Julie Bindel

Good riddance to Amsterdam’s disgraceful red-light district tours

Good riddance to Amsterdam's disgraceful red-light district tours
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The city of Amsterdam is to finally ban guided tours around its most notorious window brothel area, the sex tourist trap known as De Wallen. Since Holland legalised its already burgeoning sex trade back in the year 2000, it has become apparent that if you display women in windows, wearing nothing but a bikini and a fake smile, and market them like pieces of meat, that is how they will be treated by those that flock into the area to have a laugh at the human zoo.

I have been in and out of Amsterdam on dozens of occasions reporting on its absolutely abhorrent prostitution market. Walking around De Wallen, at whatever time of the day or night, I always bump into a tour group being told how ‘brilliantly’ legalisation works for the women and the rest of Dutch society. They are spoon-fed such a sanitised version of what really goes on in those brothels that you would honestly think they were talking about investment banking.

The tours have raked in millions, and are seen as harmless fun. In 2005, Thomas Cook, Britain’s longest running tour operator, launched night-time tours around Amsterdam’s various red-light areas. The excursions included a talk about the ‘system’ from a woman who had previously worked in legal prostitution, and was open to children of any age. In fact, Thomas Cook offered free tickets for children under the age of 3. The Thomas Cook press release described how the 2-hour tour would take visitors ‘deep into the famous red-light district, offering a fascinating insight into the oldest profession in the world’.

The sex industry across Holland, often hailed as an exploitation-free zone, has also been shaped by the huge influx of desperate, vulnerable women coming to the EU from Eastern Europe, Africa and southeast Asia to work in the legal zones. Most will have been trafficked by criminal gangs or individual entrepreneurs promising them a better life and the chance to earn a lot of money. Trafficking, and a sharp rise in heroin and crack cocaine abuse among these women means they are increasingly desperate, resulting in punters having more power.

Since legalisation, men who own the windows and brothels, and live off the earnings of prostitution, are now ‘managers’ or ‘facilitators’, not pimps. There are always leather jacketed men standing a few feet away from the windows, keeping an eye on their merchandise, whilst chatting to each other without a care in the world. The women, on the other hand, are freezing, bored, and dreading the next punter. I have interviewed enough of these women to know how desperate they are, and how desperate they are to get out.

During the research for my book on the global sex trade, I hired my own personal tour guide, a young man who looked like an 18th-century carpenter, and thought it was extremely woke to be taking a middle-aged woman around the window brothels whilst telling her that 'sex work' was massively empowering, and a job like any other. I asked why he thought it was so great for men to pay to penetrate the orifices of a woman who didn't want to have sex with him. He told me that many of the women 'liked the sex' but couldn't give me any concrete examples of where this had come from. I asked him if ever he was desperate for money would he rather take a menial job in McDonald's, or give a man with questionable hygiene access to his anus and mouth for a few euros? All of a sudden, flipping burgers seemed to be quite an attractive option for this dude.

The tour guides, trained, for a price, by the Prostitution Information Centre in De Wallen, a commercial business that presents a picture of prostitution as though it's the best career move a woman could ever make, come out with the biggest load of guff about the sex trade I have ever heard. They are responsible for spreading propaganda about how well legalisation works to hundreds of thousands of tourists, who then, in turn, spout this bullshit to friends and colleagues. The tours have propped up an industry that is responsible for gross human rights abuses of women and girls. Last time I was in De Wallen, I interviewed a young man outside a window brothel who told me, proudly, he had first paid for sex when he was 12 years old.

For more than a decade, Dutch politicians, policy makers, police and citizens have been admitting that legalisation has spectacularly failed. Under this regime, trafficking and pimping has increased, organised crime is rife, and the women are not protected from violence. The tours have provided the propaganda that would have tourists believe that legalised prostitution has been a massive success. It has, but only for the pimps and other profiteers.

Written byJulie Bindel

Journalist, author, broadcaster, feminist campaigner against sexual violence.

Topics in this articleSociety