Skip to content

A Banana Is Not a Penis

Will Amsterdam’s red-light district lose its color?

In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who drinks
And he drinks, and he drinks, and he drinks once again
He drinks to the health of the whores of Amsterdam
Who have promised their love to a thousand other men

—Jacques Brel, Amsterdam (1964)

The other night, as I made my way to Amsterdam’s red-light district, De Wallen, I was accosted by a group of students dressed as bananas, with large fruit-shaped hats wrapped around their heads. After raucously belting out a drinking song, they forced me to drink warm (Dutch) gin on camera, cheering wildly as the rancid liquor went down my throat. A tall young man, their big banana, explained they were on a university “treasure hunt” that involved dares and challenges across the inner city. They gave another hearty cheer, grabbed their bikes, and disappeared down the street.

I felt a little used. But more so, confused. Was this the kind of interaction that Amsterdam officials had in mind when, in May 2018, they launched the “Enjoy and Respect” campaign, aimed at stamping out the rowdy behavior of (mostly) young Dutch and English men in De Wallen? Was this the sort of low-brow carousing that, according to officials, had overwhelmed the city for years, leading Ombudsman Arre Zuurmond to describe it as “a jungle at night”? Probably not. These students were far tamer than the insufferable men who last year were warned their days of misbehaving “dressed like a penis” were over. But while a banana is not a penis, the exchange did point to the municipality’s ongoing struggle to scale back the phallocentric reveling.

Amsterdam—the port city famous for tulips, clogs, and canals—is facing an identity crisis. Legalized prostitution, along with the city’s acceptance of same-sex marriage and its soft stance on marijuana, has in recent decades given it a reputation as a progressive bohemia. But Amsterdam’s famed tolerance has also attracted the “wrong” crowd, who view it as an “anything goes” consumer hub, a theme park of licentious transgression. Home to around one million residents, the city attracted more than twenty-two million visitors in 2019, many of them drawn to De Wallen, where sex workers offer their services from little neon-lit glass cubicles, and nearly two hundred “coffee shops” sell all varieties of hash, weed, and psychedelics. In short, Amsterdam has become synonymous with sleaze—or sleaze has become a metonym for Amsterdam—a perception city officials and many residents desperately want to change.

In November 2020, Mayor Femke Halsema announced plans to relocate sex workers to a purpose built “Erotic Center” on the city’s outskirts in hopes of luring bands of drunk men and general carnality away from residents to make space for new cafés, art galleries, and designer boutiques. An Erotic Center would “improve the position of sex workers, combat illicit activity, and reduce the nuisance caused by large crowds, thus creating a better balance for locals and tourists,” according to the mayor’s office. “We want less dominance of cheap nightlife.” A precise location for the proposed center has yet to be determined, but if built, it will be the most extreme measure taken to “clean up” De Wallen, which has, in recent years, already been subject to a raft of new regulations and security measures, including bans on guided tours and increased CCTV cameras.

Amsterdam’s sex workers are ambivalent about the city’s plans to relocate them. Brenda, a sex worker, met me at the Prostitution Information Center near the Oude Kerk, or “old church,” the oldest building in Amsterdam. She said sex workers were soft targets in the city’s gentrification push. “The bad behavior, the nuisance, comes from drinking and drunkenness,” she said. “But no one is saying close the bars.” Iris, a coordinator at the center, said the “so-called nuisance and antisocial behavior” was just another excuse to get rid of sex workers and free up lucrative real estate in the sought-after inner city.

It’s hard not to agree with them. Amsterdam’s progressive laws around sex and drugs were not originally intended to make De Wallen into an international tourist destination. But as the city began to draw in new travelers from the European Union and other parts of the world, the neighborhood came to cater more to visitors than locals. This overtourism has sharply driven up living costs—a predicament shared by many other European tourist sites. Thousands of residents of Venice, for example, have reportedly been priced out in recent years. In response, the city has banned large cruise ships from docking in its harbor and is set to introduce gates and a quota system for popular spots. Yet they have not outlawed gondolas or gondoliers. This is where Amsterdam stands out. For all the moral panic around what one official described as “sleaze consumerism,” the city, rather than combatting gentrification, is in fact accelerating the process, hoping to bring in fewer budget travelers and more “high-end” tourists.

