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The Exotic Other in Prostitution: Ethnic Fault-lines in Amsterdam's Sex Industry

As a warm summer evening begins to creep into the blue sky, the local neighborhood is bustling with affluent women comparing purchases outside boutique clothing shops, map-wielding tourists taking in the sights, and locals lounging with a glass of wine along the canals. Each passerby's face, illuminated by a red glow emanating from building lamps, is thrown into sharp relief against those of the women situated behind the street-side windowpanes. Their impassive eyes fall on bodies contorted to display erotic silhouettes and expressions of femininity painted on faces with a heavy hand. The natural beauty of these woman giving way to an articulation of male fantasy and desire. Barely registering what he or she has seen, casual spectators move on with their business as though nothing remarkable has occurred. This is De Wallen: Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District and the heartbeat of the European sex industry.  

Despite its historical presence in Amsterdam, public prostitution still strikes a dissonant chord in the Netherlands' largely permissive society. The continuance of prostitution, long hailed as "the oldest profession in the world," is now hotly contested amidst serious human rights concerns regarding the environmental conditions for sex workers, such as trade unions and healthcare, but also wider issues such as trafficking, abuse, and linkages to organized crime. 

Since Amsterdam's municipality is reappraising citywide prostitution through its Project 1012 initiative, questions on the new policy's ramifications for Amsterdam's sex industry led us to interview industry experts, pimps, clients, and sex workers themselves. What began as an inquiry into common business practices quickly evolved into an exploration of how ethnic identity shapes the prostitution sector. The candid access the workers and clients in De Wallen provided allows us to see the subtle ethnic profiling and racisms that nuance sex work in Amsterdam.

How is racial identity linked to prostitution in the Netherlands? How might a Dutch or non-Dutch identity affect the relationships sex workers have with men, with pimps, and with each other? How does ethnicity interface with the Project 1012 initiative? 

Finding answers in an industry entrenched in secrecy is not easy, but can applicable answers to our questions be found? Here we aim to create a space to discuss the consequences of racism in the Netherlands for the seen, but often unheard, sex worker community, and illustrate how a racially nuanced view of prostitution in Amsterdam might improve future plans for De Wallen. 

Legalizing Brothels and Regulating Prostitution

An understanding of how legal prostitution has developed in the Netherlands is critical to understand the contemporary industry in Amsterdam. The brothel ban was introduced in 1911 after a strong lobby from the Christian organizations and political parties.  From that moment, one was not allowed to keep a brothel. The government held the view that brothels undermined the morality of the people. However, some forms of prostitution were tolerated by the police, such as the use of windows, despite the fact that it fell under the prohibition of exploiting a brothel. Other sex workers used tobacconists and massage parlors as a creative cover to mislead the police.

In the 1950s and 60s the greater public became aware of the fact that the brothel ban was a weak measure, being extremely difficult to control or enforce. Pleas for legalization led to municipalities reevaluating the discrepancy between an unenforced legal ban and practiced prostitution. 

The brothel ban was lifted in October 2000 based on the following arguments: protection of the position of prostitutes, combating exploitation of involuntary prostitution, and the control and regulation regarding the exploitation of prostitutes. The brothel ban is thus replaced by a licensing system, meaning that the local governments are individually responsible for the regulation of local prostitution. Thus the regional legislations, called the Algemeen Plaatselijke Verordening (APV), contain a section about prostitution. In this portion of the APV, one can find information about how to request for a license, the conditions to meet in order to receive a license, how to obtain a license, and other practical information. 

The Municipality Takes a Stand

The government plans to introduce regulations on the sex industry after the legalization of the brothel ban were catalyzed by the 2007 Sneep Case, which resulted in the prosecution of Turkish pimp Saban Baran. Baran was the leader of a criminal organization that enslaved and trafficked at least 120 young women from Southern and Eastern Europe to work as prostitutes in various towns across the Netherlands and Germany.  

Forced abortions and cosmetic surgeries were common under Baran's cruel treatment; female workers in his ring also had tattoos of Saban`s initials on both their neck and fingers, and were obliged to work when they were sick or menstruating. Saban was eventually convicted of attempted murder and trafficking in women. In 2010 he was sentenced in absentia to seven years and nine months in prison. Shortly after a verdict was reached Saban fled to Turkey, thereby evading his sentence. The Sneep Case is the first major lawsuit resulting from human trafficking in the Netherlands, and an important reference for many of the planned restrictions in the Amsterdam Municipality's Project 1012.   

