This spring VOX-POP, creative space of the faculty of humanities at the University of Amsterdam, curates in collaboration with NICA an interdisciplinary research group followed by a cultural event, exploring the idea of "sex-work as (intangible) heritage." The research group dives into the historical development of the oldest profession in the world in and around De Wallen, the oldest part of Amsterdam. Changes in municipal policy influence both the practice of sex work and the make-up of the neighborhood in which it takes place. An example of such a transition is the emergence of window prostitution in response to a ban on sex work on the street that was put in place by the municipality in the 1930s; sex workers were not allowed anymore to attract customers from their doorway, but could still gently tap on a window from behind a curtain. A question that arises when considering the impactful effects on the perimeters of the profession itself and the Amsterdam city center is whether or not sex work at De Wallen should be preserved for cultural and/or social value. What we consider as heritage is continuously in the making, in the present we decide and select what remains for a future still to come. A process that comes with tension and debate: how does a community choose what should be preserved? In 2003 UNESCO adopted a treaty, Convent for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, to safeguard intangible heritage, including practices such as celebration, festivals, performance art and old crafts. During this interdisciplinary research group VOX-POP questions whether or not sex work can be regarded as intangible heritage, and what the effects of such an approach would be.
Sex work includes prostitution, brothels, online camming and window prostitution, over time historical practices such as “amusing” in bars, have disappeared. Already from the fifteenth century onwards, the first brothels settled in the now-famous alleyways and buildings of the burgwallen - also known as the Red Light District. Mostly women worked in the area and performed sexual activities in exchange for money with customers, many of whom men who had been working at sea and came ashore in Amsterdam. Due to the denomination of the city council in 1578 – the moment in which Amsterdam reformed from Catholicism to Calvinism – sex work became criminalised. What followed were periods of "gedogen" - Dutch for tolerating – and criminalization; a dynamic that incited the formation, development, and transformation of De Wallen. Towards the end of the 20th century, policy makers focused on decriminalisation of sexual activities on commercial agreement and since the year 2000 sex work is completely legalised in the Netherlands. What is important to note is that this legalisation also led to stricter regulation, something which has not always been in favor of sex workers themselves. Municipal projects such as 1012, – a project initiated to fight human trafficking but de facto caused many legal workplaces to close down – the advent of an erotic center, – an idea currently examined to relocate sex work outside of Amsterdam’s city center – and governmental policies in place during the COVID-19 pandemic in which stricter regulations were employed for sex workers than for other so-called contact professions. It is these types of regulations that pressure the position of sex work and sex workers at De Wallen.
By approaching sex work as possible intangible heritage, this research group aims to make an original contribution to the critical debate about the disappearance of sex work from the Red Light District. The three sessions are comprised of lectures by and dialogues between sex workers, academic scholars and policy makers and include a field trip and interactive workshop. Each session focusses on a different question and prior to the seminars participants are asked to read two related texts. With the interdisciplinary exchange between participants and guest-speakers we will consider possible next steps to take and discuss how academics can contribute to the current debate and activism. In response to the three sessions VOX-POP organises a cultural programme, freely accessible to those who are interested.
The final session of our research group on sex work as (intangible) heritage starts with a lecture from Lorraine Nencel – associate professor in Sociology at the VU, whose research focusses on sex work activism. She has a critical contribution, questioning the effects of claiming sex work as intangible heritage, considering the risk that sex work would not be considered as work. Is it instead useful to approach the windows themselves, in their materiality, as heritage? After the lecture we will have a conversation with Jan Visser and Lisanne Wiltigenburg. Jan Visser has been a sex work activist since the 80s and is a member of Sekswerkexpertise. Lisanne Wiltingenburg is an MA student, currently writing her master thesis on the concept of ‘cuteness’, and the way this term is used by the municipality when speaking/making policies for De Wallen and sex work. Together they will discuss what work still needs to be done.
As this is our final session we will focus on sharing and listening; there will be time for participants to bring their thoughts on the research sessions to the fore, and to discuss the possibilities of future policies, the role of research and the usefulness of approaching sex work as (intangible) heritage. For those interested, the research group finishes with informal drinks at Mata Hari.