Carnal Knowledge

Like many European cities, Amsterdam was transformed by the student movements of 1968, which spread the values of sexual liberation, gender equality, artistic playfulness, and civic participation. European hippies flocked to the city and set up camp in Amsterdam’s Dam Square; the number of gay bars doubled. Artists associated with the Provo movement held live sex “happenings”—similar to the events thrown by the Situationists of Paris—that critiqued everything from religious moralism to Dutch nationalism. Several radical pornographic magazines also emerged, including Suck, which counted William S. Burroughs and Germaine Greer among its contributors.

Amsterdam—the port city famous for tulips, clogs, and canals—is facing an identity crisis.

More remarkably, progressive ideas found a foothold in certain areas of public policy. In the 1960s, in response to housing shortages, the city built thirty-one high-rise honeycomb-shaped apartment blocks thirty minutes from its center. Siegfried Nassuth, the Bijlmer project’s chief architect, was inspired by the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne, particularly the work of Le Corbusier; he envisioned the towers as a utopia of classless urban space achieved through good design. But when the first apartments opened, they failed to live up to middle-class expectations. Residents grew frustrated from limited access to shops, poor amenities, and inadequate public transport. The Bijlmer quickly became known as the Netherland’s first and only “ghetto.” Yet today, after several decades of redevelopment and community engagement, it is considered a success of affordable housing, home to over one hundred different nationalities.

The progressive legacy of the 1960s remains strong in Amsterdam. That generation went on to become politicians, policymakers, and city officials who talk proudly of the “polder model,” which strives for inclusivity and consensus building in political decision making. It’s often noted that residents prefer bikes to cars. Amsterdam is also one of a handful of cities implementing a futuristic citywide “doughnut model,” developed by “renegade economist” Kate Raworth, whereby the inner ring of individual needs in a society correspond to and support an outer ring of the earth’s environmental limits. This kind of thinking dovetails with the Dutch government’s “circular economy” program that aims to eliminate all waste by 2050.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that all of the Netherlands is similarly progressive. “The self-imagery of Holland as a tolerant, liberal country was always promoted by elites in Amsterdam. Not the ordinary people,” Dutch scholar René van Swaaningen recently told me. “The Netherlands is a liberal country in the strict sense of the word. It’s the market-driven impulses, successive governments’ strong accent on the business sector, while defunding the public sector, that we face.” Beginning in the 1990s, conservatives rallied against the 1960s “flower power” generation and its leftist agenda. They argued the Netherlands had become an over-generous welfare state and had focused too much on political correctness while ignoring the perils of migration. The 9/11 terror attacks gave fresh impetus to this populist attitude, with much resentment directed at guest workers coming from Muslim countries like Turkey and Morocco. For the past two decades, the conservative and Christian party coalition governments have been in power at the center. These at times fragile coalitions survive via pragmatism, where tolerance and progressivism are pressure points for political point-scoring. In April 2019, for example, a Christian feminist group collected forty-two thousand signatures calling on parliament to ban sex work. At present, parliament has two far-right parties that make up more than 20 percent of the vote.

The contradictions of Dutch politics run deeper still. For all its talk of a “circular economy,” the Netherlands has one of Europe’s poorest shares of renewable energy (14 percent) in its power supply, according to Eurostat. It is also one of the world’s biggest tax havens for corporate giants like Nike, Google, and Apple, not to mention bands like U2 and the Rolling Stones. In July 2020, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tandayi Achiume, released a report that described the “Dutch Paradox,” where officials promote the notion of a dynamic, vibrant, and inclusive society, against which the lived experience of minorities is quite at odds. The government faced a massive scandal last year after it was found the that tax office unfairly targeted thousands of families for child welfare fraud due to their ethnicity. At a subtler level, there is a prevailing sense of cultural amnesia, or disconnect, between Amsterdam’s historical wealth, on display in the inner-city infrastructure like De Wallen’s canals and streets, and its past, which includes slavery and colonial exploitation from the seventeenth century and up until more recently in Suriname and Indonesia.

