My Red Light aims to become the Netherlands’s first official cooperative of prostitutes, where they have a say about their work schedule and the design of the rooms, and even train for managerial positions.
“One of the things we have changed in recent years is that instead of talking about what is good for prostitutes, we have started to talk to them,” said Jasper Karman, spokesman for Amsterdam’s mayor, Eberhard van der Laan.
Not everyone likes the idea, among them some fellow prostitutes who are suspicious of the city’s involvement. But My Red Light has drawn support from unlikely quarters, including award-winning Dutch furniture and interior designers, who have helped outfit the rooms.
Sitting on a blue vinyl mattress on a stage, a glowing red bathtub in one corner and a Richard Hutten red leather stool by the window, Lyle Muns, a male prostitute who is on the board of My Red Light, explained recently that the project, which opened in May, was still a work in progress.
“I am really passionate about this project and I believe it could work, but it is also an experiment, right?” he said. “We haven’t succeeded until My Red Light is run mostly by sex workers and we are making a profit.”
The concept of My Red Light was first discussed in Amsterdam as far back as 2007, when the city tried to combat crime in the neighborhood through the 1012 Project, a reference to the central red light district’s postal code.
Authorities eventually shut down about 125 windows where prostitutes displayed themselves, leaving many feeling they were being pushed out so that the city could gentrify the historic area, which claims some of Amsterdam’s most valuable real estate.
Protests led to regular meetings between the city and activists, and then to a feasibility study that eventually gave birth to My Red Light. The city helped a social investment fund buy four buildings that it now rents to My Red Light.
As soon as the fund bought the buildings late last year, all ties to the city were cut. Currently, My Red Light officially operates as a foundation. “We hope in a year or two we’ll be run entirely by sex workers or ex-sex workers,” said Justine Le Clercq, a spokeswoman for My Red Light.
When My Red Light starts to turn a profit, she said, it plans to invest the money in workshops and other programs for the prostitutes, like business training and language classes.
The group has also been discussing investing in something like workers’ compensation insurance so that prostitutes who get sick or injured can get financial support.
When it came to the design of the interiors, My Red Light argued that prostitutes deserve the same quality of working environment as chief executives and celebrities. So they engaged the award-winning Dutch furniture company Lensvelt, which helped furnish the V.I.P. lounge at the Schiphol airport.
Lensvelt chose the interior design architect Janpaul Scholtmeijer, of Vens Architecten. His only strict directive was to make all the design decisions along with a group of about five prostitutes.
Left to his own devices, Mr. Scholtmeijer joked, he would have covered the rooms in velvet, but the prostitutes rolled their eyes at his impracticality.
“In the end, what was most important for the sex workers was that the spaces were easy to clean and hygienic,” Mr. Scholtmeijer said.
The prostitutes also requested that a small locker be built within the bed frame with a slit to insert cash. There was a lot of discussion as to where to place panic buttons.
Three months after its debut, My Red Light is slowly trying to gain the trust of the other brothels and build a community of prostitutes.
About 75 percent of all prostitutes are from Eastern or Central Europe, outside the European Union, with the remaining 25 percent Dutch, or from South or Central America, according to the mayor’s office. This complicates efforts toward cooperation.
Heleen Driessen, who has worked in Amsterdam as a counselor and advocate for prostitutes for the last two decades, said there were “often issues between the sex workers because they are different nationalities and don’t speak the same language, or still need to gain confidence in My Red Light or have the mentality of, ‘I just want to go home at six or go home to Ecuador in a few months and not get involved in these kinds of projects.’”
My Red Light has attracted criticism from some members of the city’s only official network of prostitutes, Proud, which offers everything from language workshops to pro bono lawyer consultations. Some members even threatened to sue My Red Light after not getting the management positions they said they were promised. My Red Light responded that the women had marks on their records, and that if it hired them, My Red Light would lose its license under municipal regulations.
“It’s just another brothel,” said Yvette Luhrs, a spokeswoman for Proud. “It isn’t really owned or run by sex workers. Also the media spectacle around it has been derogatory to other brothels.”
She said that what prostitutes really wanted was to be allowed to run their own business out of their own homes without being bothered by the police. The city says that in order to control human trafficking and protect the well being of independent prostitutes, the police have to make regular checks.
“You lose grip on the whole scene if you allow sex workers to work out of homes, unregulated like that,” said Jolanda de Boer, a public prosecutor who has been involved in human trafficking cases in Amsterdam for the last decade.
She said she believed that the city truly wanted to help protect and support prostitutes, but that after 10 years of overseeing so many cases of abused prostitutes, she is skeptical that prostitution can be normalized.
“Stop saying that it’s the oldest profession in the world,” she said. “Women and the disadvantaged have always been exploited, and we should not accept that.”
Ms. Le Clercq, the My Red Light spokeswoman, said: “There are, of course, connections between human trafficking and prostitution, but there are also connections between crime and the flower industry and crime and building houses. There are really people who want to do this work, so just let them do it.”
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