Amsterdam is opening up but its red-light areas remain closed, forcing poverty-stricken sex workers to continue operations illegally.
Post the nationwide lockdown and halt on businesses brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the Netherlands has resumed operations across almost all sectors – salons and driving institutes began work in May, restaurants resumed work since the beginning of June, and gyms and saunas are scheduled to reopen from early July – with the exception of the prostitution industry, whose operations have been put on hold till September. In the red-light area of De Wallen, a few empty bars and shops selling sex toys are open but its sex workers have been sent into poverty, some of whom are even resorting to working secretly to make ends meet.
Professional escort, Charlotte de Vries, in conversation with The New York Times, said that she would normally meet up to seven clients per week but the lockdown began and immediately cost her €1,330 ($1,500) upon cancellations, after which, she stopped keeping track. While Ms. de Vries is able to rely on her savings, she also mentioned that she knew of at least seven other sex workers who could not do so and are forced to work in secret just to pay their rent. Another professional escort, Rosie Heart informed that she knew of at least ten such colleagues – “It’s a disaster, really,” she told Patrick Kingsley of The New York Times. This poses a different problem altogether – working illegally means sex workers are constantly at risk from abusive clients. Before the coronavirus crisis hit, if a client displayed violent or abusive behaviour, the workers had the ability to go to the police for help, informed Ms. de Vries. “But now you can’t do that because what you’re doing is illegal”, she said. Some workers are also relying on the Dutch Emergency Fund for sex workers set up on a non-profit basis which provides €40 ($45) to its applicants for basic supplies and costs.
Although prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, many sex workers choose not to reveal their profession to the government because of the associated social stigma of the trade. Others also choose not to reveal their profession because they operate without necessary legal documentation. Netherlands’ sex workers, now forced into situations they were understandably unprepared for, haven’t been able to get compensation in the form of government support – while the Dutch authorities had previously created emergency income streams for people who were left without work, many sex workers do not qualify for the subsidies due to discrepancies for the way they were registered with tax authorities before the crisis hit. Others are even scared to apply, for fear of their identities being leaked. SekswerkExpertise, a research group in Amsterdam, conducted an online survey among 108 sex workers in the Netherlands – of which 56% applied for governmental support against coronavirus. Out of this 56%, only 13% further confirmed having received help. For the ones who did not apply, one out of every three stated that their reasons for not applying were that they believed they would not qualify, while one out of every six said they were scared of having their identities leaked as sex workers to government institutions. Furthermore, migrant sex workers working without a permit could not even think of applying for assistance. One of the few successful applicants was Ms. Heart, who has been receiving around €1,330 ($1,500) per month since March – which is roughly half her regular monthly earnings. She also informed further, that she would not apply for help from July – which is when sex workers will officially and exclusively be the only ones disallowed from resuming operations. She fears that her identity as a sex worker could be revealed and that this could potentially lead to local officials evicting her from her home on the assumption that she uses the place as an unlicensed brothel, which is an unfortunately frequent occurrence.
Some unemployed sex workers have resorted to the internet to try and earn their wages from online sex shows. Prostitution Information Centre, a non-profit organization, providing support to sex workers and guided tours of De Wallen to tourists, conducted an online training session for the same. But even with quality training, it usually takes months to build an online base of paying customers, added to the substantial costs to operate – a good camera, a microphone, a strong and steady internet connection along with a private space where the sex workers will not be disturbed – all of which are added costs to the already indebted bearers.
Some sex workers said they could not understand why they were not permitted to resume their work in at least some capacity in July, alongside gyms and saunas. Ms. Heart wondered why sex workers can’t go back to work but hairdressers can cater to clients and “hover in front of their face to cut their bangs”, she explains. She doesn’t expect to be allowed to go back to work as normal immediately but if “everyone can go back to work, but not sex workers – there’s something wrong with your thinking”, Ms. Heart informs.
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