Amsterdam’s sex industry can be divisive; for tourists, the flagrancy with which the city’s brothels line the streets give the place a sense of either allure or seediness. You might walk past a worker in one of the Red Light District’s glowing red windows and think: “What a liberal place that they can do their work in the open like this!” Or you might – arguably more likely – think they look a little bored. It turns out that the sex industry in Amsterdam can be equally as divisive for its workers. Just like any other job, there are the good days and the bad days, and the mundane ones in between. According to Hella and Yvette, two sex workers and activists in the Amsterdam sex industry, it can be an empowering and frustrating line of work. When they kindly invite me for coffee to discuss their day-to-day, we meet at PROUD, the office of the Dutch Union for Sex Workers in De Wallen, the Red Light District. A small public museum dedicated to the history of sex work in Amsterdam, it serves as an office for Hella, Yvette and the dozen or so sex workers and ex-sex workers that make up the rest of PROUD’s core team. Prostitutes are welcome to come here for a coffee and information on their rights. The building sits beneath the stunning, 800-year-old church Oude Kerk, and the sound of its bells punctuates my meeting with Hella and Yvette. “How would I describe the Dutch system? As chaotic!” laughs Yvette, when I put this to her as my first question. She explains that sex work isn’t totally decriminalised in the Netherlands, which is a mistaken view held by a lot of outsiders. Rather, it is regulated, which means that brothel owners can operate legally with a license, and sex workers are seen as independent workers but are monitored by the police. New Zealand is the only country that has fully decriminalised sex work, whereas Nordic countries, for example, tend to criminalise those buying sex, not selling. Most sex workers’ rights organisations, like PROUD, however, call for full decriminalisation in order to remove the stigma around their profession (this would mean sex work becomes legal, while trafficking or coercion remains a crime). For Hella and Yvette, the benefits of decriminalisation would be significant; besides less stigma, it would mean they’d have better workers' rights, less bureaucracy and police harassment to deal with, and more financial stability.
Most sex workers’ rights organisations call for full decriminalisation in order to remove the stigma around their profession
“As of 2000, the ban on brothels was lifted, but you still need a license to have one,” says Yvette, explaining the rules on brothels as they currently stand. “The license system is hard – city councils can make it a problem, for example because you only have a certain amount of licenses in relation to how many people live in the city. But the council can also decide where brothels should be, they can say ‘you can only use the license in this street’.” The international press has been reporting a lot lately on how municipalities are becoming very strict on giving out licenses, because they want to keep cities clean. Gentrification means that, if there are fewer brothels to work in, then there are fewer legal jobs for sex workers. And once sex workers don't have as many options, employers no longer have to treat them as well. “The standard has definitely been falling in brothels,” says Hella, “but we’re not going to open our mouths because it could get the brothels shut down, and put people out of a job.” While brothels are technically legal, to be a legal sex worker in the Netherlands you need to be registered with the Chamber of Commerce, to have residency status and a registered bank account, Yvette explains. Then you have three main choices: You can pay to rent a window brothel for a fixed rate each night, where the money you make is for your own administration, meaning you are freelance. Or you can work in a regular brothel or club, which usually takes a percentage of your earnings as commission but won’t consider you a full-time employee. Or you can work from home, which some cities allow – but again, you need a license. It’s all very complicated, I point out. Hella agrees. “When you work in a club and you pay a percentage it’s called 'opting in',” she says, “meaning you’re not a formal employee, you have no labour rights. You wouldn’t have a contract from the brothel stating the services they offer you. You should be allowed to work in several places and the brothel not decide what your hours and rates are, but in actuality those things are enforced in brothels as standard practice.” And how much commission does the brothel take? “Around 50%”, she answers. Hella tells me she’s never worked in a window brothel herself, as those can charge anything up to 165 euros per night to rent out, which she sees as worse than the 50% commission. She has, however, been doing sex work in regular brothels since she was 20. Now 26, she’s recently gone freelance. “I was tired of labour conditions and financial exploitation in the brothels so I wanted to work independently,” she says. “I just work without a license, mostly out of hotels and the very rare brothels that work in the same manner as window brothels. My perfect situation would be having my own space.”
