In Amsterdam, the arrival of an erotic center is causing heated discussions. There has been such a center in Antwerp for 18 years. Unlike with us, this hardly led to commotion with our southern neighbours. How do they do that there?
‘Villa Tinto’, is the name of the mega brothel in the Belgian port city. With 51 windows, spread over three floors, it is smaller than the center of Amsterdam should be. Nevertheless, mayor Halsema mentioned it several times as an example for her plans.
Those who walk around understand why. Villa Tinto looks neat and modern. Not a dingy building in a dodgy back alley, but a sleek rectangular building with a spacious courtyard. It might as well be an apartment complex. In part it is: the top floor consists of luxury residential apartments with a roof terrace, including a B&B. Downstairs is a post of the police prostitution squad.
Owner Karin Vander Elst calls Villa Tinto a ‘house of pleasure’. “We accommodate all kinds of sex workers, from the more vanilla sex to SM to trans.” Behind each window are two areas, a downstairs area where the customer is received and an upper area where the action takes place. Sex workers can rent a window during the day or in the evening and at night.
Initially, Vander Elst and her husband wanted to give the building a catering destination. It was the municipality that asked them to establish an erotic center there. “The city had reduced the window area to a zone of three streets,” says Lieve Huijskens, prostitution officer of the municipality of Antwerp. “There were far too few windows for the number of customers. That is how the plan was born.”
“That monkeys look like you do in the Red Light District, that does not happen here”
There are a number of important differences between the situation in Antwerp and that in Amsterdam. In the city on the Scheldt, the red light district, the Schipperskwartier, is not a tourist attraction. There are no drunken and blowing tourists walking through the streets, but almost only local residents and customers who come to visit sex workers. “There is a completely different vibe here,” says Huijskens. “That monkeys look like you do in the Red Light District, that does not happen here.”
Another difference is the location of the erotic centers. Villa Tinto is located in the middle of Antwerp’s red light district, a stone’s throw from the city centre. The arrival of the mega brothel therefore changed little for local residents; they already lived near the red light district. With us, the erotic center must arise just outside the city center.
Despite the differences, the Stopera could perhaps learn something from the Antwerp approach. This includes a digital identification system for sex workers. A kind of window agenda, which states exactly which sex worker works behind which window at what time. In this way, the police can monitor whether there is no question of subletting. In Villa Tinto, sex workers can even only enter their space with their fingerprint.
Another measure is that no owner in Antwerp may own more than 25 percent of the windows. “Suppose there are abuses at an owner and you have to close his premises, then you don’t want a lot of sex workers to be without a workplace,” explains Huijskens.
In Antwerp, they have reservations about the Amsterdam plans. Prostitution official Huijskens can imagine that sex workers do not like to perform their work in an isolated place. Villa Tinto owner Vander Elst shares that concern. “Will they be able to take their clientele to the outskirts of the city? I think that needs to be rethought very carefully.”
If Halsema would like tips on how to get an erotic center off the ground, she can turn to Vander Elst. Together with the municipal council of the Belgian coastal town of Ostend, she is working on the establishment of a Villa Tinto establishment in that city, which is to replace all existing windows in the harbor area. It will be a multifunctional building, including a microbrewery and a brasserie. The location – the old harbor building near the station – has already been determined.
At national level, Belgian policy also deviates from Dutch policy. In our country you need a permit to do sex work. The municipality determines whether you will receive the permit. In many municipalities it is not possible to obtain a permit. Anyone who does receive a permit will be entered in a national register. Anyone who does not get a permit and still does sex work is working illegally.
Sex work has been decriminalized in Belgium for a year now. There is no distinction between legal and illegal sex workers. All sex workers are treated the same – and not prosecuted for being a sex worker.