Brothel run by sex workers shows Amsterdam's entrepreneurial spirit

My Red Light district windows in Amsterdam on Boomsteeg
An unfinished portion of new brothel My Red Light on Boomsteeg in Amsterdam. May 12, 2017Zack Newmark / NL Times

With reporting by Dries Arnolds and Janene Pieters.

In a city center that is filled with co-working spaces, it is not particularly surprising that a new hub for sex workers in Amsterdam's famed Red Light District is using ideas like flexible room rental agreements, a website showing who is working at any given time and what their skills are, and a sort-of networking lounge like those seen in many of the city's shared working environments. My Red Light was unveiled to journalists on Friday, over two years after the city's mayor first floated the idea of a brothel completely managed and run by sex workers.

Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan introduced this plan under the title Eigen Raam [Own Window] in February 2015, when the city teamed up with non government organization HVO-Querido to find ways to help women working in the Red Light District to become more career-driven people. The goal for the project is for sex workers to acquire knowledge on how to run their own businesses and gain more independence by taking full control of that business. 

"Profits made from the rental of all 14 windows will be invested in initiatives that seek to improve the social status of sex workers," explained spokesperson Richard Bouwman in a statement. "In addition, workshops are offered to help sex workers work in a safe and professional way." 

While the project developed substantially over the years, one crucial element remained the same: That the health, safety and welfare of both sex workers and their clients is of paramount importance. This can be seen in My Red Light's strict adherence to the rules laid out in city regulations mandating this area, from the clearly-visible red panic buttons on the beds to the security camera monitoring an interior passageway where workers can try to covertly lure customers without the glare of onlookers on the street.

Perhaps more innovative for a Red Light District brothel is a comfortable lounge space where sex workers can take breaks and spend time with each other over coffee completely removed from the public. It's one of several aspects in the renovation project that shows an attempt to treat sex work like any other legal business in the city, giving the workers themselves a say in the finer details.

The desire was to create a sense of grandeur for the sex workers themselves, said spokesperson Justine Le Clercq. "It's about feeling you are working in a place that is nice, and that you're not in a downtrodden environment," she said.

The architect and interior architect originally designed the spaces to feature lighter colours, but the sex workers intervened saying they and their clients preferred a darker touch. The beds are lined with an easy-to-clean vinyl material that feels a bit like leather, and is nicer to look at than the sterile white bathroom tiles which are normally used. Instead of using tiles on the wall, a slicker plastic material is used. Rooms are outfitted with color-changing LEDs and small overhead spotlights to quickly change the atmosphere.

Room prices range from 80 to 155 euros per shift, with a day split into 4-5 hour segments from roughly 8:30 a.m. through 5:30 a.m. the next day. A distinction is made between more modest "regular rooms" and rooms that offer luxuries not typically seen in the Red Light District. About half of the My Red Light rooms have a bath tub or shower and extra space, as opposed to the rooms that seem just big enough to walk around a single-person bed. One of the oversized rooms was designed with heavy use of black and chrome, and is expected to attract fetishists like sadomasochists.

One room is also wheelchair accessible, using an oversized entryway, space to maneuver into a shower, with plans to install grab bars to increase mobility. Although one sex worker can rent this room per shift, the plan is to make the room available for any of the community's sex workers on an appointment basis, so that people with disabilities are not limited in options.

The development of My Red Light really took off in late 2015 when a feasibility study conducted by Amsterdam concluded that a prostitute-run brothel shows a very strong chance of success. In addition to supporting the improvement of the sex industry in Amsterdam, the city believes that My Red Light will also further professionalize the sex workers involved. This in turn will make it easier for them to obtain financial services like loans, pensions and mortgages. 

The VVD faction in Amsterdam proposed the introduction of a "personal entrepreneurs license" to enable prostitutes to work independent of brothel operators and sex clubs, as an addition to this plan. "The entrepreneurs license confirms the sex workers' freedom of choice, but also raises a barrier against abuse, because the sex worker has to apply for the license", VVD faction leader Marja Ruigrok said at the time. "That means that he or she really has to choose the profession."

HVO-Querido, a health and social services NGO, provided substantial assistance in this area. The organization helped install business operations processes, organizational dynamic and a management board. The ultimate goal is for the NGO to eventually step aside, helping My Red Light become completely independent.

City leaders at one time thought it was possible for this project to be managed by the city, considering it took possession of the buildings nearly a decade ago, the buildings were leased to venture fund Start Foundation. Additional funding for the project was provided by that fund, as well as Rabobank and the Rabobank Foundation. A Start Foundation representative was not on hand for the press preview, but the organization previously said it hopes to instigate "a long-awaited change" that can ultimately lead to improving society's treatment of sex workers.

My Red Light is located across several buildings at Oudezijds Achterburgwal 17, 19 and 27 and Boomsteeg 1. The 14 windows there are expected to become operational at the end of the month.