Project 1012, named for the zip code within De Wallen, aims to eradicate crime and stimulate economic growth in the neighborhood. Before the initiative's introduction, prostitution was spread throughout three main regions of the city—the north eastern quarter of near Oudezijds Achterburgwal and the Oudekerksplein, known as De Wallen, the southern Pijp neighborhood, and Spuistraat and Singel to the west. Project 1012 will restrict sex work to the official De Wallen region, closing the Pijp and Spuistraat–Singel districts. Within these closures, individual workers are most directly affected by Municipality plans to darken 192 (of 482) windows. Residents and sex workers in the affected regions have met Project 1012 with open resistance and criticism.  

Dr. Marie Louise Janssen, an anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam and member of a community think tank for sex worker issues, is an outspoken opponent of the initiative. According to Janssen, the government is sending conflicting messages regarding the legality of prostitution. "Why is sex work legalized and then the trade union stopped? Why are taxes implemented at the same time that windows are closed," asks Janssen.  "The municipality's position is ambiguous, unclear." 

Political parties, such as the CDA, Christian Unie, and the Labour Party (PVDA), are also questioning the 2000 legalization of brothels due to a perceived failure in its most important role—countering human trafficking. Thirteen years later, the government is enacting countermeasures that undermine this policy such as withdrawal of the subsidy for the union for sex-workers, De rode draad, and the implementation of Project 1012 itself. 

Racial Ramifications for Project 1012

Collapsing Amsterdam's prostitution industry into a smaller geographic area poses the risk of increased underground sex work. A dearth of available space for the same-sized population of sex workers will force clients and workers into private spaces where Municipality supervision and police protection become unavailable. 

"Closing windows would not serve anything," Janssen explains. "There is a great demand for sex-workers and the practice will survive as long as there is a demand for it," she maintains. "Project 1012 will only have a negative consequence for all parties involved, due to the fact that it would make prostitution invisible and thus controlling it even harder." 

A 2009 TAMPEP study indicates Amsterdam is home to 8–11,000 sex workers, approximately 60% of which are non-Dutch. Janssen estimates that two-thirds of trafficked women in the Netherlands are also non-Dutch. The seeming correlation between these large ethnic groups suggests that should instances of non-regulated sex work increase, non-Dutch sex workers would be directly impacted.  

"There's a presupposition that it's migrants behind the window, that it's only migrants being trafficked, and that Dutch women are somehow 'liberated,' but this isn't the whole case," says Janssen. "A full one-third of trafficked women are Dutch.  There is, however, a definite link between victimhood and ethnicity." 

Illuminated by the Red Light

A small boy rides his bicycle up and down an alleyway, casting short, shy glances at the women illuminated by the neon red of the window stations. Perhaps feeling that he was pushing his luck with three lengths of the strip, he cycles onto the main street, passing two men surveying their options. Bart, in his late 50s, is still carrying his briefcase from work. His leisure suit starkly contrasting the grunge of the pathway. Pieter, a younger man of 27, walks close by. His sweatpants, tank top, and dreadlocks are an effortless cool. Neither knew the other, though both men frequent De Wallen and occasionally even the same girls. This evening, Bart is looking for a quick post-work release before heading home to his family; Pieter is unsure what he's in the mood for, it depends on who catches his eye. Finally making their selections, both barter a price with their chosen partner, enter the window, and draw the curtain. 

"It's not something I do all too often," says Bart. "But when you have a stressful day, and need to relieve some tension, it's nice to come here." Admitting to being married, he says that his wife knows about his visits with various prostitutes, but does not mind so long as he practices safe sex and is regularly tested for sexually transmitted diseases.  "My wife is exactly like me, and our sex is very routine. It's like telling a story that you already know.  When I come here, I look for something else ... something different. Not knowing the story is exciting."

Walking out of the window station with a swagger and a smile, Pieter describes his experience with sex workers in De Wallen in rough, racial terms. "The black girls are pretty much down for anything, and the Eastern girls are eager to please. You learn who's good at giving blowjobs, and who to avoid," says Pieter.  "[Being with colored girls] is exotic in its way, but it's also about feeling good. I guess I think [the sex] is just better."

