Amsterdam’s Red Light Zone Stays Shut as Rest of City Edges Open
Amsterdam’s Red Light Zone Stays Shut as Rest of City Edges Open
Patrick Kingsley, an international correspondent, and Laetitia Vancon, a photojournalist, are driving more than 3,700 miles to explore the reopening of the European continent after coronavirus lockdowns. Read all their dispatches.
AMSTERDAM — The red lights still shone above the windows in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s main red-light district, but the windows themselves were empty.
The streets lining the canals, normally crammed with tourists, were deserted.
The brothels were closed, the prostitution museum shut until further notice.
“No photos of sex workers,” read the signs above the brothel windows. “Fine: 95 euros.”
But there were no sex workers to photograph in the windows, and no tourists to photograph them.
The Netherlands is reopening. Hairdressers, driving instructors and beauticians have been back at work since May 11, without needing to wear a mask. Restaurants reopened their outdoor seating areas at the beginning of this month. Gyms and saunas are scheduled to restart in early July.
In De Wallen, a locksmith is open, as are a few (mostly empty) bars, and the shops selling sex toys, whips, handcuffs and the odd latex dress.
But sex workers have been told to wait until September, emptying the area, and sending many sex workers into poverty — or secretly back to work.
Charlotte de Vries, the professional name of an escort working in Amsterdam, would normally meet up to seven clients a week. But the week the lockdown began, all seven canceled, immediately costing her about $1,500.
“And I stopped counting after that,” said Ms. de Vries, sitting at a table on the edge of the red light district. “I thought, I just don’t want to know.”
As she spoke, the bells chimed across the street, at Amsterdam’s oldest church. Now that the area was deserted, she said, you could hear the sounds of the neighborhood for once.
For now, Ms. de Vries is able to rely on savings. But many of her colleagues cannot. Over 400 sought assistance from a new emergency fund set up by volunteers, which offers aid of about $45 to the most desperate applicants.
This assistance hasn’t been nearly enough. Ms. de Vries said she knows seven sex workers who have been forced to work in secret, just to pay their rent. Rosie Heart, the professional name of a second Dutch sex worker, said she knew of at least 10.
“It’s a disaster, really,” said Ms. Heart, who usually provides escort services in Amsterdam and London, in addition to working as a representative of Proud, a labor union for Dutch sex workers.
Working in secret like this makes sex workers particularly vulnerable because they are more at risk from abusive clients.
Before the coronavirus crisis, if a client became violent, “you would go to the police,” Ms. de Vries said. “But now you can’t do that because what you’re doing is illegal.”
A neighbor walked past, nodding a hello. One of the few silver linings to the crisis had been the opportunity to get to know the area’s residents better, Ms. de Vries said.
Dutch sex workers now face such hardship because of patchy government support. Like many governments at the start of the crisis, the Dutch authorities created emergency income streams for people suddenly left without work.
But in practice, many sex workers do not qualify for the new subsidies, because of the way they were registered with the tax authorities before the crisis. Or they are too scared to apply for it.
Though prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, many sex workers prefer not to declare their profession to the government because the trade still carries a social stigma — or because they work without all the licenses needed for them to be completely compliant with the law.
In a survey of 108 sex workers in the Netherlands conducted online by SekswerkExpertise, a research group in Amsterdam, 56 percent of the respondents said they had applied for coronavirus support. Of those applicants, only 13 percent said they had received help.
Of those who did not apply, about one in three said they already knew they would not qualify, and one in six said they were worried about outing themselves as sex workers to government institutions, in case their identities were leaked.
And migrant sex workers, working without a permit, cannot even contemplate applying for assistance.
Ms. Heart was one of the few successful applicants, receiving about $1,500 a month since March, roughly half her usual earnings.
But she said she would not apply for help from July onward, since sex workers would likely then be the only people out of work for reasons directly related to the coronavirus restrictions.
She feared that would out her as a sex worker, and potentially prompt local officials to evict her from her home, on the — mistaken — assumption that she uses her apartment as an unlicensed brothel.
“One minute I could be applying” for state support, Ms. Heart said. “The next minute I could be fighting to stay in my home.”
Some unemployed sex workers have turned to the internet to try to make a living from online sex shows. Ten attended a recent online training session at the Prostitution Information Center, a nonprofit that provides support to sex workers and guided tours of De Wallen to tourists.
But it can take months to build up a base of paying customers online, and there are substantial costs to setting up an online business. Online sex work needs a good camera, a microphone, a strong internet connection — and a private space where you are not likely to be disturbed.
A new influx of internet sex workers could also make life more difficult for those already in the online business. “There’s even more competition, so it’s even more tricky,” said Ms. Heart.
Sex workers said they do not understand why they are not allowed to go back to work in at least some capacity in July, along with gyms and saunas. Their work doesn’t have to involve kissing, and a lot of sex work, even before the coronavirus crisis, did not involve full intercourse, or face-to-face contact.
Hairdressers can now welcome clients again, “and hover in front of their face to cut their bangs,” Ms. Heart said. So she wondered why sex workers weren’t allowed to perform sex acts that stopped short of intercourse.
“I’m absolutely not saying we should be allowed to go back to work as normal, certainly not,” she added. “But if you’re saying that everyone can go back to work, but not sex workers — there’s something wrong with your thinking.”