Amsterdam’s red-light district has attracted many foreign visitors to the city over the centuries. While the authorities in the Dutch capital are clamping down on prostitution, other cities around the world are debating whether to create a prostitution zone along Dutch lines. Could Amsterdam’s red-light district become a successful export product?
Amsterdam would appear to have things well under control when it comes to prostitution. Almost all the city’s prostitutes do business in a single area of 250 by 250 metres, enabling the police to keep tabs on anti-social behaviour, street crime and people trafficking. Meanwhile tourists can enjoy a stroll along the old canals and gawp at the ladies on display amid the legendary red lights and neon signs.
Nowhere in the world is prostitution as extensively regulated as it is in the Netherlands. Under Dutch law, it is a legal profession which requires prostitutes to obtain permits and pay taxes on what they earn.
The Netherlands is a world leader in this respect. In most countries, prostitution (or in any case offering sex for money) is illegal and far more difficult to control. It mainly takes place on the streets or in shady clubs, along darkened roads or on the wrong side of the tracks.
Since things in the Dutch capital are more orderly and mainstream, a growing number of cities are looking at the “Amsterdam model” as an example for creating a prostitution zone. There is already interest from Canada, Spain and Taiwan.
The most advanced plans are in Taiwan, where the government has announced that prostitution will only be permitted in specially allocated red-light zones. Women and men who want to work in brothels in these areas can apply for a permit. Prostitution in massage parlours and coffee houses outside these zones will remain illegal. The Taiwanese government says it hopes this approach will help them combat people trafficking and offer better protection to workers in the sex industry.
In Canada, too, the law on prostitution was recently relaxed. In the city of Toronto, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti proposed setting up a red-light district along the same lines as in Amsterdam. At present, prostitution is spread throughout the city. “It would also be a good thing for Toronto’s economy, as a red-light district will attract tourists,” Mr Mammoliti argues.
Ideally he would like to see the district located on Toronto Island, near the city centre. The suggested location has already sparked a good deal of criticism. Nevertheless, in Toronto it seems like the discussion is more about where rather than whether a red-light district should be created.
Out in the open
In Barcelona, things haven’t quite gone that far. The residents of the Raval district recently raised the alarm about the increase in prostitution on their streets. Raval borders on the famous shopping street Las Ramblas and has for some years been the pitch of mostly African prostitutes offering their services at rock bottom prices. Around the historical market hall La Boqueria, customers are pleasured out in the open in the evening and at night.
Local residents have had enough of these public shenanigans and want the sex workers banished from the streets. One solution could be along Dutch lines, with the prostitutes on display in windows.
While enthusiasm for an Amsterdam-style red-light district is on the increase abroad, the Dutch capital is clamping down on prostitution. Executive Councillor Lodewijk Asscher wants to turn the red-light district into Amsterdam’s calling card, a place where human trafficking and anti-social behaviour are a thing of the past. Around 100 of the district’s 500 prostitutes’ windows have already been closed and there are plans to shut down another 120. Instead of displaying scantily clad hookers, the windows now look in on the studios of young fashion designers and even an independent radio station.
Amsterdam’s red-light clean-up operation is controversial. Mariska Majoor of the city’s Prostitution Information Centre is one of those opposed to it. “These plans have been drafted to combat human trafficking, yet nowhere in the world is prostitution as well-regulated as it is here. Everything is transparent and in full view and the prostitutes are easy to approach. Even tourists are surprised by the measures and think they go against the spirit of the city.”