Banning Red Light District Tours is Not Enough to Stop Exploitation
“The tours have provided the propaganda that would have tourists believe that legalised prostitution has been a massive success. It has, but only for the pimps and other profiteers.”
These are the words of Julie Bindel, feminist scholar and writer reporting on the notorious red light district in Amsterdam, where the city recently announced they were banning all “disrespectful” tours of the area known as De Wallen. In the news, this is mostly being seen as a move to curb the negative impact of mass tourism in the historical city center, with many residents beginning to feel the area is becoming “unlivable”.
This superficial ban is not the first time the city government has attempted to stop the mass influx of tourists that come only to gawk and point at the hundreds of women legally on display. With 19 million tourists in 2018 and a projected 29 million by 2025, the city of only 850,000 residents is clearly crumbling under the pressure of sex tourism.
However, limiting tours of the red light district is only putting a bandaid on a grievous wound. City councillor Udo Kock said, “It is no longer acceptable in this age to see sex workers as a tourist attraction”. Bindel argues that it never was and never will be acceptable to profit from the sexual exploitation of women. It is only now, when the residents and city’s historical value is at risk, that anyone has decided to do anything to “protect” these women.
Holland officially legalized prostitution in 2000, allowing Amsterdam’s De Wallen to flourish and consequently, for demand to skyrocket. In 2007, only seven years after prostitution was legalized, the UN reported that the Netherlands were among the top sex trafficking destinations in the world. In 2017, one human trafficking report estimated over 6,000 victims of trafficking in the Netherlands, five times higher than expected figures based on reporting numbers. The majority of these victims were women, and many of them were also underage. Corinne Dettmeijer, a correspondent from the study, called it “crazy” that authorities only seemed to be aware of a tiny fraction of victims.
Is it really so crazy that a place that regularly, and completely legally, exploits women and underage girls might be missing thousands of sex trafficking victims? It is impossible to ignore the relationship between the legalization of prostitution and the resulting increase in demand, and how that influences sex traffickers. Complete data on sex trafficking victims is already hard enough to gather without the ability for these traffickers to disguise themselves and their “products” throughout the channels of legalized brothels and window prostitution.
Instead of pimps, the men are now called “managers” or “facilitators”. Even with the different names, it is still these men who are able to live off the money women continuously sell their own bodies to make. And it is largely men who make up the anonymous and faceless clientele, creating an infinite loop of entitlement, deceit, and sexual exploitation on a mass scale.
Legalization has also served in establishing, enforcing, and spreading misinformed views on prostitution. With millions of tourists flocking to the fabled De Wallen area and being fed sanitized versions of empowerment and benefits for the women, the tour guides of the city have been the sole authors of Amsterdam’s prostitution narrative. It seems very unlikely that tourists are being told of the teenage girls lured and groomed by “loverboys”, or the trafficking victims held against their will in the glass rooms only feet away from them as they enjoy the sights.
Bindel, who has done extensive research on prostitution in her book, remembers her young tour guide saying that many of the women in the sex trade “enjoy the sex”, but couldn’t give a single concrete answer as to where he had heard that before. And if prostitution is so empowering, why would this young man choose to work at McDonald’s rather than join in on the wonderful, lucrative job of selling his own body for men to have sex with?
Ending the tours of the red light district is a step in the right direction for Amsterdam, but it is merely the beginning of a long and arduous journey. Many people in the Netherlands have already spoken out against the legalization decision, like city councillor and former woman in prostitution Karina Schaapman, who said in 2009:
“There are people who are really proud of the red light district as a tourist attraction. It’s supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it’s a cesspit. There’s a lot of serious criminality. There’s a lot of exploitation of women, and a lot of social distress. That’s nothing to be proud of.”
It’s now 10 years later, and the city is still plagued by many of these same problems. Banning tours of De Wallen is one way. Stopping demand by criminalizing the pimps, traffickers, and buyers is a better one.