How brothels operate in the Red Light District
In the last few months I criticized two projects which aim to start a new brothel, Amsterdam's My Red Light and the plans of Non Nobis for a so called 'humane brothel'. The reason for criticizing them comes from the fact how they are presented in the media opposed to existing brothels. In both cases the media coverage claims these brothels will be different: more humane, no pimps, making sexworkers less dependent and more freedom. The fact that they're presented in the media like this, comes from the fact that people have very little knowledge about what a brothel is and what they do, they often get confused for pimps and traffickers, and are often seen as the bad guys. So I thought I'd write a post about how brothels operate, to show you this image is wrong, and that the plans of the new brothels isn't as new or different from how they claim it is.

In this post I will focus on window brothels in Amsterdam, since covering other types of brothels will require more explanation, but keep in mind that most of these things apply to all brothels, but not everything. A window brothel is basically nothing more than a company that rents out workspaces to window prostitutes. See it as a salon, where hairdressers can pay rent to work from, or a real estate company who rents out business space to a shop for example. Some people compare it with a hotel, since the workplaces are rented out for short periods. But basically a window brothel operator is nothing more than a company that rents out rooms, that's it. In the Red Light District in Amsterdam there are about 19 different window brothel operators who rent out in total 278 rooms, also referred to as windows. 

Destination of the building
You're not just allowed to open up a brothel anywhere. In order to run a brothel, the building it is situated in needs to be assigned a prostitution destination in the city's building destination plans. Only a limited amount of buildings in Amsterdam have such a destination in the city's plans, based on the amount of brothels from years ago, but since that time the amount of buildings with a prostitution destination has only diminished as part of Project 1012 to close down brothels in the Red Light District. Once a destination plan of a certain building has been changed from a brothel into something else, the current brothel can remain in the building until it changes owner, after which it is not allowed to be a brothel anymore, unless the destination plan of that building is changed back by the city council.

As part of Project 1012 in Amsterdam, the city's gentrification project that was sold to the general public as a crime fighting project, but in reality was all about real estate, many of the current brothels in the Red Light District of Amsterdam lost their prostitution destination. This means that if those current brothel owners sell their real estate, it's not allowed anymore to be a brothel. No new buildings have been assigned a prostitution destination, making it also impossible for brothels that have to move, to continue elsewhere. In short, they're just reducing the amount of legal places where prostitution has been allowed, they're not moving prostitution elsewhere, they're simply forcing it to go underground.

License
If you do have a building which is allowed to be a brothel according to the city destination building plans, you still need a license as a brothel operator to start one. Gaining a license is difficult and expensive. Just applying for a license for example costs about €1700, and there's no guarantee that you will also be accepted after applying for it. A license is given out by the city itself, after a thorough check done by the government in what is called a Bibob procedure to check the brothel operator's integrity. This procedure will look into someone's past for any criminal activities or ties, to ensure the person doesn't have any criminal intentions or past.

The bullshit stories that people are spreading about brothel operators, including those of Lodewijk Asscher in te past for example, about brothel operators being criminals or having anything to do with crimes is therefore also pure bullshit. After all, if those stories would even remotely be true, they would've never even gained their license in the first place, and they certainly would've lost their license if any of these things would be true. The fact that people constantly conflate brothel operators with criminals is completely unjust, since they have absolutely no criminal ties or history, this has been thoroughly checked by the government itself! The clean up of the Red Light District was therefore also not to fight crime, since if that would be actually the case, they would've simply lost their license, and the city wouldn't have to buy these brothel operators out for millions of euro's.

Cities in The Netherlands rarely ever give out new licenses, making it nearly impossible to start a new legal business, while at the same time many cities, including Amsterdam are revoking licenses of existing brothels, creating a nation wide shortage in legal places to work for sexworkers. Since brothels where legalized in 2000 in The Netherlands there have never been this many brothels closed down, in total 46% of all the legal brothels have closed down since 2000. And this has caused many sexworkers to start working illegal, since they want to work legal, but the expenses of gaining a license and the fact that they're often refused make it almost impossible to get one.

Besides the Bibob check brothel operators also need to present a complete business plan for their brothel, which has to be approved by the city according to their own local laws (APV). And they need to get a hygiene report from the government health care organisation GGD. Of course they also need to be registered at the Chambers of Commerce as legal business owners, pay taxes and if any abuses are found in their brothel, the city has the right to immediately withdraw their license. 

A prostitute under the age of 21 working in a window brothel in Amsterdam is immediately a reason to revoke the license of the brothel operator. Not following correctly any of the (many) local rules for prostitution businesses will result in a penalty, which eventually can have them loose their license. These penalties could even be about not replacing an empty soap pump, as brothel operators have got penalties for those in the past. If the brothel operator knows a prostitute is a victim of trafficking, and does not report it to the police, they can loose their license. However, if they do report it they can also loose their license, because than they've let a victim of trafficking working there, so there's really no way for them to act good in a situation like this. Whether they report the victim of trafficking or not to the police, in both cases they're fucked and they risk their license, a paradox created by the city out for the blood of brothel operators, eager to close them down for whatever reason.

