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Sexual Tourism in Amsterdam

Writes Sexpress Editor Caoimhe Battault

Amsterdam has proved an extremely popular destination for many demographics: stag parties, lads holidays and young couples alike. Particularly around this time of year, people are drawn to the centre of Amsterdam to experience the culture as well as the unusual legalities. The city is well known for its decriminalised drug use and sex work. However, currently the government are trying to change this, no longer happy with the crowds and behaviour it draws from The Windows which line the Red Light District.
The history of sex work in Amsterdam is a long one and the city has many attractions surrounding this. Although this work originally centred around sailors who would seek comfort in Dutch women after a long period of time at sea, now the city is streaming with museums surrounding sex, novelty gift shops, sex toy retailers and live sex shows. This was done on purpose, with the government pouring funding into the tourism trade in order to attract people to the unique culture of Amsterdam. However, they may have been too successful, and are now struggling to keep residents happy as the city becomes overcrowded with tourists. While they have introduced a new “tourism tax,” other measures are being discussed in order to combat certain behaviours in the Red Light District in particular. There are many arguments for and against these possible actions.
Since the legalisation of brothels in the city in 2000, the Red Light District has attracted many people to the area, both customers and gawkers. The windows are plastered with warnings not to take pictures or videos of the workers, blatantly denying consent to this yet thousands of people every day disregard them. Drunken men rap on windows like small children at an aquarium and show blatant disrespect for the women, a surprising amount spitting at them. Being behind the windows might feel safer for these workers than being on the street, however its clear that you still need a thick skin to put up with some of the outrageous behaviour. While walking the street, countless times you will encounter sex workers opening doors to tell disrespectful men to leave them or their colleagues alone. Others may simply disappear into another room when confronted with disgusting behaviour. In the Red Light Secrets Museum, you are advised to consider how awfully these women are treated and what they put up with on a regular basis. They are still clearly seen as objects to be used, rather than service providers.
Amsterdam’s first female Mayor, Femke Halsema, wants to put a stop to the disrespect tourists have for the cities sex workers. Halsema doesn’t want to ban sex work completely, but she does want to change it. The city has managed to stop tours which pass through the Red Light District, believing that viewing and commodifying sex-workers to be outdated and unfair. Many sex workers found the banning of these tours worrying as they bring in business “I don’t have to like sex-work. It’s irrelevant. Because there is a market,” Halsema told Time in October of last year, however the mayor does see a benefit in moving the windows from this area or removing windows all together. She has suggested a sex work hotel where customers may be screened before purchasing the service. But many sex workers have disputed this idea, with protests being held about sex workers’ rights. Other suggestions, like covering the windows, create the idea that sex work, although legal, is somehow shameful and should be hidden. “Its not just about tourism, it’s a moral issue,” one sex worker told The New Yorker late last year, “People are saying its no longer of-this-time that sex workers are on display… They say they are put on display like this is not a human being who can think for [themselves].” The threat of these new policies have brought about the creation of groups such as Red Light United, a union for the sex workers of Amsterdam. This group claims that more than 93% of sex workers are against moving the brothels from this famous area and suggests that any way the government take action against tourism is to take action against sex workers of the country. The sex workers suggest that the government aim to tackle the disrespectful use of photography instead, however how will this be possible?
With Halsema’s suggestion to remove prostitution from the Red Light District early in her career, many sex workers and unions disregarded this idea as impossible as prostitution would just be forced into a more unsafe and underground environment. This wont work for the city as the mayors aims are to create a quieter life for residents as well as safer conditions for sex workers. It is clear that safe conditions are essential for these women, with violence against sex workers always being a rampant epidemic. Figures have shown a massive increase in victims within brothels since the legalisation of the sale and purchase of sex in 2000. These figures went from 228 in 1998 to 1,711 in 2012. Within the Red Light Secrets museum a memorial is in place for the sex workers who have been murdered, and this isn’t a problem isolated to Amsterdam. The risk becomes even higher for transgender and gender diverse workers. Just last year 331 trans people were murdered around the world, Mexico having 130 of these deaths. It is also argued that there is near to no way of combatting sex trafficking in Amsterdam, with over 90% of sex workers being from Eastern Europe as well as places dealing with immense poverty in Southern Africa and South America. “While not all of them are trafficked, you can question their free will, because there is a huge need for them to feed their families elsewhere,” Halsema told Time in the aforementioned article.
It seems the question on how to make the life of sex workers safer, while still treating their jobs with respect remains unanswered. It is important that we, as tourists, respect the workers and remember that they are not a tourism attraction nor an object to be spit at, as surprising as that fact might sound. It can be difficult, even for the most progressive and sex positive individual to walk through the Red Light District and not feel like these women are being displayed as things, not service providers. However, is it not more important to listen to these women? What they want and what the believe is right for them?