Though Bart and Pieter share a preference for colored non-Dutch women, neither has anything against white sex workers. For these men, selecting a woman of color is all about fulfilling a fantasy. These fantasies, however, are grounded in stereotypes shared throughout the industry—that Afro-Caribbean women are more sexually adventurous, Chinese and Eastern European women are more submissive, and Latina women more sensuous. None of these characteristics are a standard line for every sex worker belonging to a specific ethnic group, but they are behaviors that male clients have come to expect.  Knowing this, the highly competitive women obligingly play out these conventional roles in order to turn a profit. In this way, clients and workers both become complicit in furthering the industry's ethnic profiling. 

Clients are not the only men that propagate the racial lines in the Netherlands' prostitution cycle. Many girls have "managers," pimps who handle business aspects of each girl's trade. These men sometimes provide housing and protection for their girls, though such benefits often accompany forced drug abuse, physical violence, and rape. Pimps often work their girls along racial lines. Knowing sexual stereotypes will sell better with superficial male clientele, many rings of girl trafficked into Holland from China and Eastern Europe fill the exotic-submissive market niche.  

One pimp, Niels, was suspicious of strangers talking to his girls. His confrontational attitude dissolved after realizing that he was not under surveillance by the police, but rather university students.  Describing himself as a "manager," he explains that he travels around the streets and keeps an eye on his girls. When asked if race plays a role in his work, Niels indicates that is a determining factor in his management choices. He is connected to a small circle of 6 sex workers, primarily of Asian and African descent. 

"If you're going to have money you have to sell what men want," says Niels, growing agitated at the obviousness of the fact. "Men like certain things, and we provide that. I make sure my girls are treated well, but at the end of the day it's a business and I'm the boss."

Most women will tell you that they work for themselves and legally this is true. When a sex worker registers with the local municipality, she or he is treated as an independent business owner by the government. In reality, however, many women are working for a pimp. This is especially true of the two-thirds non-Dutch sex worker population. 

Paul Vugts, a Het Parool reporter who investigates the prostitution trade in the Netherlands, says that a central issue of identifying if a woman is working for herself or being forced by a pimp is fear. 

"They'll always say they're on their own, with no pimp. They don't want to be hurt," says Vugts. "I think there's no such thing as actual voluntary prostitution. Most of these women have no alternatives. A 19-year-old Romanian girl, for example, has no opportunities in the village where she lives, so she is easily swayed by men promising to help her make money in another country." 

Vugts, who reported on the very public arrest of Turkish pimp Baran in 2007, has long-followed the ethnic lines in which the sex worker community moves. He estimates that the majority of male managers in De Wallen are non-Dutch and operate as an arm of larger organized crime circles based in Hungary and Turkey. Many of these men participate in a culture of violence that shapes degrading attitudes towards women. 

Janssen echoes that many sex workers report having experienced particularly rough treatment by Turkish and Moroccan men, though such behavior is not relegated to only men of color. Dutch men can be equally demanding clients.  "It is crucial to remember how vulnerable these women when interacting with their clients," says Janssen. "Protection is a major contributing factor to the continuance of prostitute-pimp relationships. We must always keep in mind that one-third of trafficked women are Dutch. It is not only a undocumented immigrant problem, it is a Dutch problem too." 

"It's a buyer's market"

In a neighborhood where everything is on display and everyone is for sale, there is an air of constant surveillance. Standing outside the police station, Maarten, a young man of 20, takes a long drag from his cigarette and inquires as to why we are studying the Red Light District. There are, as he rightfully says, many who have come seeking information on the sex industry before. A short explanation of how race can be seen as a shaping force in the prostitution sector prompts Maarten to take several thoughtful, long drags from his cigarette and then send a few rapid text messages on his phone. 

Breaking the silence, Maarten leans in, whispering, "It's not all up here you know, in the windows. There's a whole underground network. I can show you if you'd like." Exchanging information, we made plans to meet later that evening outside Central Station. Already dark, Maarten stood beneath the street lamp, the light harshly illuminating his face as he explained the stipulations for our visit—no disclosing revealing information such as real names and location, no photos or film, and limited interaction with the sex workers themselves, who would be busy working.

A short walk to an innocuous building outside of De Wallen brought us to the basement beneath a retail business. Maarten, gesturing to follow him, gives a quick smile and opens a plain, unmarked door. Beyond, a man is lounging in a small sitting area appointed with two dingy couches, and a table littered with trash from an earlier meal. Maarten quickly speaks to the man in Dutch then the man extends a hand, introducing himself as Arjan.  Laughingly calling himself the "floor manager," his English comes with a surprising eloquence and an easy swagger. For a moment, it seems possible to understand how women are suspect to his charm.  