Renting out windows
Window brothel operators are only allowed to rent out their rooms to people who have registered themselves at the Chambers of Commerce as either a prostitute or under personal services, who have a valid European passport, and are at least 21 years of age. Everything gets checked by the brothel operators, since not following these rules would result in them loosing their license. The Chambers of Commerce registration gets checked every day by the brothel operator online to see if it's still an active registration. Passports get verified with a scan for authenticity every day. They check your registration of the city you live (GBA registration) in every day. So the stories of there being underage prostitutes working in the Red Light District are 100% bullshit.

Before a window brothel operator will rent you a window, he will do a mandatory intake interview with you, something the city has made mandatory to all brothel operators. The intake interview is to ensure that the prostitute in question is 'self reliant' enough to do this work, in short, it's just a way to find out if you work for yourself or for a pimp. The questions violate the privacy laws of The Netherlands, but brothel operators have no choice, since it's a requirement from the city to do so. Questions vary from why you want to do this job, to when you went on vacation the last time, how you got here, if you have a boyfriend, to even questions about your sex life etc. etc. 

The intake interview gets done only the first time a prostitute wants to rent a window and doesn't have to happen every day, unlike the registration checks. Any suspicions that the girl might be a victim will result in the brothel operator refusing girl, out of fear of losing his license. If a girl turns out to be a victim later, the brothel operator should report it to the police, but because that would result in them loosing their license this is problematic. However, if they don't report the girl to the police as a victim, they can also loose their license if the police or the city ever finds out, so the brothel operators are stuck. Either way they will loose their license, whether they do the right thing and report it to the police or not. So there's no way for brothel operators to do the right thing, because of these city rules. It is a completely idiotic system, purely built on the idea that the city can close down windows easier, just looking for any reason to close them down.

Once the story of the prostitute seems okay, all her papers are checked out and validated, the girl will usually sign for the house rules. Those house rules usually consist out of explaining what the prices are for the rooms during their shifts, from when to when the rooms are available, what is included in the agreement, how things work when you want to take free, etc. Girls are not allowed to work more than 6 days a week, and are not allowed to work double shifts. Also the use of drugs in the room is usually forbidden. The girl will pay for the room for that day, after which she will receive the key to the room, very much like how a hotel works. The rooms are rented out by shift, so each day the same ritual happens. The girl comes into the office, the brothel operator checks out all the paperwork and verifies them, the girl pays for the room, and she gets her key to the room.

The rooms inside the brothel
The room consists out of basically a bedroom, some are really small, others are much bigger, this all depends on how the building was constructed. Because the buildings are centuries old most of the times, they weren't designed to be brothels. So basically they've turned it into a brothel by dividing different rooms into one workplace for a girl. Each room will have of course a bed, with a plastic matras for hygiene reasons. A sink with a water tap, with paper towels, a soap pump and an alcohol spray and a cleaning spray. A trash can for all the trash (used paper towels, used condoms etc.). Usually the toilets are shared with the other rooms, as well as the shower. The lighting in the room is arranged by the brothel operator, if a light doesn't work, or you want to change the lighting in your room, the brothel operator can change this for you, although many girls change the lights themselves according to their own preferences. Sometimes girls change the lighting in the room, meaning the colors of the lights, by swapping them around with other lights in the room, to achieve the best lighting effect for themselves, so they look at their best in the room.

Each room has an alarm button, some rooms have multiple. If the alarm button is pressed, it will notify the brothel operator of any troubles, and the rule of the city is that they have to be present within 12 minutes. Some of these alarms are silent, others are incredibly loud and even have a yellow light on the outside of the building going off, to notify the people outside there is a problem. The police can also respond to the alarm going off, it's basically a matter of who gets there first. And if the brothel operator can't handle the situation (they're not allowed to fight), they will call the police.

In the room the brothel operators usually hang a list of rules and hygiene guide lines. Often they'll hang up a list of phone numbers you can call, such as the phone number of the police, of the office of the brothel operator, health care and other important phone numbers. Things such as condoms, sextoys, working clothes, lubrication, bed sheets, pillows etc. are all things the girl needs to bring herself. The rooms are cleaned each day by cleaners the brothel operator hires, who follow strict guidelines from the city's health care to ensure hygiene.

Most brothel operators in the Red Light District are really nice people, not the pimps they're often made out to be by the media, politicians, opinion makers and people with other interests. If a girl needs help they will help her, but the rules of the city often block how much they can help a girl. Most brothel operators have run their brothels for decades already, and often they're family businesses. Recently Vice Nederland did a really nice job of making a Dutch documentary about how brothels are run, which you can see here:


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    Romanian prostitute working in the Red Light District in Amsterdam (De Wallen), speaking out for the truth behind prostitution. Blogging about prostitution, human trafficking, forced prostitution, politics and all the myths surrounding it. Member of PROUD, the Dutch union of sex workers.