For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Charlotte de Vries is standing on the bridge simply shaking her head. She’s normally not the disapproving type. But de Vries, a sex worker, simply can’t believe what she is seeing: complete emptiness. There are no women in the windows and no clutches of tourists gathered around to ogle. The sex shops are open, but there’s no one inside. She spreads her arms wide, but touches nobody.
“It’s crazy,” she says. She can’t remember ever being able to do so on Oudekennissteeg, the bridge she used to cross nearly every Saturday afternoon for the past two and a half years. She always had a group of tourists in tow, pushing past other tourists to begin her red-light district tour. Now, though, it’s all quiet.
The coronavirus has forced people around the world to stay at home. Images of deserted city streets have taken on a familiar, threatening feel. But the Oudekennissteeg bridge in Amsterdam lays bare another threat by virtue of its sudden absence: mass tourism.
“It’s as if someone pushed the stop button,” says de Vries, 56, who guided tourists through the red-light district every week until mid-March for the Prostitution Information Center (PIC).
“I’m afraid the city could exploit this situation to get rid of us,” she says.
By “us,” de Vries means herself and the thousands of other people who work in Amsterdam in brothels, for escort services or in the rented rooms with the red-lit, floor-to-ceiling windows that can be seen from the street.
“Everyone has an opinion about us. Usually it’s not a good one,” says de Vries, whose name has been changed for this story to protect her identity. “I love my job. It’s important. But nobody wants to hear that. We’re just portrayed as victims.”
‘I Wasn’t in It for the Money’
De Vries was born and raised in Amsterdam, spending most of her adult life working as a nurse. “Many of the patients longed for physical contact, but hardly had an opportunity,” she says. Nearly a decade ago, de Vries turned to an agency that hired out sex workers to customers who are physically disabled or mentally ill. For a while, de Vries worked both jobs, but then decided to dedicate herself full-time to sex work.
“I wasn’t in it for the money,” she says. “It was the appreciation. I can focus on a person’s needs for an hour and that makes a big difference in their life.”
There are several reasons for why sex workers like Charlotte de Vries see the lockdown and the ongoing lack of tourists as a danger. The most obvious is that sex workers in Amsterdam, like in many other places around the world, have watched their income dry up completely. Many of them have no savings and can’t rely on financial assistance from the government.
But the empty windows in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s medieval city center and its red-light district, represent more than just an entire industry that has come to a complete standstill amid the coronavirus crisis. The collapse of prostitution is also a dream come true for those residents and politicians who have long sought to curb the practice — against the will of sex workers and their unions.
The most prominent advocate of a realignment of the red-light district is Femke Halsema, 54. The city’s first female mayor, she has been in office since July 2018 and says she voted in parliament in the late 1990s to legalize prostitution nationwide. “Amsterdam has a very long tradition of protecting open spaces and being a tolerant city, and I really want to protect that,” Halsema said in 2019. “But we do not want to be known for sex and drugs. We want to be known for our cultural heritage.”
Mayhem Until After Midnight
The city is the Netherlands’ biggest tourist magnet. Amsterdam has some 850,000 residents, but it attracts more than 20 million visitors every year. Statistics don’t reveal how many of these people come to Amsterdam for its cultural heritage. It is, however, readily apparent how interested tourists are in cannabis, alcohol and prostitution. The place where Charlotte de Vries can spread her arms today without touching anyone has long been an epicenter of those interests.
“The coronavirus is dangerous, but it’s been a godsend for us. The tourists were the pandemic.”
The small district of De Wallen is crisscrossed by two canals lined with magnificent old buildings. There are numerous bars, kiosks, sex museums, coffee shops and brothels — and before the pandemic, there were around 330 windows from which women would offer their services.
Residents complained that it had gotten increasingly difficult for them to leave their homes. The streets outside were too crowded with bachelor parties and other loud and obnoxious revelers, both drunk and high, with many of them urinating on the sides of apartment buildings at night. Some would even vomit in mailboxes. Party boats lined the canals. It was mayhem until well past midnight.
“The last six years have been traumatic,” says Bert Nap, 61. He has lived in De Wallen for more than 40 years and is the spokesman for a citizen’s initiative that aims to improve the quality of life for residents. Nap likes his district and has fond memories of what the neighborhood was like in the old days, back when it was normal for the sex workers to wave to his daughter on her way to kindergarten. But the place he calls home hasn’t been like that in ages.
“The coronavirus is dangerous, but it’s been a godsend for us. The tourists were the pandemic,” says Nap.
Little More Than an Attraction
Even sex workers found the onslaught problematic. “Very few tourists came to actually take advantage of our services,” de Vries says. “Many of them behaved badly, were disorderly and spat against the windows. Some verbally assaulted the women or took unauthorized pictures of them.” Security guards hired by the city to maintain order “were nowhere to be seen in the crowds,” de Vries says.
The mayor described the “humiliation of sex workers by large groups of tourists” as “unacceptable.” In comments she made last year, Halsema said: “For many visitors, the sex workers were nothing more than an attraction to look at.”
In order to stem the flow of visitors and to create more living space for permanent residents of the Dutch capital, the city moved to prohibit renting apartments through online platforms such as Airbnb in some parts of the city center beginning on July 1, 2020. Tours of the red-light district, like the ones de Vries gave, have also been subject to restrictions since April.
