One of Amsterdam’s most iconic landmarks is being torn down. The lights have been switched off in the famous Red Light District. Millions of public funds have vanished into the pockets of brothel keepers, while the prostitutes have been left empty-handed. The culprit isn’t the mafia or some other illegal organization. It’s the city’s politicians. They have undertaken a massive gentrification project under the guise of rescuing women from the sex trade.
Project 1012 is a policy plan aimed to fundamentally change the Red Light District (located in postcode region 1012). Its goal is to decrease the number of windows. In order to do so, the municipality has been buying up brothels with public funds, re-selling the realty to ‘high-grade’ enterprises: dining, design and fashion.
The project, started in 2007, oddly goes against national intentions to regulate sex work as a normal job. Seven years earlier, Dutch parliament decreed to lift the ban on brothels. Prostitution was to be legalized by letting sex workers formally register at the Chamber of Commerce and by having them file their taxes. The amendment was meant to protect the position of sex workers as a vulnerable group, to fight involuntariness and to further regulate business operations.
Selling the project
Why would Amsterdam, a city universally associated with sexual tolerance, implement such an adversative policy? The answer lies with the frame used to legitimatize the transformation. It was then Alderman Lodewijk Asscher of the left-leaning Social Democrats who managed to ‘sell’ the project. He insisted that sex work is inextricably bound up with exploitation, oppression and human trafficking.
This intertwinement was upheld through the word ‘criminogenic ’: brothels were said to be conducive to crime. In order to ‘break the criminal infrastructure’ of brothels that were said (but never proven) to fuel exploitation of sex workers, an aggressive policy of displacement was instigated.
Asscher used heavy moral artillery to advance his plans. ‘I don’t believe that Amsterdammers accept that in their city, women are being exploited as sex slaves’, he proclaimed. ‘It’s crawling with vermin under every stone we turn’ . The idea was that sex workers had to be saved from the horrible world they inescapably resided in.
This unvarnished rhetoric about prostitution equating exploitation cannot be substantiated with scientific data. The enormous variations in prostitutes’ life stories make it impossible to fit them in binary categories like ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’. In Amsterdam, a person counts as a trafficking victim by just being Romanian and not arranging one’s own visa. Such arbitrary criteria affect the validity of statistics: estimates of trafficked women in the Red Light District fluctuate between 10 and 90 per cent.
In reality, Project 1012 has never been about the fate of sex workers, but about what urban sociologists call gentrification. It’s about ownership and character of valuable real estate property in Amsterdam’s historic city centre. That’s why brothel owners had to leave, despite the fact they were never charged with actual crimes, let alone convicted. They merely needed to be branded as social pariahs.
Around eighty million tax Euros have been spent on the municipality’s real estate trade. Deals with private partners are sealed to guarantee more liquidity for Project 1012. High policy officials are currently working on the merger of two major semi-public real estate corporations in the Red Light District, which they aim to sell for one hundred million euros as a profitable private corporation called ‘1012 inc’. But as their shareholders are not eager to invest in the sex industry, more of the remaining prostitution windows have to go.
Blind council support
To accomplish the massive transformation of tens of thousands of square meters commercial space, the municipality teams up with wealthy retailers and the powerful building industry. Almost every week, hands are shaken to seal another lucrative redevelopment contract. Overall, recent investments in the area have an estimated value of a billion euro.
Instead of closely monitoring these financial transactions, the council blindly supports anything thought to ‘curb human trafficking’. Most meetings between policy officials and investors take place in the comfort and privacy of the mayor’s mansion, or elsewhere behind closed doors. Councillors asking for details about the deals are told these are confidential; exposing them could ‘threaten the city’s negotiating position’ vis-à-vis investors and brothel owners.
Advocates of Project 1012 are successful in silencing critics by portraying them as naïve believers in legalizing an inherently criminal industry, who refuse to acknowledge the innate exploitative constitution of sex work. Meanwhile, frustration and anger is accumulating amongst the women of the Red Light District. They do not feel represented at all by Project 1012.
After the municipality announced the closure of another 47 windows in September, a large group assembled at the municipality, pressuring the mayor to stop closing windows. Others are setting up special interest groups in an attempt to stop the destructive march of Project 1012. These sex workers organize themselves around a shared sentiment: they are fed up being treated as deluded victims who cannot speak for themselves.
Rights not rescue
Were politicians to listen to sex workers, they would find a group searching for recognition instead of salvation. The sex workers themselves know best what’s needed to work safely, happily and independently. Most do not want to leave prostitution, but merely ask for normalization: they want decent rent and working hours, and ensured salary when sick, pregnant or retiring. Some dream of running their own brothel.
Prostitutes gain nothing by having their places of work taken away. They call for full legalization, which they rightly argue never took place. The financial system still excludes them. Banks can judge the nature of their work, and often refuse them access to business accounts, mortgages and standard services like credit cards and Paypal. Municipalities are reluctant to follow the national call for legalization, and retract far more permits for brothels and sex clubs than they issue. Police are always confronted with limited resources, and often prefer closing down entire brothels to tracing the actual criminals. In practice, Dutch legalization of sex work ironically has brought much repression.
Sex workers ask for the constant support of police and other local agencies in ensuring a safe work environment or in setting up ‘sex work communities’. These lobby for decent rent and working hours, and ensured salary when sick, pregnant or retiring. And although most women in the Red Light District say they are happy with the support and care they get from brothel owners and local health institutions, the city government could assist in starting brothels run by sex workers themselves.
Prostitution policy should be developed in dialogue with sex workers: after all, they know best what’s needed to work safely, happily and independently. But Amsterdam’s current policy doesn’t benefit them, just as the speculation with valuable real estate doesn’t benefit the city’s taxpayers. It benefits the brothel owners who lead a life of leisure with the money ‘earned’ in the buy-outs, and it benefits the so-called ‘rescuers’ who build their careers in politics. This is most clear in the success of the project’s initiator Asscher: he is now deputy prime minister.
The workers of the Red Light District see some hope in the change brought by last April’s city elections. Liberals and socialists took office, breaking a sixty-year Social Democrat reign. The mayor boldly appointed a new Municipal Executive that has turned against Project 1012. They are in the position to finally improve the lives of sex workers.
Now is the time to fulfil the intended legalization with policy that doesn’t treat sex workers as victims unable to speak for themselves, but as able political interlocutors and participants of the labour market. That helps thousands of prostitutes, and puts the Netherlands back in the progressive vanguard of an international debate where stigma and taboo have traditionally laid down the law. Let the Dutch once again be sexual pioneers.
Laurens Buijs and Linda Duits are social scientists, affiliated with the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University respectively.