Amsterdam's War on Sex

Two weeks ago a young Dutch fashion designer named Bas Kosters opened a new store. His colorful and sumptuous creations—skirts, handbags, sweatshirts—merit attention. But the most striking aspect of his new venue is the location. Kosters's work is on display in Amsterdam's Red Light District behind two tall windows that until recently were used as a brothel. The ladies have vanished. The red lights and curtains have been removed and replaced by Kosters's hyperfashionable clothes.

Kosters found this studio thanks to an ambitious plan by the Amsterdam city government. Arguing that too many brothels and sex bars are linked to criminality, the authorities plan to all but erase the Red Light District. If the plan goes through, the peep shows, sex shops and prostitute windows that line the small alleys and canals will have to go, giving way to galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants and bars. Goodbye to the big neon signs advertising every possible form of sexual indulgence.

Amsterdam without the Red Light District? Wouldn't that be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower? Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen, and his aldermen have demonstrated little nostalgia for the district, which has been the world's most famous home of sexual permissiveness since the 15th century. They first unveiled the plan to close it in December; last month they revoked the licenses of two widely known sex venues, the Casa Rosso and the Banana Bar. The next step is to buy out the real estate owners. Last fall the city struck a deal with a powerful brothel owner, Charles Geerts (known as "Fat Charlie"), to buy 20 buildings.

The driving force behind the cleanup is Lodewijk Asscher. A young star of the Dutch Labour Party and deputy mayor of Amsterdam, Asscher believes it's time to deliver his hometown from sleaze—even if he's scuppering a $100 million-a-year industry in the process. He is pleasantly surprised, he says, by the public support he's gotten for the plan. "Every day I get e-mails," he says. A recent survey confirms the sentiment: the city administration's polling agency found that 67 percent of Amsterdam's population supports a clampdown on sketchy business. The Amsterdam City Council approved the plan about two weeks ago by an overwhelming 43-2 majority.

But not everybody is happy about the change. Jan Broers, owner of Royal Taste, a hotel in the heart of the Red Light District, and eight prostitute windows, has formed a protest committee called Platform 1012 (named after the area's ZIP code). He claims to have collected thousands of signatures. This week the group staged a protest march, starting in front of the Casa Rosso and ending in Dam Square, where thousands of people shared a minute of silence. They carried pink balloons and signs saying "Hands off the Red Light District" and a poster of Asscher doctored to look as if he was with a street hooker.

Broers is afraid that fewer tourists will come to a sexless Amsterdam, harming legitimate, legal businesses. Most of all, he says, he feels "stigmatized" by the city government. "With all his rhetoric, deputy mayor Asscher is giving the district a bad name throughout the world," he says. "People phone me up from abroad every day, worried we might be gone already." Broers questions the city's premise that prostitution leads to criminal activities in the area. Indeed, the city, which is acting under laws that require only a suspicion of criminal activity, can point only to studies from the mid-1990s. "It's a shield. The city just wants to gentrify the neighborhood, so they can make some good money. And they're using public funds to buy all the real estate."

And what about the ladies? The Red Light District has about 450 windows where women offer their services. The majority of those will be closed down. Where will the inhabitants go, once they're forced out of work? Asscher says most of the prostitutes are part of international human-trafficking networks that draw on women from Eastern Europe, and they will most likely move on to Antwerp, Hamburg and other European cities. For those that remain, the city administration may start certifying pimps and require that prostitutes who work for them to be 21 years old.

The Dutch Sex Workers Union fears that many women and girls will be forced to start walking the streets. On its Web site the union calls the city's plans to certify pimps "bizarre." Since prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000, it argues, sex workers don't need pimps to find a place to work. Ruth Hopkins, a Dutch-English investigative journalist who has written extensively on prostitution in Amsterdam, says the city government overstates the extent of involuntary prostitution. "Even though there are gangs of pimps, a lot of women, mostly Africans and Latinos, do their work in complete independence," she says. Hopkins fears that a cleaned-up Amsterdam will be a boring city.

The crackdown fits into a nationwide backlash against the excesses of 1960s "happy-clappy" liberalism, as a conservative Dutch member of parliament recently put it. Over the last few years the Netherlands has adopted a stricter policy on selling marijuana, and a ban on hallucinogenic mushrooms is slated to go into effect later this year. "People in Amsterdam and the rest of the country are starting to discern real tolerance from bogus tolerance," says Asscher. "When Rudy Giuliani started to clean up Times Square in the mid-'90s, some people were warning that no one would ever again want to come to New York City. But as far as I know, it has had record tourist numbers each year since." Perhaps Giuliani, who this week dropped out of the U.S. presidential race, should run for office in the Netherlands.