Be­hind Am­s­ter­dam’s in­fa­mous red cur­tains

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - NEWS - AN­DRÉ PI­CARD

World­wide, sex work­ers are in­creas­ingly push­ing for le­gal­iza­tion and nor­mal­iza­tion

De Wallen, the in­fa­mous red-light district of Am­s­ter­dam, is known for its le­gal broth­els, where women mar­ket their wares by pos­ing in win­dows be­neath the glow of a red light, and pull the cur­tains closed when they are en­gaged.

But what do the women be­hind the red cur­tains think?

“This is my work and stand­ing in the win­dow in a corset and knick­ers is mar­ket­ing,” Foxxy An­gel says mat­ter-of-factly.

“The key to win­dow work is mak­ing eye con­tact,” she says. “The men al­ways walk by a few times be­fore they com­mit. They’re shy, un­sure, em­bar­rassed, but once you make eye con­tact…”

In Canada, where cus­tomers of sex work­ers can face crim­i­nal charges, the sale of sex is much more furtive, with men driv­ing slowly through un­of­fi­cial red­light ar­eas, or turning to clas­si­fied ads.

The win­dow broth­els of Am­s­ter­dam – and sex work more gen­er­ally – are seen by many as sex­ist, hu­mil­i­at­ing, ex­ploita­tive.

In her 15 years as a sex worker, Ms. An­gel, 37, has heard all the crit­i­cism.

“Of course sex work is ex­ploita­tion,” she says. “But peo­ple – women – are ex­ploited in restau­rants, as maids in ho­tels, as sec­re­taries, as farm work­ers. I have more con­trol over my work than they do and I make more money.”

Ms. An­gel doesn’t have a pimp. She is af­fil­i­ated with My Red Light, a group of sex work­ers who own and op­er­ate 14 win­dows. She is also a dues-pay­ing mem­ber of PROUD, the Dutch Union of Sex Work­ers.

Sex work­ers have a high risk of AIDS. The brothel tour was or­ga­nized in con­junc­tion with last month’s In­ter­na­tional AIDS Con­fer­ence in Am­s­ter­dam, where re­search was pre­sented show­ing the risk of in­fec­tion drops markedly when sex work is not crim­i­nal­ized. The sex work­ers agreed to be in­ter­viewed by the me­dia on the con­di­tion that their pro­fes­sional names be used.

Sex work has been le­gal in lim­ited forms in the Nether­lands since 1830. Broth­els were le­gal­ized in 2000. The red-light district is a ma­jor tourist – and sex tourist – draw.

“While the Nether­lands likes to present it­self to the world as very lib­eral, it’s not like that in prac­tice,” says Vel­vet, the ad­vo­cacy co-or­di­na­tor for PROUD.

“There are so many rules and reg­u­la­tions that it’s still hard to do sex work in this coun­try.”

What the union wants is full le­gal­iza­tion – or at the very least, de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion – of sex work, plain and sim­ple.

In­flu­en­tial or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and UNAIDS en­dorse de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion, say­ing it is the best way to en­sure the labour rights and hu­man rights of sex work­ers are re­spected.

New Zealand made sex work and street so­lic­i­ta­tion le­gal in 2003, the only coun­try that has done so. Other coun­tries have a range of laws, rang­ing from out­right pro­hi­bi­tion to li­cens­ing of sex work­ers.

Canada’s anti-pros­ti­tu­tion laws are among the most re­stric­tive in the Western world. Its ap­proach is known as “end de­mand” or the “Nordic model,” which fo­cuses on the pros­e­cu­tion of those who pur­chase sex rather that those who sell it.

Sex work­ers ar­gue that – re­gard­less of who is tar­geted, cus­tomers or providers or pimps – le­gal re­stric­tions drive the sale of sex un­der­ground.

When that hap­pens, it be­comes less safe for sex work­ers, putting them at greater risk of vi­o­lence and in­fec­tious dis­eases.

“Le­gal­iza­tion pro­vides ac­cess to labour rights and that’s what sex work­ers re­ally need,” says Ruth Morgan Thomas, a for­mer sex worker who is now the co-or­di­na­tor of the Global Net­work of Sex Work Projects (GNSWP).

