‘I love sex. I like to make money’: What sex workers really want

Foxxy Angel rents a window in the My Red Light brothel in Amsterdam.
CNN  — 

The red curtains are drawn, and the room is dark. It’s closed for business.

Dark walls, with vibrant patterns in certain places, and a dark ceiling surround a dark bed coated in a protective sheet. A mirror the size of the bed lines the wall adjacent to it.

A large bath sits in the middle of the room, with a sink nearby, and a tall red chair sits prominently in the corner.

The room mirrors many in the De Wallen region in central Amsterdam, home to the city’s red light district, with this one regularly rented by a woman who uses the name Foxxy Angel professionally.

She rents the room, often referred to as a window, from the Dutch sex workers collective My Red Light.

Sex work has been legal in some form in the Netherlands since 1830, but it was recognized as a legal profession in 1988.

The 37-year-old sex worker can be found here during the day, ready for clients, usually tourists.

A pull of the curtain string is all it takes to reveal the heaving crowds on the streets outside and to indicate that the room is open for business.

“I love sex. I like to make money,” said Angel, who has been in the business for more than 15 years. “I’ve had a lot of different jobs before, and this is the only one I really liked.”

Her window rent costs €80 a day, she explained, and she typically sees five or six clients per day, making at least €50 per client. When her shift ends, she also sees clients in bars or clubs and goes on location for larger group experiences.

Her hours are her own, and she reports only to herself.

“After 15 years, I’m still enjoying it every day,” she said. But she’s set an age limit of 45 before she moves on to focus more on her advocacy work, fighting for sex workers’ rights; she’s an ardent member of the Dutch Union of Sex Workers, also known as PROUD.

She’s fighting because Amsterdam, she said, isn’t as liberal for sex workers as many believe.

‘We pay the same taxes’

Sex work has been legal in some form in the Netherlands since 1830, but it was recognized as a legal profession in 1988. In 2000, a law made the job subject to municipal regulation, requiring a license to operate and following certain rules set by a municipality.

Being a sex worker is legal in licensed areas, Angel explained. “We have to follow all these rules, and these rules don’t guarantee our safety,” she said, giving an example of how increased regulation and legalization bring police and municipality checks, which often stop clients from coming in.

Foxxy Angel shows her tattooed knuckles.

But she also wants the flexibility bestowed on other professions, she said, such as the option to work from home.

“Every barber and bookkeeper can work from their homes, but we can’t because we’re sex workers,” she said. “We pay the same taxes. We need to have the same rights.”

A further issue, added Velvet December, advocacy coordinator for PROUD, is that municipalities in the Netherlands have the right to make their own legislation, so each can differ. For example, they can decide how many licenses to give out, she said.

Legalization offers some protection, December believes. “There are places that it is much more dangerous to do sex work,” she acknowledged. “We can trust that we are protected by police. We have some rights, but we’re not there yet.”

Angel disagrees, saying she gets limited protection from her profession being legalized.

Where sex work is illegal, criminalized or both, workers are forced underground and often subject to harassment by the police, according to Amnesty International.

Both December and Angel want to get to the point where sex work is decriminalized: Criminal charges for sex work are fully removed, sex work between people is treated like any other work, and it’s brought under regular labor laws, according to the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce.

Velvet December, advocacy coordinator for the Dutch Union of Sex Workers, or PROUD.

The only places that have decriminalized sex work are New Zealand and the state of New South Wales in Australia. In both places, sex work is not penalized through punitive laws, and regulation are premised on worker health and safety, as with any other profession.

“Sex work is truly seen as work and treated as such,” December said.

The reform in New Zealand is thought to have reduced violence against sex workers, increased their comfort in reporting abuse to the police and improved police attitudes toward sex workers, according to the country’s Ministry of Justice.

Research also showed that decriminalization in New Zealand resulted in sex workers being better able to refuse clients and insist on condom use. One study showed that decriminalization has the potential to reduce discrimination as well as denials of justice, denigration and verbal abuse.

But is the rest of the world ready to catch up?

‘Licenses haven’t worked’

Sex work in settings like Amsterdam are often “overly restrictive in ways not supported by evidence,” said Sally Shackleton, who works with key populations – such as sex workers – at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Sex worker buttons decorate Foxxy Angel's handbag.

“Sex workers around the world are demanding less control and more choices for themselves” with the support of the law, she said.

CNN spoke with six sex workers, ranging in age from 36 to 76, across five countries, including Brazil, France, Ukraine and Mexico. They all highlight how they enjoy what they do and say the profession, for them, “is a choice.” They explained that the sex work industry has changed over time, moving online and often from home, requiring policies that recognize this.

Further limiting the model in the Netherlands, Shackleton explained, is the fact that sex workers must work from a defined space, and over time, these spaces have been increasingly small and fewer in number, making competition “very high,” without the option to work from home.

She believes that legalization has helped remove some discrimination and improved some relationships with police, but not to the extent that it has in other places.

“Decriminalization is consistent with a rights-based approach,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, deputy executive program director at Human Rights Watch. Research by her organization has shown that sex workers face extortion and abuse by police, including forced sex, as well as abuse from health care workers and military forces in settings where the practice is fully criminalized. “We see a lot of stigma,” she said.

A recent study found that sex workers across 33 countries who face repressive policing – identified as arrest, imprisonment, confiscation of needles, syringes, condoms, displacement to new area or physical or sexual violence by officers – have three times higher chance of experiencing physical or sexual violence than the general population.

But legalization has also not worked, Gerntholtz said.

At the core of legal and policy reform lies a “deeply contested issue,” she added: the fact that “some people believe sex work is offensive to women.”

This leads to moral objections rather than evidence-based ones that, in turn, mar politics, Shackleton added.

“I would want to live in a world where women don’t have to sell sex,” Gerntholtz said, where the work is not a choice. “But those who do need to be able to do it safely and with access to health care and protecting their rights.”

‘The frontline of violence’

Ultimately, the priority for sex workers, activists, unions and policymakers is enabling safety in an otherwise at-risk profession, experts say. “Sex workers are often on the front line of violence,” Shackleton said.

They are also 14 times more likely to be HIV-positive, are inhibited from reporting crimes against them and subject to exploitation from law enforcement, she added.

A panic button in a room at My Red Light brothel.

Taking more of a labor approach to the profession can ensure their rights and fight exploitation, Shackleton believes, but she added that “there isn’t any one-size-fits-all for legislation.”

“Details need to be customized for a country’s context,” she said, but highlights that the goal of any law changes or reform should not be to reduce the number of sex workers. “That doesn’t work.”

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Gerntholtz agrees that a simple law change isn’t the solution. “If you just change the law tomorrow, it’s not going to make a difference,” she said, adding that public awareness campaigns, anti-discrimination laws and workshops with police and in schools are needed to change public perceptions and opinions.

When Angel first experienced rape in her early days of working, she did not report it to the police. “They just say, ‘You’re a sex worker.’ “

This is the attitude she and sex workers around the world are fighting to change – along with their rights.

“Sex work has become about morality and making sure women behave in a way that’s expected,” Shackleton said. “That’s the fundamental problem.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Liesl Gerntholtz’s name.