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Sex work in the Red Light District

8 Mins read

The holiday destination of the Netherlands surged in popularity in 2022 and is continuing to be a tourist favourite in 2023. Alongside plenty of trending TikTok videos about days out in Amsterdam, the city is renowned for its iconic canals, sprawling tulip fields, relaxing coffee shops, iconic architecture, and, of course, its flourishing sex work industry.

Amsterdam has become a hub for prostitution, and it’s believed that the industry contributes around €500 million (£440m) annually to the city’s economy. It is estimated that there are more than 15,000 sex workers; an impressive statistic considering the city’s population of just over 800,000 people. 

Enge Kerksteeg Kleiner, Mariska's favourite street in the Red Light District
Enge Kerksteeg Kleiner, Mariska’s favourite street in the Red Light District [Robin Haurissa]

On platforms such as TikTok, opinions on the Red Light District have been circulating through trending videos. People have very mixed opinions on the sex workers in the Red Light District, with one TikTok post regarding one British grandmother’s opinion whilst on holiday in the Netherlands that has so far received more than 336 thousand likes and 2,047 comments.

“What do you think, Nana […] of the Red Light District?” Morgan asked her grandmother in the TikTok video, standing amongst the sex workers in Amsterdam Centrum.

“Well, I think these girls are exploited and I think they should all be closed down,” her grandmother responded, adding, “I think it’s absolutely disgraceful […] I wonder if they’ve got pimps and God knows what.”

This is one of many opinions on the sex workers of the Red Light District in Amsterdam, speaking negatively on the choice of career, especially from people in the UK.

However, others point out that if sex work is shut down in the Red Light District, then thousands of people will be losing their livelihoods.

While prostitution is technically illegal in the Netherlands, it has been legal to work as a sex worker since 1988. This means that those who choose to work as a prostitute are allowed to operate without fear of arrest or prosecution.

The city has made a concerted effort to create a safe and supportive environment for the industry, with organisations like the Prostitute Information Centre being established by Mariska Majoor to provide resources and assistance to sex workers. 

Mariska is a former sex worker and author of De Wallen: Toekomst van ons verleden, (When sex becomes work: Everything that everyone should know about sex work) and United Under A Red Umbrella: Sex work around the world.

The Prostitution Information Centre (PIC), located in the Red-Light district in Amsterdam, is a small, non-profit organisation founded by Mariska in 1994. She decided that because while she worked in the district, she observed many people who visited the centre of Amsterdam and had many questions, yet no place offered any answers.

Her main goal was to establish an easily accessible place that provides accurate information from the points of view of actual sex workers to those uneducated about sex work who are curious about it, whilst also serving as a safe haven for sex workers. Mariska Majoor was knighted by the mayor of Amsterdam for her contribution to the rights of sex workers in the Netherlands in 2017.

The life of a sex worker in Amsterdam

Artefact wanted to ask Mariska all of the questions that the public is curious about regarding sex work; things that they may not know about being a sex worker in Amsterdam, including their day-to-day life at work – and all of the controversial opinions on exploitation.

“Young English visitors are known for their drinking and noise. However, as customers – in my experience – they are usually not a problem. Except maybe they’re often too drunk to get anything good done,” Mariska winked, as she told me about the comparison between English and Dutch clients.

“The older English clients are generally polite and fine customers. I know that some of the sex workers in the area prefer them to the average Dutch client who can complain a lot and want too much for too little money. Every person is different and every sex worker has their own preferences regarding the type of client.”

When asked how many hours a day she spent working, Mariska told Artefact that it really varied and depended on the workplace: “At the Red Light District, you rent a room for an average shift of 10-12 hours. Within that shift, you decide how many hours you want to work,” she explained.

‘Belle’, a famous sex worker statue on Oudekerksplein [Robin Haurissa]

“I worked five or six days a week from eight in the evening to four or five in the morning. There were also days when I had had enough after two hours and went home. The owner of the window only gets rent and has nothing to do with you. You don’t have a boss, you are your own boss.”

Mariska added “I think my longest working day lasted about ten hours. I also once went on vacation with a client. The trip went to Nice (France). After three days we got into a fight and I was fed up with him. I took the plane home. I was not paid extra for the holiday. That customer paid for the luxury hotel, the trip, the fancy outfits, etc.”

This answers the question as to whether or not the sex workers of the Red Light District have ‘pimps’ (as mentioned in the TikTok video above), which is, apparently, most people’s primary concern when voicing their opinions on sex work in the Red Light District. The sex workers, as a whole, have autonomy in regard to their work.

Last year the mayor and city council agreed plans to move and reimagine Amsterdam’s infamous red light district after years of worsening nuisance, criminality and dangerous crowd levels in the ancient centre.

An architect was paid to design a modern building hosting 100 rooms for sex workers, bars, restaurants, entertainment spaces and a health centre, while the city announced eight possible locations, from the RAI conference and business district to the Haven-Stad harbour development.

But there’s a problem: strident opposition from local residents, as well as sex workers who do not want to leave their rental windows in one of the most beautiful parts of the inner city.

