Steven, a self-proclaimed “ex-pimp”, walks through the narrow alleyways lined with blazing red neon lights. There are signs of transformation everywhere in Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District. The most noticeable differences are the mannequins standing behind windows, displaying local designers’ latest creations, instead of women selling sexual services. Some posters showing plans for future housing developments are plastered across what also used to be rooms rented by prostitutes. Sex clubs with the most outrageous of reputations are shutting down—their owners’ licenses revoked completely.
Amsterdam’s District Gets a Makeover
Prostitution has been legalized in the Netherlands since 2000, and there is no intention of overturning this law, but Amsterdam is tired of its seedy reputation. The city’s mayor, Job Cohen, admitted that the Red Light District has attracted criminal involvement and has gotten out of control. The city council has drawn up plans to put the heart of Amsterdam through an “extreme makeover” over the next 10 years. Cohen hopes to limit the Red Light District to two streets, cutting the number of windows used for prostitution in half from more than 400 windows to 250.
They hope to regain control of the licensed prostitution in the city by ensuring women have chosen for themselves to work in the industry and to eliminate all human trafficking. Over 60 percent of the women who work behind the windows are of foreign origin—mostly from Nigeria, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland. Even if the women are of Dutch origin, they’ve often been coerced into prostitution through a pimp or a “lover boy.” According to La Strada Netherlands, an anti-human trafficking organization, lover boy practices are a genuine form of human trafficking. One definition states that human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, harboring or receipt of people for the purposes of slavery, forced labor (including bonded labor or debt bondage) and servitude. In 2007, 716 people registered with La Strada Netherlands as victims of human trafficking, with more than half of these victims being used for commercial sexual exploitation.
For more than 13 years, a woman by the name of Toos has worked with De Scharlaken Koord (The Scarlet Cord), an organization dedicated to providing counsel and assistance to women who want to get out of prostitution, helping them through a reintegration process. The organization particularly emphasizes the importance of giving back value to the women who have worked as prostitutes by demonstrating God’s love for them. She tells the story of one woman, Diana, who was forced into prostitution in the Red-Light District. Unfortunately, it’s a familiar story among women working in the sex industry.
Diana’s life circumstances were already complex and difficult. She was in an abusive relationship with her third husband, a marriage born of convenience in order to keep custody of her second child. Living in the Czech Republic, she worked as a waitress in a pub. She earned a meager salary, barely enough to support her family. A man by the name of Peter visited the pub and immediately made a good impression on Diana. He took interest in her life and made an offer she couldn’t refuse. He told her she could work the same job in Germany, while earning a considerably higher salary. It was a chance to start over, to get away from her husband and to provide a better life for her and her daughter. Even her husband seemed to be in agreement. He thought it was a good opportunity for her and cooperated with letting her go. It was only later she discovered her husband had sold her off.
Diana was not alone on the trip to Germany—she traveled by car with three other women. They didn’t protest when Peter asked for their passports so he could show the documents at the borders. They never got them back. Their journey did not end in Germany, but instead at a brothel in Amsterdam. Peter insisted they start working immediately to pay off the money they owed from the journey: the hotel stays, the travel costs, the food … and in order to work, Diana would need to rent a room, go to the beautician and hairdresser, and pay for the “supplies” needed to do the work. Diana’s “debt” continued to increase, to more than 10,000 euros, and if she refused to do the work to pay it off, her captors threatened her life.
Diana was imprisoned in that brothel. Being unfamiliar with the Dutch culture, language and government (and most importantly her rights as an illegally trafficked person), she had no idea of how to break free of her situation. For the first month, her life was constantly under surveillance and any money she earned went directly to paying off her debts. Escorted to and from the brothel by car, she couldn’t even find her way around the city by herself. As soon as the debts were paid off, she began to save up so she could bring her daughter from the Czech Republic. Eventually she had enough money to get her own apartment and even send her daughter to school. But getting out of prostitution seemed impossible. They warned her to never interact with police. For fear of her life and her daughter’s, she complied. Even if she could choose to stop, the prospects of finding another job without the proper documentation and visa seemed impossible. The shame alone was enough to keep her from trying.
After 11 months of working in prostitution, Diana befriended a taxi driver who helped her escape her work at the brothel. The taxi driver’s own connections to the criminal world gave him an edge to setting her free. With the help of The Scarlet Cord, she has reintegrated into society and is slowly rebuilding her life. Her story is part of a book, Hope, that The Scarlet Cord produced to give to the prostitutes who come to them or who are befriended by their volunteers.
The Trafficking Continues
Human trafficking is a complex problem. As long as there’s a demand for services and there are people living in poverty—ripe to be taken advantage of—trafficking will persist. Positive steps are being taken to increase awareness of trafficking in the Netherlands, particularly aimed at the clientele of the commercial sex industry.
Walking around the Red-Light District can be an unpleasant eye-opening experience, but all hope is not lost. Steven, the ex-pimp, a man once entrenched in the criminal world of the sex industry came to know Christ two and a half years ago. If there’s any proof of God’s power and existence, it is evident in the life of this changed man.
Although Amsterdam is known for its tolerance of the sex industry, it is not alone in its allowance and use. As Toos says: “It is the same everywhere, but in Amsterdam it’s just exposed.”