The plans of the city of Amsterdam to rethink and “relocate” the historic De Wallen district of the city – i.e. the so-called “red light” district – they are not doing very well. In the neighborhood, sex workers show up in shop windows along the streets and receive clients in small adjoining rooms. The municipality would like to move the sex workers to another area, and create an erotic center in the suburbs: but the idea is not liked by the residents of the areas where the new center could be built, nor by the sex workers.
De Wallen has become a problematic neighborhood over the years. Its popularity attracts thousands of people every day, and causes difficulties in public order, cleanliness and, says the municipality, even disturbance for the women who work there. The municipality intervened by closing some roads at night to allow them to be cleaned, raising taxes for tourists, reducing the number of commercial establishments aimed at them and that of new hotels under construction, and since 2020 it had also banned guided tours. But none of this had resolved it.
In 2021 Mayor Femke Halsema and the city council agreed on a more radical plan to relocate and reinvent the neighbourhood, and build a multi-story “erotic center” with bars, restaurants, theatres, entertainment spaces, a health center and one hundred rooms for sex workers in another part of the city. Eight possible areas for the site of the new building had been identified, but residents of all those areas resisted, in some cases meeting in committees and signing petitions.
Each neighborhood has its own reasons for not wanting downtown. One of the possible construction zones was, for example, near the RAI congress area, the country’s main congress and exhibition center located in the southern part of the financial district of Amsterdam. Bart Vink, president of that district council, explained that the “erotic center” would attract many visitors by car and hurt the existing economy: “If someone has to organize a big conference and can choose between Berlin, Barcelona and Amsterdam, the erotic center it will certainly not help to attract him.’
Despite the difficulties, mayor Femke Halsema said she was still optimistic and announced that the administration had identified three other possible areas for the erotic centre: “I hope that before Christmas we will be able to choose the definitive location and make it known”. She also said that her goal is to improve the quality of life in the inner city, reduce the influence of organized crime in sex work, and improve the rights of sex workers. “But I also realize that there is still a long way to go because most people associate sex work with crime and women’s vulnerability, human rights violations. So, in most neighborhoods, most people are not very enthusiastic about the erotic center,” she said. According to the mayor, it will still take from three to ten years before the building (for which an initial project has already been made) is ready.
The idea of moving outside the city center even sex workers don’t like him. A research by the union Red Light United show that about 90 percent of the neighborhood’s 170 sex workers want to continue working there. The unions and the collectives that represent them have also denounced the fact that the municipality has not actually involved them in the new projects. And then that the move will further threaten and stigmatize their profession and put their safety at risk.
One of the representatives of the Prostitution Information Center stated that she was not against the erotic center itself which, according to the current plan, would have only 100 seats instead of 250. Furthermore, it is not yet clear how much a room in the center will cost and whether workers accustomed to De Wallen’s prices will actually be able to afford it. «The proposed places are then located in areas where there are no tourists around» she explained «and which are commercially dead after 18:00. We are therefore decidedly opposed to the center in the form in which it has been proposed.
Another sex worker said it’s good for her to “see clients on the street before they enter. I choose myself. Also, the prostitutes take care of each other. We know each other, we share information with the whole neighborhood. I fear that such a social system would be uprooted if placed in a new environment. Why do you want to fix something that isn’t broken?” Some workers also argue that the idea that a sex center offers more safety, much sponsored by the municipality, ‘is based on the opinion of someone who clearly does not work as a prostitute’. Many say they prefer De Wallen to other places, precisely because he is more crowded: «Others of us choose to work in quieter neighborhoods. But it’s not up to the municipality to make that choice for sex workers.”
Another sex worker explained that being visible during work, i.e. in the shop window, and being able to become invisible when she switches off being able to go into the crowd is a guarantee for her safety: «You disappear among other people, down the street. It’s a pleasant and safe environment.” In the suburbs this could not happen and therefore the risk would be greater.
A survey carried out by the municipality of Amsterdam among more than 1,100 foreign tourists aged between 18 and 35 shows that only 3 percent would no longer come to the red light district if there were no sex workers. In the same survey, the majority indicated that they would not visit the new sex center. Sex workers therefore seem to have little to do with the influx of tourists in the neighborhood and an erotic center would not become the solution to decrease the flows.
An erotic center would eventually cause long-term problems, says a sex worker. Women who choose this profession would go back to being hidden, so people would not have the possibility to see sex work as a real profession and consequently would not even learn to respect it: «Everything has to do with the stigma. In this way we will never be able to change the image of a prostitute as a victim with someone who has control over her body instead. And politicians don’t care at all about changing that opinion.’