Mariska told Artefact that “The municipality has difficulty with the large number of party-goers who come to the Red Light District, who often do not realise that the Red Light District is also a residential area. There is a group of residents who complain a lot (not entirely unjustified) and the municipality wants to do something about it. Talks are now about possibly moving the sex industry to another (indoor) location.”

Mariska said that she is having trouble with this idea herself, and instead, wants the municipality to work with everyone in the neighbourhood to solve the problems.

“Instead of forcibly changing our famous neighbourhood, which in my eyes proves part of Amsterdam’s identity, and letting it blend in with the rest of gentrified Amsterdam; I would like to cherish the neighbourhood and achieve that visitors and locals behave well and respectfully towards each other and their environment.”

The drug-addiction stereotype surrounding sex work is a dominating opinion among many, with the implication that the work further fuels their habits. Mariska believes drug usage and sex work aren’t necessarily related.

“For people who are addicted [to drugs], offering sexual services is a way to earn money. This has little to do with sex work,” Mariska told us. “This person has a drug problem and that is what needs to be solved. You will never find drug addicts behind the windows in the Red light District, they are far too expensive for them.”

“The owner of the window only gets rent and has nothing to do with you. You don’t have a boss, you are your own boss.”

Mariska Majoor

Mariska added that she is not in favour of drug use, especially when she used to work: “You have to be sharp when you work and not numb because then you recognise a certain behaviour. But if a sex worker sometimes uses something, that does not immediately have to be a problem.”

Mariska then went on to tell me that if a person “uses drugs to be able to do or maintain this work, then it is a problem and it is important that help is found. In Amsterdam there is P&G292. This is a local health organisation for sex workers that offer social work, amongst other things. I would call them in to see if they can help.”

When speaking on the organisations put in place for sex workers in the Netherlands, Mariska told Artefact: “The Amsterdam government has to deal with national rules with regard to prostitution policy and also its own local extra rules. The police and supervisors check age, nationality and voluntary participation.”

This involves various levels of bureaucracy: “A brothel may only be held at a location for which a brothel permit has been issued. Because many sex workers receive their clients at home these days, that last rule is a problem. Sex workers in window prostitution do not need a permit because they rent the window and do not own it. This could change in the future as new national legislation is being drafted and all sex workers will need a permit in the future to work legally. Almost all sex workers in the Netherlands are against this idea.”

Because of the perceived stereotypes of sex work, permits are not something sex workers usually apply for according to Mariska. The aftermath of this permit can be extremely dangerous because of these negative views.

“If I were still a sex worker, I probably would never apply for a permit. Although the work is legal, society sees it as evil. Being registered as a sex worker somewhere can haunt you for the rest of your life. Although I’ve spent years fighting for more acceptance and the rights of sex workers, I don’t have much hope for the future in terms of that acceptance. I fully understand that sex workers are careful with registrations around their work and their privacy.”

Changing opinions

These changes raise the question of what can be done to help sex workers and try to educate the people who have negative opinions on sex work.

“For many people, it is difficult to separate sex work from human trafficking and to view sex workers differently from victims of difficult economic circumstances, drugs or coercion,” Mariska said.

“In itself I understand that. The most common image of a subject in your life is through the media, school, and home; that becomes your truth. Unfortunately, that image is often negative and therefore very difficult to change,” she added.

Italian sex worker ‘Jana’ from Mariska’s book [Robin Haurissa]

“Of course, forced sex is always wrong (even outside of sex work) and it is important to be aware that forced sex work exists. But getting paid for sexual acts has nothing to do with coercion. That’s a weird ‘brainwave’ from anti-sex feminists; who claim that the fact that you get paid for it already makes it a form of coercion. Bullshit. That can make me so angry. Someone who does this work against their will needs help, absolutely. And luckily there are a number of good organisations that are involved in this.”

Mariska believes that people need to understand that for the millions of sex workers in the world, the negative image people have of them is the hardest thing of all about their work.

“Difficult customers, abusive partners or difficult brothel owners are less of a problem than the social stigma and unreasonable legislation. They ensure that sex workers can hardly stand up for their rights, improve their circumstances or seek help,” she told us.

Mariska believes that sex workers worldwide would benefit most from acceptance of their profession and legal and good working conditions.

“To people who have trouble seeing sex work as a form of work, I would like to say that everyone has the right to make their own choices in life and that these are sometimes completely different from the choices they make themselves. And that should be fine,” she said.

“Choices made from considerations of poverty are sometimes not seen as a fair choice. In that case I would say ‘do something about the enormous poverty in the world so that people don’t have to make drastic and difficult choices’. Don’t make it even more difficult for people for whom sex work is an option for a better life for themselves and often an entire family,” Mariska explained.

“I would like people who visit the Red Light District to do so with an open and positive mindset. Please respect the people who work here. Don’t take pictures. Don’t laugh at them. Be nice. Visit the Prostitution Information Centre and be informed about how everything works by people who do or have done the work themselves.”


Featured image by Gio via Unsplash CC

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