Why sex workers are protesting in Amsterdam

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Overwhelmed by its own popularity, Amsterdam is ramping up its push to re-brand its “go wild” and “no rules” image. Drunken Brits are being told to stay home, there are moves to clamp down on cannabis, and the red lights could be about to go out on its city center brothels.

New rules for sex workers come into force on April 1, according to officials, requiring Amsterdam’s sex work businesses to close their doors at 3 a.m. rather than 6 a.m. to combat what local authorities describe as nuisance behavior by people visiting the red-light district.

The reduced hours come amid an ongoing campaign by the city council to move sex workers into an “erotic center” outside the heart of the city. Amsterdam is also introducing measures to limit waterway cruises and impose restrictions on vacation rentals as well as lobbying for an aviation tax to tackle budget flights.

Several sex workers told CNN the reforms aimed at them are increasing stigma, and said they believe they are being unfairly discriminated against and used as a scapegoat for the city’s problem with mass tourism.

A spokesperson for Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Sofyan Mbarki, told CNN that the package of measures is designed to keep the city livable, arguing, “we now have to choose restriction instead of irresponsible growth.”

Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema speaks to protesters during a demonstration of sex workers in Amsterdam on March 30.

Felicia Anna (not her real name for privacy reasons) is a former sex worker who has lived in Amsterdam for 13 years and is now the chairperson of Red Light United, a union for window workers in Amsterdam’s red-light district.

Anna says the reduced business hours will drastically reduce income for window workers, leaving many barely able to cover expenses, such as window room rent and taxis to get home safely.

“Most of the workers start to work after 12 or one o’clock in the morning, when the bars start to close down,” Anna told CNN. “Now you have maybe two hours to make any money, which is not enough.”

Violet, which is an alias name due to privacy concerns, is a sex worker and coordinator for the Prostitution Information Centre (PIC), which is an Amsterdam-based organization that provides information and education about sex work.

Violet says the reduced hours will particularly impact the transgender community, stating that many clients who come in between 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. request transgender sex workers.

She also spoke about welfare concerns for all sex workers, explaining how it could impact their ability to get home safely.

“If you’re traveling home at three o’clock in the morning, especially if everything is closed, then that leaves you, as a sex worker, in greater vulnerability,” Violet outlined, comparing it to 6 a.m., which they said has more social activity and transport options.

“Ours is usually a cash-based income. So, at that time in the morning, we could be traveling around with a lot of cash. If there are not many people out in the streets, this gives people who would wish to do us harm an opportunity to do so,” Violet said.

City officials in Amsterdam are introducing new restrictions aimed at curbing overtourism.

In the background of the new reduced hours restriction is a separate push by the city council to shut down window establishments and move sex workers into an erotic center outside the city center.

A protest organized by sex workers interrupted a city council meeting on Thursday that was discussing location options for the proposed erotic center.

Protesters handed Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema a petition signed by 266 sex workers, according to Red Light United, which called for more police in the red-light district instead of earlier closure times and the move to an erotic center.

Halsema has previously stated that some visitors see window workers as only a tourist attraction, arguing that an erotic center will reduce pressure on the red-light district and create a place where sex workers can work safely and undisturbed.

Sex workers disagree, with Red Light United arguing that the erotic center could create an environment for more crime and “shady” behavior.

“The beneficial thing for working behind the window is that it is visible, and you feel safer. In an erotic center, you don’t have the same feeling because you’re closed off in a building,” Anna said.

Violet echoed safety concerns, arguing that relocating sex workers would also remove some social protections.

“If you move the red-light district out, you are going to get more concentrated behaviors in an area which can’t be monitored as well, and isn’t subject to public scrutiny,” Violet said.

“One of the things that’s so great about being a sex worker in Amsterdam is that when people get out their cameras, and try to take photos, it’s not just the sex workers who help but also the local community,” Violet explained, adding, “the Dutch aren’t afraid to tell people off.”

Sex workers and sympathisers take part in a demonstration to protest plans to shutter the city's historic red-light district.

Restrictions for sex workers is just one bullet point on Amsterdam’s re-branding attempt. As outlined, other restrictions are also set to be introduced in the red-light district, such as lockout rules, alcohol sale restrictions, and banning smoking on the street.

The city council has also introduced several campaigns, including the “Stay Away” campaign, which initially targeted young British men by triggering a video advertisement that warns of antisocial behavior if they search for terms such as “stag party Amsterdam,” “cheap hotel Amsterdam” or “pub crawl Amsterdam.”

A spokesperson for Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Sofyan Mbarki, said the campaign started in the UK because “part of this group is strongly represented in the nightlife in the city center, accompanied with more than average nuisance behavior.”

However, the spokesperson noted that this is just the campaign’s first step, saying it is “not specific for one country” and “within the next months this campaign will also start in other EU countries and in the Netherlands itself.”

Felicia Anna and Violet said that from their personal experience, British men are no worse behaved than other tourists. They both added that it is not just tourists causing issues with nuisance behavior but also locals.

Anna believes the broader problem lies in the no-rules attitude attached to the idea of Amsterdam, which she agrees needs to change.

“You can have several campaigns telling people to stay away, but people are not going to stay away,” Anna argued. “You need to teach people how to behave. If you don’t do that, it is never ever going to change.”

“This is not a zoo,” Anna urged. “Come to the red-light district but behave.”

Violet also called for more education and said she believed the campaign could backfire, saying, “this targeting advertising makes it sound more like a vice city.”

“Treat this place like you would treat your own hometown or your own city,” Violet urged.

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