Arjan gestures to the hallway beyond the couches, explaining that there are eight smaller rooms with one girl per section, though tonight only seven are working.  The door to each section has a small, darkly tinted pane of glass so that he can look in when he passes. "All of the girls who work here are legal," says Arjan, though he admits that the brothel itself is unregistered.  "Most of them are from Eastern Europe, though a couple are from China." 

Unwilling to disclose where he found each girl, or whether these women are documented residents, Arjan says that the girls are treated well, and for good reason, each one of them is an investment. In the ever-competitive sex market, having a location with only women of a specific ethnicity gives him more of a reputation among clients and healthy girls sell better. 

Lighting a cigarette, he explains that some men will pay much more for a new girl, believing they are fresher, unhardened by the industry, and more eager to please.  Overall, however, he says that working with non-Dutch women is much more profitable. Put plainly, the brothel capitalizes on the fact that each girl's ethnic otherness gives clients an erotic fix based on a largely imagined nexus of mystery, passion, ideals, and practices. 

"These girls want to be here, and men want to be with them.  There's something exotic for them both, I think," says Arjan.  "The girls who work here are good at what they do, but [racial preferences and stereotypes] help get clients through the door. How do you say in real estate? It's a buyer's market."

The Window Perspective

Two worlds violently clash in the circular lane along the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam's oldest building and first church—the Catholic parish, once a burial ground for the city and currently a gallery for World Press Photo, sits opposite window stations framing barely dressed sex workers.  The polarity and proximity between these institutions is the unwitting canvas for a society struggling to reconcile moral ideologies with modern liberalism. In the afternoon sun it is hard to imagine De Wallen with the seedy reputation of exploitation and loose morals that the neighborhood so often receives, but if you walk to the windows the sex workers will tell you a different story.  

Cindy, a 43-year-old women from Thailand, has been a sex worker in the district for almost three years, having migrated to the Netherlands to pursue her dream of becoming an attorney and helping vulnerable women who had been victims of male violence in her home country.  Financial strains on her family led her to pause her legal career and become a sex worker in order to assist with necessary monthly payments.  Cindy notes that she regularly encounters racial stereotypes during her interaction with clients. "As an Asian woman, you get more clients because men want to discover something new, and we are known as submissive and willing to do anything," she explains. "I know how to make my clients happy and the other girls are jealous of that." 

Conflict caused by this jealousy forced Cindy to move windows and relocate herself in front of a currently vacant window to avoid further confrontation and direct competition."I never messed with anyone and they just didn't like me because I was foreign and got more clients," says Cindy. "I just do my job and leave."

A few windows down, Maria is struggling in the competitive market. A 29-year-old Dominican woman who has been residing in Amsterdam for only 3 months, Maria was scared to answer questions about her new life in the Netherlands.  From her perspective, Dutch women receive more clients, though Maria acknowledges that her experience is limited by her short time in Amsterdam and a lack of personal connection with other girls working nearby.  Maria's story is a common one, the windows behind the Oude Kerk predominantly feature Spanish-speaking Dominican women who admit to feelings of isolation and loneliness in Dutch society.

Across town on the Spuistraat, Anke and Sophie are leaving their windows to grab supper together. An amalgamation of stereotypical Dutch beauty, both girls have pale skin, blond hair, round faces, and petite frames. These women are not attempting to catch the attentions of men passing by because they are off the clock. Neither Anke, 32, nor Sophie, 25, is new to the industry, and both work for themselves. 

Anke has been a sex worker for nine years, having turned to prostitution on the recommendation of a friend who suggested it as an easy way to make good money.  For her part, sex work is a female-empowering profession. "It's my body, and I can do whatever I want with it ... I can sell it, " says Anke. "It's my choice, and a man doesn't own that." 

For her, the power dynamic between male clients and female sex workers often presents itself in a racial context.  Annoyed with women of color, Anke sees a tension between girls who purposely enact racial stereotypes during their sessions with male clients and the selfsame workers feeling victimized by men who expect such behavior. "They [Eastern European and Asian girls] act submissive to play into some fantasy that a man has, and then complain when men treat them roughly. You can't have it both ways. "There is no overt animosity between women of different ethnicities, but Anke notes a fierce competition between them, saying, "We don't get the same type of men. Black girls get different sorts of guys than I do. I get more non-white men, on average. I don't think that's true for women who aren't white." 