But the sex workers themselves have also become a problem. Mayor Halsema has pointed to an alleged increase in underground, unlicensed prostitution in Amsterdam and has suggested four scenarios to deal with the overcrowding of De Wallen and to protect legal sex workers — including the closure of all windows and the ending of prostitution in the red-light district altogether.
Were that plan to be adopted, the mayor said, she would create new jobs elsewhere. There is talk of an “Eros Center,” a kind of shopping mall for sex, a place where brothels, individual workplaces and sex cinemas could be located alongside beauty salons and tanning studios — though it’s not clear where in the city there would be room for such a complex.
A Safe Space
“The tourists are being used like a stick to pound on sex workers,” says Rosie Heart, which is a pseudonym she uses at work. The 35-year-old is the spokesperson for PROUD, the Dutch trade union for sex workers. “We’ve been here for hundreds of years. Mass tourism has only been around a few years,” Heart says. Many of the women, she adds, would be afraid of an Eros Center out in the suburbs or next to Schiphol Airport for the dangers they would otherwise not be exposed to.
“De Wallen is a safe neighborhood, precisely because prostitution doesn’t take place behind closed doors, but is part of public life,” she adds. In her view, the city’s discussion of illegal prostitution is a distraction. “We reject human trafficking, but no one knows exactly how many women are really lured to Amsterdam and forced into sex work. It’s probably none of the women sitting in the windows at De Wallen,” Heart says. “We like to work. We are independent businesswomen and have chosen this profession.”
Many of Amsterdam’s sex workers say they feel safe in their job, and especially in De Wallen, but they’re worried the government could force them to work in conditions that frighten them. That concern has grown ever since a new law has been in the works that would force sex workers to forfeit their anonymity.
An additional concern is that, because of the coronavirus crisis, a large number of sex workers from other European countries have left and the brothels and windows have been shut down. They are fearful that the situation could become the status quo and the businesses will simply remain closed. And their concerns aren’t all that far-fetched: In Germany, 16 conservative and center-left parliamentarians recently called for the sex business to be shut down altogether — preferably forever.
“An Old Stigma”
So far, the city of Amsterdam has only announced that sex work would be prohibited until Sept. 1. People who work in other so-called “contact professions,” such as hairdressers and masseurs, have been permitted to work again since mid-May. “It is completely absurd that we aren’t trusted,” says Rosie Heart. “Health and caution are our job. It’s an old stigma that prostitutes spread disease. We have a lot of ideas for how to continue our work safely.”
The mayor’s red-light district scenarios were supposed to have been debated at a city council meeting in early May. But the meeting was postponed due to the coronavirus. The mayor’s office would rather not answer questions about mass tourism and sex work at the moment.
“She’s not saying much,” says Bert Nap. Thanks to the pandemic, the De Wallen resident can finally sleep through the night again, and he no longer has to clean the feces off his house’s exterior walls first thing in the morning. He welcomed the mayor’s plans at first, but now he feels left in the lurch by her. “This crisis could be a new beginning, but we have to act,” he says.
Meanwhile, the empty streets in De Wallen also reveal the mistakes made by the previous government. The reason that so few residents can be seen there is because there are hardly any left. Many of them moved away because they no longer felt comfortable or because the neighborhood became too expensive for them.
In one previous attempt to rid the red-light district of crime, 125 of the sex workers’ windows were closed. The consequence was that more people have simply gathered in front of the ones that are still open.
Waffles, but No Bread
These days, Bert Nap has to hop on the subway anytime he needs to buy a loaf of bread. “There’s no bakery in the neighborhood, but there are waffles with Nutella and souvenirs everywhere,” Nap says. “If the sex workers and clients came back, there would be no reason to complain. But if mass tourism returns, all hell will simply break loose again. We should focus on the real problem: the global tourism industry.”
He’s not alone in this view. In late April, European Commissioner Thierry Breton told a committee of MEPs: “We must find an answer to the excesses of mass tourism.”
The absence of tourists in many major European cities has allowed residents to dream of a new — or old — quality of life. These include cities like Barcelona and Venice, where locals have long complained of being overrun by hordes of visitors.
The form tourism could take once countries around the world relax their lockdowns and lift travel restrictions will depend, not least, on economic interests. This is especially true now that many cities and businesses are starved for income. Indeed, it will likely be difficult to insist that tourists, with all their disposable income, not be allowed to come.
In Amsterdam’s red-light district, financial considerations are hard to ignore: Sex sells, after all.
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is funding the project for a period of three years at a total cost of around €2.3 million.
No. The foundation exerts no influence whatsoever on the stories and other elements that appear in the series.
Yes. Large European media outlets like the Guardian and El País have similar sections on their websites — called “Global Development” and “Planeta Futuro,” respectively — that are likewise funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has complete two projects with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Journalism Centre (EJC): “Expedition BeyondTomorrow,” about global sustainability goals, and the journalist refugee project “The New Arrivals,” which resulted in several award-winning multimedia features on the issues of migrants and refugees.
All Global Societies pieces will be published in the Global Societies section of the SPIEGEL International website.