Amsterdam mayor considers closing red-light district

Amsterdam’s first female mayor is considering closing down the city’s famous red-light district due to the conditions endured by the sex workers behind its windows.

Femke Halsema, a former leader of the national Green party who became burgemeester last year, said the city “must dare to think about the red-light district without prostitution”.

It is one of the options on which the mayor will open a consultation over the summer with the aim of tackling human trafficking and reducing the number of tourists in the narrow alleys and canalside streets of the Singel and De Wallen parts of the town.

“These goals are not negotiable,” Halsema told the city’s newspaper Het Parool. “For a long time, there was a sentiment of sailors around the red-light district who, after months of sailing, go to a ‘stout’ Dutch woman. The situation now is that predominantly foreign women, of whom we do not know how they ended up here, are laughed at and photographed.”

“Trafficking in human beings takes place in the most beautiful and oldest part of our city,” she added. “Over the course of a few hundred years, situations have arisen that are not acceptable.”

Halsema said the women behind the red-light district’s 330 windows had become just another tourist attraction for people visiting Amsterdam.

“They are laughed at, often called names and photographed against their will,” she said. “In addition, human trafficking, fraud and money laundering must be reduced, and thirdly, I want less inconvenience for residents and entrepreneurs. It must be quieter, cleaner and more livable there than now.”

Beyond closing down the red-light district entirely, other possible options include a ban on the brothel windows while allowing sex work to continue, the relocation of some of the windows or, finally, opening more windows to reduce demand but potentially setting up turnstiles on certain streets “so that you shield off pieces of public space for passersby who don’t need to be there”.

Debates on the issue are to be held next week in the city centre’s Compagnietheater. Later in the summer, “stakeholders” will be asked for their views with the hope of reducing the possible options to two for consideration by the council.

The Greens hold 10 of the 45 seats on the council but the party has secured the support of the liberal D66 group and the Socialists for its preference for moving sex work on from the city centre.

Halsema has declined to say which of the policies she supports.

“Modern leadership serves and is not dictatorial,” she said. “The discussion about prostitution is now very polarised and moralistic. Prostitution is a historical phenomenon in the city centre. It takes time and money to do something about it. Consensus is needed for that, but the final decision lies with the college and the council. I lead the discussion.”

Halsema said that she was “pragmatic” and would not challenge the right for women to be involved in sex work in Amsterdam.

Should the red-light district close down, the council would consider establishing in other parts of the city “prostitution hotels where sex workers rent a room and where only visitors come to make use of their services”, she said.

“Yes, that will probably be accompanied by a lot of protest,” Halsema added. “But also remember that prostitution is now also located in an area where people live relatively safely and pleasantly. Everyone has things that we would rather not see in our backyard. But in general Amsterdammers are tolerant.”

Last year an audit of a previous 10-year project to clean up the red-light district, involving the closure of 100 brothel windows and extra checks on owners, had failed to reduce human trafficking.