The GNSWP says sex work­ers should have the same rights as other work­ers, in­clud­ing to as­so­ciate and or­ga­nize; to be pro­tected by the law; to be free from vi­o­lence; to be free from dis­crim­i­na­tion; to pri­vacy, and free­dom from ar­bi­trary in­ter­fer­ence; to health; to move and mi­grate; and to work and free choice of em­ploy­ment.

Ms. Thomas says a new pu­ri­tanism is be­hind a grow­ing crack­down on sex work around the world. Traf­fick­ing of women and the higher risk that sex work­ers will con­tract HIV are be­ing used as ex­cuses for re­pres­sive new laws, but that is the wrong ap­proach, she says.

“I come from a coal-mining fam­ily in Wales,” Ms. Thomas says. “Lots of min­ers died. They didn’t stop coal mining; they made coal mining safer with bet­ter labour leg­is­la­tion.”

“Win­dow work” is among the safest be­cause it is le­gal and the red-light district is heav­ily pa­trolled by po­lice, as well as vol­un­teers from the union, who shoo away gawk­ers and stop peo­ple from tak­ing photos of the women in the win­dows.

Elsa does win­dow work two days a week, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fri­days and Satur­days.

She rents the win­dow brothel space for €80 ($120) daily (it is dou­ble the price at night).

The setup be­hind the cur­tain is util­i­tar­ian: a dou­ble bed, sev­eral sets of clean sheets, a bath­room, a mir­ror, gaudy wall­pa­per and low light­ing. There is also a safe and a panic but­ton.

Elsa charges what she calls stan­dard prices – €50 for a “quickie,” which con­sists of fel­la­tio and coitus.

She sees about a dozen clients a day, although it can range from three to 32. (A study con­ducted in the broth­els of Am­s­ter­dam found that clients take, on av­er­age, six min­utes to com­plete the trans­ac­tion.)

“I give ex­tra time and I’m ex­tra nice. That’s why my clients keep com­ing back,” she says, be­fore adding that may seem ironic, given that she spe­cial­izes in dom­i­na­tion and sado-masochism.

Like Ms. An­gel, Elsa says her in­come comes less and less from win­dow work (she cites time­con­sum­ing bu­reau­cracy as a rea­son for that) and in­creas­ingly from ap­pear­ing in on­line porn and pri­vate es­cort work.

Vel­vet, who does not do win­dow work (she is ex­clu­sively a les­bian es­cort), says that is in­creas­ingly the case.

In re­cent years, the num­ber of win­dows has been re­duced to about 300 from more than 600 and there are plans to cut an­other 100.

The driver is a com­bi­na­tion of an en­force­ment crack­down fo­cused on un­der­age and un­li­censed for­eign work­ers, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and a back­lash against the hordes of tourists in the Dutch cap­i­tal.

For sex work­ers, the prob­lem is that the li­cens­ing and re­lated reg­u­la­tion of broth­els has made it more dif­fi­cult to work in­de­pen­dently, es­pe­cially at home.

Along with con­cen­trat­ing broth­els in a cen­tral red-light district, the city largely elim­i­nated “tip­ple­zones,” where street pros­ti­tu­tion was the norm.

In­creas­ingly, sex work­ers sell their ser­vices on­line and take clients home. But, if they do so in Am­s­ter­dam, they must re­quest that the prop­erty be zoned as a brothel or they can be evicted.

While the com­mon jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for in­creas­ingly strict rules is to crack down on sex traf­fick­ing, Vel­vet says that does not hold wa­ter.

She says women who are traf­ficked are kept iso­lated and on the move, far away from reg­u­lated ar­eas such as the red-light district.

“Hu­man traf­fick­ing is a crime. Those women are vic­tims of hor­ri­ble ex­ploita­tion and abuse. That has noth­ing to do with sex work,” she says.

Vel­vet says sex work­ers would like equal treat­ment un­der the law.

“An ac­coun­tant can work out of the home with­out a spe­cial li­cence, a per­sonal trainer can work out of the home with­out spe­cial rules. We pay the same taxes as other self-em­ployed work­ers, we should have the same rights,” she says.

“Sex work is work.”

PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Elsa, a sex worker in Am­s­ter­dam’s red-light district, says that less of her in­come is com­ing from win­dow work, in part be­cause of time-con­sum­ing bu­reau­cracy.

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