Small empty street

Red lights flashing in Sin City

Empty windows and lonely chairs: Amsterdam’s Red-Light District has never been emptier than since the outbreak of COVID-19. Sex workers are left without an income and are criminalized for the first time since Napoleon invaded the Netherlands.

Text by Annemarie Andre
Photos by Iben Schmidt

Yvette Luhrs (35) is turning on the lights in the Prostitution Information Center. They are opening up again, but the red lights in the De Wallen district will remain off for a while. Luhrs herself is a sex worker with her main background in pornography and webcam services. Seeing her own community weakened bothers the 35-year-old.

“I see a lot of devastation”, says Yvette Luhrs, and adds: “There are so many people who have been working their asses off, who have been paying taxes and now they are criminalized.” Alongside bars and restaurants, the Dutch government also closed sex clubs to prevent the Coronavirus from spreading. Those measurements suddenly left people without an income. However, many could apply for financial aid from the government. This would also be an option for sex workers – but in reality, many of them are not eligible.

Yvette Luhrs is worried about the community | (c) Iben Schmidt

Luhrs, who had also worked as a chair and spokesperson for PROUD, the Dutch union for sex workers, knows why her community is facing this problem. There are several reasons sex workers don’t get financial aid and therefore fall out of the social security net.

First, they either work less than 23 hours a week, or they are registered under the wrong code at the Chamber of Commerce. Or second, they were refused a license for independent sex work by their city council, or are working in a brothel under a tax rule called opting-in. Luhrs sounds weary when enumerating the list of reasons sex workers can’t get money. To her, it’s not something that happened by accident.

Since 2000, when prostitution was officially legalized, the Dutch government gradually reduced sex workspaces in De Wallen, as Amsterdam’s Red-Light District is called in Dutch, and other cities in the Netherlands. Those measurements were taken to prevent human trafficking and combat international organized crime. Marie-Louise Janssen (54), who is a researcher at the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, believes that those measures are simplistic and just a way to frame political discourse. “The sex industry shows a complex interplay between demand side and supply side and all those around the sex workers who take profit from it”, she says.

Janssen dedicated her academic work to the intersection of sex work, migration and human trafficking and especially researched the situation of Latin American Women working in the European sex industry. “When forced labor is occurring in this economic sector, it requires a policy consisting of measures in countries of origin, transit countries and countries of destination”, she says. To her, it’s important to address underlying problems such as unemployment and poverty in home countries, corruption or the functioning of internationally organized criminal networks.

Luhrs suspects that there are other motivations lying behind the strict policy for sex workers in these pandemic times, which match the overall developments. To Luhrs, it seems like a way to weaken the community and push a strict law on prostitution through after the crisis. “For the government, it’s very useful that the whole community is struggling to survive and by the time we open again, everyone will be too busy making money and survive this crisis rather than fighting the law”, says Luhrs.

The chairs remain unused | (c) Iben Schmidt

While other contact professions such as hairdressers and massage therapists could open up only a few months after the lockdown, sex work wasn’t one of them and will be prohibited longer according to the plans by the Dutch government. Sociologist Janssen sees this policy as very problematic. If sex work is prohibited, it will disappear more in the taboo sphere and sex workers will suffer more marginalization and discrimination.

But also, the human need for intimacy and sex will increase due to the lockdown. “This means that sex work will not disappear but will take on different, more invisible forms. The position of sex workers will become more vulnerable for abuse or exploitation”, Janssen says.

Still, people are working to pay their bills. Unlike other professions, sex workers can’t just easily switch to online services. Those who offer online sex work have to meet certain rather privileged requirements. “If you want to be an online sex worker you need a computer with a quick internet connection. You need space for yourself to set up a work area, where you’re not being interrupted by kids or other people”, says Luhrs.

In addition, many sex workers can’t afford to be recognizable on the internet. “Sex workers are still being stigmatized and are facing more violence than other people”, says Luhrs, and adds: “Having a trace to your sex work life can be deadly in some cases.”

Like other contact workers, physical sex workers would also have to take on some preventive measures. For Luhrs and her community that would be doable. “If you’re doing sex work on a physical level wearing masks would definitely be an option, but you can also choose sexual positions that will not bring your face close to your client’s face”.