The problem with closing the windows in de Wallen*
Text: Harriet Smith
Image: Islay Kilgannon
De Wallen situates churches, homes, shops, offices, children’s day-care centres, bars, and restaurants, alongside sex work businesses, including the brightly lit window workspaces. Currently under threat of closure by the municipality, the windows are a familiar part of the neighbourhood. One resident recalled a memory from childhood, asking her mother what the women in the windows did, and being told that lonely men could go to spend time and cuddle with a woman.
In the red light district of Amsterdam, known in Dutch as de Wallen, resides the Prostitute Information Centre (or PIC). Here you can find sex worker led tours of de Wallen, a community hub for sex worker rights and information events, alongside a small bookshop. The PIC is also the location of two of my interviews concerning some of the problems sex workers have faced since 2020. The building sits opposite one of the oldest churches in Amsterdam, beside a small café terrace catching the morning sun. I pass by the bronze statue of Belle, a monument to sex worker pride and dignity, before stopping at the café. In the shadow of the church, I meet a window worker and activist currently at risk of losing their workspace. We share cheesecake and gluten-free almond cake, while chatting and hoping together that this time sex workers won’t be ignored.
Sex work has been a prominent and profitable business for centuries in this area. Its waterside location attracted sailors after long periods at sea in the 17th century, reflected in the prevalence of brothel scenes as a painting subject at the time. Despite historical public awareness, sex workers have continuously been in conflict with government institutions. Public debates often centred around morality, with focus on whether sex work should exist, rather than recognising that it does. Morality is always subjective; it is based on our opinions, beliefs, and experiences. Sex workers are multi-faceted humans, and sex work is only one part of their life. However, their profession transforms them in the eyes of others, especially politicians, who have significant power over their material reality. When sex workers are judged before they are listened to, how can meaningful collaboration happen?
In 2019 Femke Halsema, the current mayor of Amsterdam, visited the red light district accompanied by journalists and stated:‘something needs to change’. She claimed that ‘windows should be closed as women working in the area had become a tourist attraction, attracting gawping and abuse’. She reportedly stated: ‘As a woman, I cannot accept this kind of humiliation of women. I cannot accept it. It is against all women’s rights and against the idea that we want to empower sex workers.’ The same year, the proposal for a new ‘erotic centre’ accompanied by window closure emerged. According to the municipality website, ‘In addition to the workplaces, this Erotic Centre will also accommodate catering and erotic entertainment. The aim of the Erotic Centre is to improve the position of sex workers, to combat undermining and to reduce the nuisance caused by crowds in the Red Light District.’ The strongly written stance on ‘improving the position of workers’ is confusing when the consultation with sex workers, in which they overwhelmingly stated they were against window closure, has since been removed from the same website. If mistreatment of sex workers by tourists is a problem, removing sex workers from view is simply hiding the issue, perhaps even victim blaming.
Sex workers have always faced stigma, perhaps due to sex work forcing people to confront their own ideas of sexuality and morality. Halsema’s feeling of ‘humiliation’ projects her own emotions onto window workers, whom she has repeatedly categorised as ‘vulnerable foreign women’. Although sex workers in Amsterdam have successfully organised, they also face repeated public dismissals. One interviewee explained how a sex worker was dismissed at a recorded public meeting as being ‘too intelligent to be a sex worker’. They explained that empowered sex workers advocating for their own rights do not fit the public perception, leading to assumptions that they are paid by a brothel to attend a protest or meeting. Sex worker empowerment is stated as an ideal by public officials, yet it is rarely respected as such in reality.
One interviewee stated that ‘this proposal feels like a reimagining of Project 1012, only this time we have been consulted.’ Project 1012 in 2007 aimed to close windows to combat human trafficking. 126 windows closed and became other businesses, but the scheme was forced to end under pressure from organised sex workers and allies, who were never consulted. Closing legal workplaces did little to combat illegality, and even reduced legal workplace availability. While the narrative of the current proposal may have shifted to reflect this, the resulting window closure is the same. The proposed window closure contradicts the results of the initial consultation and a window sex worker union survey which stated 90% of 170 workers stated they wanted to continue working in the windows. The municipality’s own survey looking into ‘unwanted tourists’ reported that even with window closure, two thirds of respondents stated this would have no impact on their decision to visit and less than 1% stated the windows as a motivation for coming. Yet, window closure is still stated as necessary by politicians. Interviewees suggested that window closure was necessary for the ‘erotic centre proposal to work’, which already had financial investment at stake. The lack of public acknowledgement of reports and surveys begins to paint a picture where personal morality has impacted policy and implicitly plays a role in planning public space.
Hiding the bodies of sex workers does not change how they are treated. It instead leads towards further exclusion from society, strengthening stigma. Hiding the bodies of sex workers may make some people more comfortable, but it does not fix any of the problems within the sex work industry. It simply removes some of their autonomy; their choice of workspace. The windows currently provide a workspace described as ‘simple, safe, and flexible’, where regular clients know where to find them. All the sex workers I have spoken to have complained about inappropriate tourist behaviour, yet it is unclear to them, as well as to me, how the removal of windows from public space would stop mistreatment of sex workers. By ignoring the preference of some sex workers for these spaces, politicians risk reducing the independence of workers and their choices, thus increasing the risk of labour exploitation, and forcing workers into a precarious situation.
So, what do sex workers want? None of the sex workers I spoke to were against the idea of new workspaces, or an ‘erotic centre’. However, they were all united against the closure of already limited windows in de Wallen. The proposed locations of the ‘erotic centre’ prompted concern, mostly isolated locations and some industrial areas were proposed, causing an increased risk in their commute to and from work. Smaller integrated workplaces would be preferred, although they stated there is a need for more, especially for male and transgender workers. Other measures sex workers advocate for include a push for full decriminalisation, increasing the autonomy of workers. Inclusion must be prioritised over exclusion to begin combating the stigma. Sex workers deserve recognition that they are part of the community of Amsterdam.
This article utilises four interviews undertaken in June and September 2021 with a brothel worker, window worker and two separate interviews with sex workers volunteering at the Prostitute Information Centre (also referred to as PIC). All interviewees will remain anonymous but were essential to understanding the risks of the current proposal to sex workers. I am grateful for their time and their work as community activists.