Amsterdam Mayor: City ready for brothel run by sex workers

Eigen Raam press conference
Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan and HVO-Querido board member Clemens Blaas discuss a proposed sex-worker run brothel. Nov. 19, 2015 (photo: Zack Newmark / NL Times)Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan and HVO-Querido board member Clemens Blaas discuss a proposed sex-worker run brothel. Nov. 19, 2015 (photo: Zack Newmark / NL Times)

A plan to encourage sex workers in Amsterdam's famed Red Light District to develop their chosen profession in a more entrepreneurial fashion by managing their own brothel took a big step forward after a feasibility study conducted by the city showed a strong likelihood of success. "It is good for the empowerment of sex workers," Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan said at a press conference on Thursday, praising the notion that more sex workers could gain more independence.

"We try to keep on being modest, not because we are ashamed of [sex workers], but because it is an Amsterdam thing," the mayor noted. Prostitution is a reality in Amsterdam, and this approach of finding investors, gaining support from a prominent NGO, assessing the risks and consulting groups of stakeholders is very "Amsterdam-ish," Van der Laan added.

Calling the plan, "an alternative to shutting down windows," the mayor said he hopes it will be "a positive influence on the other [sexually-oriented] businesses," in the area. Dubbed "Eigen Raam," or "Project Own Window" in English, the plan is part of the city's ongoing effort to revitalize the district, known locally as De Wallen.

The Mayor and Aldermen think Eigen Raam will further profesionalize the sex workers involved, It could make it easier for them to obtain financial services, including loans, mortgages and pensions, the city said. Earlier this year, Dutch bank Triodos was criticized for refusing to open an account for a sex worker's association.

It involves four of five buildings that were acquired in a deal with Charles Geertz, a former sex industry business owner. The five buildings together were sold to the city for roughly €25 million after Geertz was allegedly linked to money laundering and organized crime.

The Mayor and Aldermen want to sell the buildings to a real estate investment group, which will then lease it out to a new non-profit organization to be created by sex workers themselves. Assisted by HVO-Querido, a NGO that supports at-risk people, the sex workers will then manage the collection of 15 window prostitution spots with no interference or involvement by the city except in terms of regulatory enforcement. The windows are expected to be staffed in two shifts, seven days a week, by up to 50 different sex workers.

It first needs to pass a vote by the full city council following a debate by the General Affairs committee on December 3. However, the mayor expressed optimism that the council would approve the project.

Eigen Raam was originally the brain child of a group of sex workers who first discussed the idea in 2013. After commissioning the feasibility study back in February, the city and HVO-Querido organized a team of eight sex workers to act as expert consultants. The team all work in Amsterdam, but their home countries are spread out across the globe.

"We have had conversations with focus groups not just one time, and they want it. We see that people are real enthusiastic about it," a consulting sex worker named Alejandro said at the press conference. Joined by colleagues Helena and Monica, the three spoke excitedly about the proposal, even while acknowledging they do not know if it will be successful in the long-run. They all agree that participation in the project is very personal to them, and they are proud that the board of the community-run brothel will be chosen democratically.

Despite involving sex workers in this aspect of city policy, Van der Laan has frequently been the target of Amsterdam sex workers' frustration, with the city scaling back the number of window prostitution positions available for rent. Sex worker advocacy group Proud feared shutting windows would force more prostitutes to work on the street, or over the internet, in a manner that made it difficult to prevent human trafficking, and impossible to monitor for safety.

When asked about this by the NL Times, the mayor disagreed with the assessment of some sex workers in the city, saying that the large amount of windows in De Wallen created enforcement problems where shady businesses were able to thrive. "The mountain was simply too high," the mayor said, requiring the city's Project 1012, which in part led to the reduction of windows.

"By reducing some of the windows to a number we can enforce, we created a situation where De Wallen could become a nice place again," Van der Laan said.

When announced in February, it was hoped the city would have moved forward on the plan by July. The months-long delay was due to finding the right team of sex workers to consult on the project, determining the proper structure of the resulting organization, and the discovery of an extensive list of repairs needed in one of the building's foundations, a city representative stated.