Sophie, listening thoughtfully to her friend, interjects that at first she felt it was difficult to compete against "exotic" foreign girls, but now feels quite comfortable with the business.  Having worked as a prostitute for two years this summer, Sophie sees window location as the pressure valve for ethnic based competition. "I share a window with a few other girls who are also white. Customers know what to expect in our window, and we all get about the same number of men," says Sophie. "Compared to some alleys in De Wallen, this is a mostly white street. I moved to this window to make more money.  Ultimately you have to use what you have and be comfortable with that. My skin is what it is. There are other ways to turn on a man than have a dark face."

Both Anke and Sophie recall instances of girls poaching clients by saying untrue things about other sex workers, but neither has seen a major confrontation. "It's competitive, but we have little do with it," says Sophie. "Men who want what they want be it white, black, Chinese, Dutch, will get it somewhere. You focus on you."

Even without in-fighting, both Dutch women admit to a general lack of camaraderie with non-Dutch sex workers, citing time, personal interest, and the marginal language skills of immigrant prostitutes as factor. Femke, a twelve-year veteran of the industry agrees.  "This business makes you hard, and if you don't learn how to balance between work and social life, you can easily get lost," says Femke. "I don't have friends here. I come and go, get my money and leave."

Darkening the red light

Though they come to De Wallen from different situations, the women sitting behind the windows share common concerns regarding the current and future position of the sex industry in Amsterdam. Outsiders often collapse the multiplex identities of these woman into one homogenous community, a perception as false as the fantasy roles these women are paid to play.  

Race sits at heart of the intersections that define contemporary prostitution—gender and power, commerce and sexuality, nationality and otherness.  While interviews with the various actors in the sex worker community failed to draw an explicit connection between ethnicity and Project 1012, they underscore the power racial profiling has as the norm shaping the relationships between prostitutes, their clients, and pimps. 

As it is presently formed, Project 1012 ignores race as a central consideration in its aim to consolidate prostitution and gentrify De Wallen. The racial pressures and tensions girls currently experience will likely escalate as available windows and districts close, and a lack of available legal space facilitates the trafficking of a sex worker community already identified as significantly non-Dutch. 

Prostitution and human trafficking are linked with international problems such as poverty, war, and substance abuse–issues that cannot be solved entirely at a local level. The narrow scope of the Municipality's initiative fails to address the ethnic motivators that leave thousands of sex workers subject to racist behavior each workday. Concerning itself with the geographic and economic renovation of De Wallen, rather than educating and supporting its underserved workforce, leaves some of the most vulnerable inhabitants of this country prey to the exotic Other driving the modern sex industry in the Netherlands.  



Amsterdam. “Project 1012.” Municipality of Amsterdam, 2013. Web. 21 Jun 2013. http://www.amsterdam.nl/gemeente/organisatie-diensten/sites/project_1012/1012/aanpak/.

Baker, Sophie. “Letter From Amsterdam: Project 1012 set to dim the red lights.” E-Financial News, 2013. Web. 20 Jun 2013. http://www.efinancialnews.com/story/2013-04-22/letter-from-amsterdam-project-1012-to-dim-red-lights.

de Wildt, Annemarie and Paul Arnoldussen. Liefde te koop. Vier eeuwen prostitutie in Amsterdam. Uitgeverij Bas Lubberhuizen, 2002. Pg. 20¬–25. 

Kamerstukken from 1-1-1995. Web. 20 Jun 2013. officielebekendmakingen.nl.

Kamerstukken Tweede Kamer 1996-97, 25437 nr. 3. “Memo of Explanation to Minister Sorgdrager, 1 July 1997.” Web. 20 Jun 2013. officielebekendmakingen.nl.

Stemvers, F.A. Meisjes van plezier. De geschiedenis van de prostitutie in Nederland. Fibula-Van Dishoek, Weesp, 1985. Pg. 96 and 119. 

TEMPEP. "Sex Work in Europe: A Mapping of the Prostitution Scene in 25 European Countries." TAMPEP International Foundation, 2009. Web. 19 Jun 2013. http://tampep.eu/documents/TAMPEP%202009%20European%20Mapping%20Report.pdf.


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