Amsterdam closes window on its red-light trade

On the edge of a cobbled path that runs along a canal in the heart of Amsterdam, a pretty woman lights her cigarette, strikes a pose and smiles at the tourists pouring past. Dressed in white lingerie, her bleached blonde hair bathed in red light, the prostitute beckons men towards her and the unmade bed behind.

“They say we give Amsterdam a bad reputation,” she says, pushing her window open slightly. “Rubbish.
This is the only reputation we have.”

Last week, the city announced that it is closing down one-third of its famed brothels. Within a matter of months, 52 of the iconic window displays that line the streets of the busy red-light district will disappear.

Come January, the blinds will be drawn down on the window that frames the blonde prostitute, looking down over the canal, and the sign above her that reads “raam verhuur [windows for rent]” will also be gone.

The 22-year-old is fed up. “I was thinking of quitting anyway,” she says. “So this will make the final decision for me.” As she speaks, a young, drunken man hollers: “30 euros.” Looking slightly offended, she points across the canal and quietly says: “I think you should try that part of the district.”

Her building is one of those where the rent is highest and the sex most expensive. It is owned, like so many of the brothels, by property magnate Charlie Geerts, who gave up a year-long battle with the authorities last week and finally sold up.

In a deal worth â,¬26-million, officials will buy 18 buildings from Geerts—known as Amsterdam’s Emperor of Sex—and close down the “windows”. The final decision came from the city’s mayor, Job Cohen, who argued that the brothels were attracting crime and money-laundering to the area. “We want to get rid of the underlying criminality,” he told a TV station last week.

Those who live above and beside the windows have been fairly supportive of the move. One man, who refused to be named, says that prostitution is a core part of the area and he does not want it to disappear completely.

“But we are getting more and more petty criminals here,” he says. “Hopefully by cutting down on the brothels the problems will be better controlled.”

Tourist trade

Cohen and others in the city know that the prostitutes posing and preening in their windows are a huge draw for visitors. This weekend, the roads and alleys, lined with old-fashion street-lamps, were packed with tourists from all over the world.

Outside the Casa Rosso theatre, large crowds were trying to get in to watch the live sex shows from red velvet seats. A few hundred metres down the street, an erotic museum was also busy. “Most people think the decision to close the windows is absurd,” said the man on the door.

“It is not reasonable,” shouted Joshua Saley, an 18-year-old on holiday from Woking. “This is a place where you can be yourself.” His friend, Michael Bailey, said: “The one place on Earth where you are allowed to do what you want.”

Beside them, a tour group headed away from the canal towards another part of the district. Led by their guide, Chantal Moreno, a 28-year-old woman who takes tourists around the area three times a week, they stared in shock at the women beckoning them towards the windows.

As they entered another square, they stared up at the Oude Kerk towering above them. “A church,” some of the tourists gasped as they caught sight of Amsterdam’s oldest monument, “in the red-light district?” Its giant, arched, stainless steel windows loomed over the neon lights, tourists, expensive restaurants and women.

Moreno led her group towards a brightly lit shop. As they walked, they passed “Belle”—a metre-high bronze statue of a woman in high-heeled boots with her hands on her hips and her hair pulled up above her head. Below, a sign reading: “Respect sex workers all over the world.”

Finally they arrived at the Prostitution Information Centre, which is run by Mariska Majoor (39), who used to work in the windows two decades ago.

For 14 years, Majoor has run the centre in order to support women in the area and inform tourists about prostitution in The Netherlands. It is also a souvenir shop with mini statues, T-shirts, mugs, paintings and key rings. The tourists soon noticed, however, that in place of the models of buses or buildings were those of shapely women in high-heeled boots, leaning against images of the city’s famous lampposts.

A huge mural, stretching from the floor to the ceiling, covered one wall, depicting scenes of women in windows. The image was painted by Majoor’s father. “It is his way of dealing with it,” she said. Close by, he had also painted a wooden folding screen with pictures of women dressed in lingerie with their faces lit by a warm red light.

Oldest profession

While drinking wine, the group chatted to Majoor about her own experiences. Dressed in lace-up ankle trainers, tight black trousers, a grey jumper and cap, Majoor explained that she is now married with a young daughter.

Most tourists, she said, walk around the area “open-eyed and open-mouthed”. Certainly along the alleys close to her shop men and women stopped to gawk at the prostitutes.

Women have been standing in the windows around this area for years, but only since 2000 did the shops become legally licensed. When Majoor worked there from 1985 to 1990, the “rooms were more dirty, with cockroaches” and girls as young as 16 were joining the business. Now, she argued, that is not possible. Legalisation has made the city safer for prostitutes, who now have to prove that they are 18 or over.

Speaking to visitors, she said that part of the reason politicians are closing the windows is because they are ashamed of the red-light district.

“They do not have to be proud of window prostitution,” she said. “But they should feel proud of the fact that here a free person can be the person they want to be and that the authorities do what they can to make everybody safe in this city.”

Majoor argued that the partial closure announced last week could actually make things worse for the women. “The government are trying to get rid of criminal organisations but they have picked on the wrong people,” she said. “They really have to do something about the pimps—and a pimp is never an owner of a brothel.”

She is worried that a shortage of windows will push woman away from the safe, monitored areas. The battle over the spaces that are left could attract more criminals to the area, she said.

Prostitution, she added, exists in every city, in every country, in every part of the world. All that is different here was that it takes place in public—and that makes the women less open to exploitation and abuse.—Guardian Unlimited Â

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