Amsterdam’s red light district is not picturesque at all; it’s a hotbed of ruthless people trafficking. So says Lodewijk Asscher. For several years now, the young (37) Amsterdam alderman has been waging his own crusade against the world of abuse and exploitation he believes is concealed behind the prostitutes’ windows: “We have to abandon our romantic view of the red light district.”
For many tourists the red light district is a normal stop on their visit to Amsterdam, taking a look at the prostitutes posing in the windows to attract clients. For many visitors the red lights are a symbol of what is possible in the Netherlands, with its tolerant attitude to sex and drugs.
A legal business
The Dutch government decided to lift the ban on prostitution in 2000. The introduction of licencing was intended to improve the position of prostitutes. Giving them legal status was supposed to make them more independent. Legalisation has had the effect, however, of pushing illegal sex workers further into the clutches of unscrupulous pimps.
Alderman Asscher is politically responsible for the red light district. He regularly makes comments regarded as ‘un-Dutch’. He believes it is a national misconception that prostitution belongs in the compass of freedom and tolerance. The problems, he says, are grossly underestimated:
“Hard-line criminal behaviour is what is happening behind those windows. Women subjected to extremes of exploitation. They have a non-existent debt they have to pay to a pimp by prostituting themselves. They are physically abused if they don’t work hard enough.”
In 2005, councillor Lodewijk Asscher published a book called Nieuw Amsterdam in which he argued for a policy of discouraging window prostitution and tackling exploitation of women in the city. He has now been an alderman for five years and is an influential politician, often seen as potentially the next leader of the Dutch Labour Party in parliament.
In his capacity as alderman, he has introduced a number of measures aimed at reducing window prostitution. Amsterdam has been buying up properties previously owned by the sex industry. In February this year more than 60 addresses lost their prostitution designations. The council is rezoning the whole area. In the future, brothels and coffeeshops will make way for cafes, restaurants and ‘ordinary’ shops.
Police in Amsterdam estimate that between 50 and 90 percent of window prostitutes are there against their will. This is also true of the legal brothels with a licence from the council. Asscher concedes that it’s an intractable problem.
“It’s very difficult to tackle effectively. Very frustrating for the police and the courts. The penalties are often minor. There is also an absence of public indignation. Recently we were dealing with a pimp who had used violent methods to force 110 women into work. The only sign of public anger was when the man escaped.”
Over the next few weeks the Senate will be debating a new prostitution bill. Proposals include making the minimum age for registered prostitutes 21 instead of 18. Having sex with a prostitute living in the Netherlands illegally would become a criminal offence. It’s now or never, says Lodewijk Asscher. If it can’t be regulated, prostitution will have to be made illegal again.
“This is our last chance. Prostitution has been legal for ten years now. We have to clamp down hard on these abuses. In Sweden, a ban resulted in a reduction in people trafficking. After all, slavery was abolished a long time ago in the Netherlands.”