I do it because I still need to pay my rent and I enjoy it
If there’s not much job stability and it can be financially draining, it can be hard to see why Hella chooses sex work. “I do it because I still need to pay my rent and I enjoy it,” she responds. “The financial draining happens in the licensed sector; now I work for myself the money is good and it’s flexible. Even though my government doesn’t recognise it as such, I’m a self-employed worker and I like building my own client base and doing my own marketing.” Unlike Hella, Yvette does not do face-to-face sex work with clients, but rather works in porn and web camming (“'sex work' is an umbrella term for all sexual services and performance,” she tells me). She points out that other workers, like I.T. people, might have to pay 50% commission to an employer, or that a lawyer might only see 5% of their client’s fee. More than the money side of things, she’s concerned about how “the Netherlands has a good level of labour laws but sex workers have no access to that at all.” Since working at PROUD, which offers legal advocacy to sex workers, both Hella and Yvette have come across a number of cases whereby various authorities intimidate sex workers. “What we don’t see is women prosecuted on prostitution charges because that’s not technically criminalised, but we see them penalised for everything else” says Hella. “We had one woman who had her wisdom teeth out and during a police check-up in brothel, they didn’t believe it was from the dentist so now they keep coming to her home looking for her partner as a trafficking suspect.” PROUD’s legal advocacy team have seen women who work in the same place as migrants arrested on trafficking charges, or municipalities finding out a woman is doing sex work (whether or not from her home) and trying to evict her, as well as the tax office slamming workers with a fine because they think they’re not declaring all their earnings. All of these are real cases that PROUD regularly receives. “I could be on a police database, lose my home or in financial ruin tomorrow,” says Hella. Is it good that the police are trying to crack down on trafficking? “Yes, but their strategies are completely ineffective,” says Hella, “They have told me in the past, because I’m a prostitute I was lying about my partner not being a trafficker.” Yvette adds to this that the police attention heightens stigma. “It means we’re viewed as either victims or criminals.”
PROUD is currently the only sex workers’ activist organisation in the Netherlands, but the rights movement for decriminalisation is rapidly growing. I ask how many people are a part of PROUD and Hella tells me they have hundreds of members, and come into contact with a wider network of thousands when they go around the country doing fieldwork, telling people about their rights, and gathering information with which to lobby the government. If not every sex worker in Amsterdam is interested in joining, it’s because a lot of people don’t have the time, energy or privilege to get involved in political activism, says Yvette. “Some people don’t want to join a union – it’s the same as in any other industry.” “That said, we’re definitely seeing sex workers starting to find each other and connect more, particularly through PROUD and online,” says Hella, who until joining PROUD, always found sex work quite isolating. Now, by building sex worker communities on- and offline, women, men and trans people engaged in sex work can exchange info about bad clients or how to work safely and healthily. “It’s so good to be with sex workers! My other friends can be supportive but they might not understand a terrible client,” adds Hella. “To sex workers I can talk about things without having to defend my fucking job.” I’ve been chatting to Yvette and Hella for well over an hour, it having felt like a relaxed, routine bitch with colleagues about your job, when we all suddenly realise we have other things to get on with that day. Before they get back to work – Hella to managing the PROUD email account and Yvette to her day job on a porn set – I ask what they’d like to see change for sex workers in the near future. “Every sex worker we talk to says it would be so good for labour conditions if we could work without a license,” says Hella, and Yvette concurs. “When I was 17 I was a cashier and I was in pain a lot at the till because I am tall. So I was drunk a lot, underage, and only making a tiny bit of money. No one finds that a problem, but we live in a society where there’s a taboo on sex and sexual pleasure – if we treated sex workers like all other workers, by decriminalising the industry totally, I think we’d all be a lot happier.”