Nothing will deter them. Paulo Amorim/Getty Images

April 12, 2023   5 mins

“If the Dutch government wants to groom millions of men every year into treating women like pieces of meat, Amsterdam is the best training ground they could possibly have.”

Anja, runs a support and advocacy service for women wishing to escape window prostitution in Amsterdam, and she sees the devastating effect that legalising prostitution has had on women, locals — and on punters. It has been an unmitigated disaster.

Trafficking and pimping has increased, organised crime is rife, and women are not protected from violence. Research from 2018 found that 97% of those involved in prostitution in the Netherlands had experienced some form of serious physical and/or sexual abuse from pimps and punters. Residents, politicians, police and prostitutes are all up in arms. And the sex tourists keep coming.

Yet the government, as I have discovered from 20 years of reporting on the Dutch sex trade, tends to favour the head-in-the-sand approach. Politicians are reluctant to openly criticise the industry because they make a lot of money from it. “Sex clubs, sex shows, sex shops and coffee shops all have a vested interest in keeping window prostitution going,” says Else Iping, a retired politician who lives locally, “because the windows act as an advertisement for the whole district.”

“The neighbourhood is going down the drain because of the window prostitution,” she says. “And it is not safe for the women. The windows themselves are now just as much of a tourist attraction — so thousands of people come to walk through. It’s humiliating: the women are like animals in the zoo.”

The progressive female Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, is trying to compromise. She describes the situation as the paradox of tolerance: “People come to Amsterdam because of the tolerance but show behaviour we cannot tolerate, behaviour we should call immoral, that they wouldn’t show at home.”

Having legalised prostitution, however, and opened its arms to sex tourists, the city is now trying to put the genie back in the bottle as residents complain of the noise, crime and expense. New rules have been introduced regarding the brothels: they will have to close at 3am at weekends instead of 6am. And there are plans to relocate 100 of De Wallen’s 249 famous window brothels to an “erotic centre“ on the outskirts of the city. Somewhere “chic”, says Halsema.

But this is to close a blind eye to the fact that the entire city is promoting “prostitution on an industrial scale”, says Anja, a former prostitute. “The government wants to shove the women out of the way to keep the residents happy, but it is just moving the problem elsewhere.” And while the women are there, the sex tourists will still come.

It’s hardly surprising that a particularly problematic group of tourists — British men aged 18-34 — sees the destination as an attractive one. In a rather naive attempt to put them off, a “Stay Away” video campaign was launched last month. Those using internet search terms such as “stag party Amsterdam” or “pub crawl Amsterdam” will be diverted to a video campaign that details “the risks and consequences of nuisance and excessive alcohol and drug use”.

A 30-second video shows a very drunk man being arrested on the streets of Amsterdam. He is handcuffed and warned that coming to Amsterdam for a “messy night” and getting trashed will add up to a €140 fine plus a criminal record, so: Stay Away! Another shows a hospitalised man on a heart monitor, getting IV fluids. “Coming for drugs to Amsterdam? Stay Away!”

But I have interviewed dozens of British punters, including many in Amsterdam, and let’s face it, a video of a bloke being thrown in jail isn’t going to register, let alone act as a deterrent. One interviewee who paid for sex in Amsterdam told me, in harrowing detail, about his transaction. “She told me her pimp watched every punter leave the joint, and if he looked unhappy, she got a leathering,” he said.

Men in De Wallen have no respect for the women they ogle. They take photographs of those perched behind the window, despite the many signs telling them that it’s prohibited. They flash their genitals at the prostituted women and shout obscenities towards women walking through the area. A 2018 campaign to stop sex tourists urinating, defecating and vomiting in the streets was deemed a failure by local politicians. “Nothing seems to deter them,” a city prosecutor told me at the time.

Renate van der Zee, a journalist and feminist activist, tells me there’s a Dutch saying that describes this campaign perfectly: dweilen met de kraan open. It means “mopping the floor dry while the tap is still running”. The Stay Away campaign is too little, and far too late, she says. “You can’t deal with sexual exploitation and excess tourism by warning the men they will be put in prison,” she says. “But at least if window prostitution was abolished, you will get rid of most of the sex tourists.” Legalisation, she explains, has been a huge mistake. “Almost all of the women are exploited.”

The mayor holds, at best, a disingenuous position. She talks of “sex entrepreneurs” and their business model in one breath, and in the next: “What we do not welcome is people who come here on a vacation from morals.” Meanwhile, the Dutch government clings to its legalised regime despite knowing that the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous for women: the Netherlands was forced to close an increasing number of its window brothels after it became clear that organised criminals were running them.

As Diederik Boomsma, leader of the local Christian Democratic Appeal Party, points out: “What I have tried to achieve for many years is to close down the red light district. It’s quite bizarre that you can defend it. People are still attached to this faux romantic idea that prostitution belongs in Amsterdam, and it is quaint and old, but at least we should all agree that prostitution should not be a tourist attraction?” He believes that nothing will change unless serious steps are taken to close down the industry. “Men come here and they think that they are able to behave as though they were at a sex festival
 So if you really want to do something about it, then you shut the window brothels, and the sex clubs, and return the oldest part of the city back to the citizens.”

Obviously, there are those in Amsterdam who are against the restrictions. At a meeting about the mega brothels at the weekend, angry locals who don’t want a “sex club” on their doorstep found themselves on the same side as PROUD, the Dutch “sex workers’ union” who want the women to stay in their red neon booths, where they can “work safely”.

PROUD, along with the progressive Left, insists that selling sex is a “job like any other” and that reforms against sex tourism are increasing stigma towards women. Its website has a front page devoted to a quote from Xaviera Hollander, one of Holland’s most notorious pimps who coined the term “happy hooker”. “You can call me mercenary, or call me madam, but, as I always tell my customers — just call me anytime!” Presumably with that in mind, PROUD opposes earlier closing times for brothels as well as the Stay Away campaign on the grounds that this is bad for business. They insist that they are being unfairly discriminated against and “used as a scapegoat for the city’s problem with mass tourism”.

I ask Anja whether sex tourists in Amsterdam are being unfairly vilified. “These men are the worst, and they have made Amsterdam into one big brothel,” she tells me. “Most of them act as if they are buying a burger, and quite frankly they would treat one better than they treat the girls in those windows.”

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.