De Wallen in Amsterdam is the world’s most famous red light districts. “De Wallen” means “the walls” and that’s exactly where Amsterdam’s red light district is located: inside the old city walls. The medieval buildings have been used for prostitution since the 15th century. De Wallen is most of all famous for its window brothels which became popularized in the 1960s.
Now after decades of generally legalized prostitution in the Netherlands, the red light district is trying to literally distance itself from the grim realities of prostitution.
The Dutch Laws on Prostitution
In October 2000 an amendment of the law was implemented that lifted the ban on brothels and the ban on pimping in the Netherlands. Since then, voluntary prostitution of adults is no longer prohibited—but every municipality can develop a prostitution policy, which regulates the licensing of prostitution businesses. Being in prostitution is only allowed for citizens of the European Union; non-EU-migrants are excluded from legally working in prostitution at all. Most women in prostitution in the Netherlands are Dutch or Central and Eastern European nationals, while in the massage parlors mostly Chinese and Thai women are found.
Municipalities can decide if they want to have a mandatory license system and for which kinds of prostitution businesses a license is required. In the vast majority of the municipalities a license is required for escort agencies, swinger clubs, erotic massage parlors, sex cinemas, window prostitution, and home prostitution. Most municipalities prohibit street prostitution and window prostitution. Some municipalities even have a zero-tolerance policy on prostitution.
The city of Amsterdam changed its licensing policy for window prostitution, such as licenses are granted per prostitution business and not per window anymore. Prostituted people are obliged to register with the Chamber of Commerce before they start working in Amsterdam and have to be at a minimum 21 years old. They also have to pay income tax. It is estimated that around 8,000 prostituted persons can be found in Amsterdam with 5% of them working in window brothels.
The Current Situation in Amsterdam
Over the last many years, the city of Amsterdam has been flooded by tourists from all over the world. In 2018 alone the city counted 18 million tourists. Many of them also visit the red light district as a tourist attraction and they would often take photos of the prostituted women without permission.
The rent for a window is around 90 euros for a nine-hour day shift and 170 euros for a 9 hour night shift. In order to simply cover paying rent and tax, a prostituted person needs at least four to five clients a day. So, earning money starts soonest with the fifth or sixth client of a day. The windows have to be rented for at least six or seven consecutive days.
It is estimated that 80% of the women working in De Wallen’s window brothels are migrants, which raises concerns that human trafficking is taking place.
Femke Halsema, the first female mayor of Amsterdam wants to make changes in Amsterdam’s red light district. She’s recognized that the red light district is a magnet for crimes, that it is not comfortable or safe enough for residents—particularly women, who are propositioned or feel threatened by the presence of sex buyers—and prostituted people. She wants to fix all of these problems.
Shifting Prostitution Out of the City Center
Instead of reconsidering if prostitution really is something that should still exist in the 21st century and seriously fighting human trafficking and sexual exploitation by addressing demand, the government decided on an “out of sight, out of mind” solution for Amsterdam’s red light district.
Amsterdam is attempting to move mass prostitution our of its city center and instead into a new “erotic center.” This “erotic center” will be a five floor building with 5,000 square meters and 100 rooms for prostituted persons. Femke Halsema said that the erotic center is expected to do more on combating human trafficking.
However, one look at other countries like Germany shows that a legal brothel doesn’t guarantee human trafficking to stop at the front door.
In Germany the manager of the famous brothel “Paradise,” which is even 800 square meters bigger than the planned erotic center in Amsterdam, was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for being complicit in pimping, severe human trafficking, and fraud in 2019.
For the new erotic center in Amsterdam, it is planned to install two bars or restaurants, an ‘erotic entertainment’ venue, and a pole dancing club or sex show. Four rooms are planned as meeting and relaxing rooms for prostituted persons. Also an erotic shop and a space for care offering, regulators, the police, and the city council are planned. The paid sexual ‘services’ itself are supposed to happen in a separate zone of the erotic center.
The idea of the erotic center is to keep the ‘normal’ tourists away from the red light district and to make De Wallen more comfortable for residents. This clearly shows that the legal prostitution in Amsterdam has been a cultural failure—it has reduced safety in the community, not improved it.
Instead of fixing these problems, relocating prostitution out of the city center is just sweeping the abuse and harm under the rug, out of the public eye.
Several European countries are reconsidering their policies on prostitution since, during the Covid 19 pandemic, it became obvious that most prostituted persons live in precarious life circumstances. In Germany many prostituted women became homeless and couldn’t afford food and products for daily needs anymore. Because a majority of them are not registered in prostitution, they couldn’t be on welfare. Several countries like France and Israel already adopted the Nordic Model to address and reduce the demand for prostitution.
A study on commercial sex buyers in Amsterdam from 2009 estimates that there are about 200,000 commercial sex buyers in Amsterdam per year. These are men from all layers of society and walks of life.
Most buyers recognized the existence of forced prostitution, but said they had never encountered a sign of it. When and if they had encountered it, buyers generally did not take any actions upon it. When asked about a possible closure of the window brothels in Amsterdam, buyers reported they would not stop buying. They would buy sex elsewhere.
By moving prostitution outside of Amsterdam’s city center, the commercial sex buyers will move with it—and so will the pimps, the traffickers and the violence against prostituted persons.
Shifting prostitution outside of a tourist area doesn’t solve the problem. It only makes it more unseen.