about the work the girls do”. During a tour in one of Alberg’s clubs, tourists are able to speak to a former sex worker about “why she did the work and why she stopped”.

“200 people come to the tour that week, and 200 people think differently about prostitution. You can do things like that in the new centre.”

“I think you can make something that’s better for the girls; you have a chance to make things different than they were before” – Lotte Alberg, club owner

Speaking to VICE Netherlands, Quirine Lengkeek, the chair of sex work network Sekswerk Expertise, disagrees, asserting that these types of relocations are often accompanied by closures. “You saw that at the Nieuwe Zandpad in Utrecht. Years ago, the brothels were closed there, but the plan to move the sex workers to another place has not materialised yet.” Regardless, if the aforementioned 2020 study is anything to go by, the majority of respondents wouldn’t visit a sex entertainment centre outside of the city anyway.

Whether the erotic centre opens or not, Felicia says she won’t be moving there. “I know girls who’ve even said they’ll start working on the street in front of their old window if they close it down.”

Leading Red Light United, Felicia will continue to fight the decision in every way she can. “We might protest like we did in 2015; we might go to the media to expose the lies of the city council and the mayor about how this is ‘improving’ our safety; we might even take legal action against the city’s decisions if possible,” she says. “We’ll do anything to stop this horrible mayor and city council from destroying our lives.”