Green light for legalized red light districts?
The ANC recently voted to decriminalize sex work and Amsterdam’s red light district offers an example of how this could work – but many South African lawmakers support partial decriminalization, where clients rather than sex workers become the criminals.
AMSTERDAM: Elsa stands inside a body-length window in a body tight bodice, chatting to the men who walk past: “Regular sex costs Euro50. Anything else, like anal sex, bondage, costs at least another Euro50,” she says.
To get inside, a client needs to tell her what he wants and to pay upfront. If Elsa doesn’t like the look of him, she can simply shut her window, which can only open from the inside.
“The Windows” are a key feature of the red light district of Amsterdam, a city that has gone further than most to normalize sex work.
Elsa’s window is a little different from most as she rents it, and a room behind it, from My Red Light, a for-profit collective run by sex workers. Their rooms are designed by sex workers and feature showers or bath tubs inside the rooms instead of merely wash basins as in most other rooms.
Elsa’s friend, Foxxy, who is part of the Dutch sex worker union, Proud, encouraged Elsa to move across the canal to these rooms. While the rent is the same – E80 for a day shift and E160 for a night shift – she likes the fact that the room includes towels and linen and the décor is also more attractive.
I come from the US, but it is not safe there for anybody these days, much less sex workers. I feel safer here.
“I come from the US, but it is not safe there for anybody these days, much less sex workers. I feel safer here,” laughs Elsa, who claims to be 25 and says she has been involved in sex work since she was 17. “I really like the connection with people. I like to offer a service that makes people feel better. It’s good money and I can set my own hours.”
While Amsterdam officially legalized sex work in 2000, it has always turned a blind eye to it. The gothic windows of the city’s oldest church overlook the offices of Proud and the sex worker advocacy organisation, Prostitution Information Centre (PIC).
Sex workers are required to register with the local chamber of commerce, where they are classified as “personal carers” and taxed as freelancers, paying both VAT of 21% as well as personal income tax.
To work in the windows, women have to be over the age of 21, able to communicate in English or German and able to work legally in the Netherlands. The city pays for a health clinic for sex workers, which offers free services, and the HIV rate amongst local sex workers is lower than the HIV rate among the city’s students.
In some parts of South Africa, over half of sex workers are HIV positive but reaching them with HIV prevention programmes is hard with sex work is illegal.
Kholi Buthelezi, the national co-ordinator of the South African sex worker organisation Sisonke, marvels at the safe conditions for sex workers in the red light district: “I noticed they have panic buttons in the rooms,” she says. “But in South Africa, we get chased by police. We run away until our high heels break off. We get raped. There is no protection for us.”
Buthelezi believes that sex work should be completely decriminalized as it is in Amsterdam, and is unimpressed by the “Swedish model” that the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) recently voted to support, and which has also been adopted by France and Ireland. This model criminalises sex workers’ clients and those who run brothels and escort agencies rather than sex workers, arguing that the basis of sex work is exploitation as no woman would do sex work if she had a choice.
Nozizwe Madlala Routledge, a former deputy minister, is championing the Swedish model and recently described Amsterdam as “a centre for sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation”.
But Buthelezi says that the Swedish model is “a big no, no. If you target the client instead of the sex worker, it is the same thing. You drive sex work underground. You make it unsafe. Madlala Routledge has never been in the industry. She can’t say what works for sex workers.”
Nadia van der Linde is a board member of the Prostitution Information Centre (PIC) in Amsterdam and has been working with sex workers for more than a decade. “The Swedish model is like having a bakery and saying people can bake bread but they can’t sell it and no one can buy it. How is that going to protect the baker?” says Van der Linde.
“When a client is criminalized, it means that the places where sex is sold have to be shady, secret. Instead of having time to check out a client, a sex worker has to jump into a car or quickly let them into their places.
“Yes, trafficking and exploitation exist in the sex industry. They also exist in agriculture and other industries. What do you to address trafficking and exploitation in agriculture? You empower the workers, you organise and ensure that they speak out against it and report to the police. This needs to happen in the sex industry, not criminalizing it.”
‘Sex work is just work’
Karin and Foxxy, who have both been sex workers for over 15 years, say that sex work is just work.
“I like sex every day. I was having a lot of it, and my friends said to me I should think about charging for it so I did,” explains Foxxy, who is also on the Board of the Prostitution Information Centre. “The day that I stop like having sex, is the day I will stop doing this.”
Karin provides sex for people who are disabled – physically and mentally – and elderly. She is also a registered nurse and gets her clients through an agency.
“I also like sex. I like that I can help people to feel better,” says Karin, who says she “has been 45 for a few years”.
Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, president of the International AIDS Society, describes Amsterdam’s approach to sex work as a “wonderful example of what is possible”.
“If we don’t shine a light on populations who have been left behind, we will fail to address HIV properly.”