The Dutch Paradox

De Wallen is central to many paradoxes in Dutch public policy. While coffee shops selling cannabis are legal in Amsterdam, wholesale production of marijuana remains illegal. This has given rise to a booming business for Dutch criminals, who grow and supply weed to Amsterdam’s coffee shops, while also exporting large quantities to other parts of Europe. Hydroponic systems, developed in the 1990s, made marijuana cultivation easier and cheaper, increasing profits—and this in turn intensified competition among gangs. Between 2000 to 2005, Dutch police reported at least twenty-five murders related to the cannabis trade. Mobsters soon diversified into other drugs. Over the past decade, they have been killing each other, and civilians, to control the billions of dollars earned from Europe’s cocaine trade, which now rivals North America’s. In 2019, the head of the Netherlands police union described the country as a “narco-state.”

Amsterdam’s drug trafficking and sex work industries have always been intertwined—or at least that’s what city officials believe.

Amsterdam’s drug trafficking and sex work industries have always been intertwined—or at least that’s what city officials believe. In 1996, a parliamentary committee identified sixteen international and national drug cartels operating in De Wallen, which the city then targeted. In 1997, it launched the multi-agency Wallen project, aimed at taking out gang investments in brothels, bars, gambling houses, coffee shops, and cannabis stores. The strategy was tantamount to bureaucratic harassment, death by a thousand paper cuts. New licenses became difficult to procure, and more onerous regulations were enforced. But by their own assessment in 2007, the Wallen project failed to have significant impact on organized crime.

Undeterred, that same year the city launched Project 1012, named after De Wallen’s postal code. The plan promoted a new narrative that most sex workers were exploited victims of trafficking. The drive was led by deputy mayor Lodewijk Asscher, who later became the country’s deputy prime minister. “A civilized society cannot ignore sex trafficking,” he is quoted as saying in the glossy Project 1012 literature. “Behind a smile on the Wallen there is often a lot of sorrow lurking.”

As a part of the scheme, the city aimed to cut a third of brothel licenses; it also bought multimillion-dollar properties where sex work was conducted. The windows were repurposed, rented out for free for up to a year to “appropriate” businesses and projects, like 2008’s “Red-Light Fashion” initiative showcasing Dutch designers. Some hundred windows were closed in total. In July 2016, it was reported that two Dutch pension funds invested over $60 million, a little over a third of the total funds, in the public-private partnership of Project 1012 that bought De Wallen properties. Yet the Dutch media and official reports labeled Project 1012 a spectacular failure. Sex workers continued working, and organized crime remained organized.

City officials argued that Project 1012 was derailed by curbed public spending following the 2008 financial crisis. Local politicians, media, and sex worker advocates have countered that the exercise was a waste of time from the start, one giant money-laundering operation that shifted millions in public funds to business owners, who were often the very crime figures authorities were after. “Emperor of Sex” Charlie Geerts—better known as Fat Charles—allegedly made $35 million from selling his brothel-related properties under the scheme. Another De Wallen character, Willem Holleeder—a quasi-celebrity and career criminal who in 2019 was sentenced to life in prison for five murders and one manslaughter—is widely believed to have bought properties in Amsterdam’s red-light district while behind bars.

De Wallen Red, De Wallen Blue

To better understand the transformation happening in De Wallen, I arranged to walk through the neighborhood with René Boer, a driving force behind the Netherlands-based collective Failed Architecture. Boer’s manifesto, “Wallen 2020,” is a call to arms against the city’s latest attempt to gentrify the area. In it, he argues that Amsterdam has fallen victim to the pervasive movement toward a “Smooth City” as part of the global obsession with order, perfection, and regulated urban spaces. Boer links the rise of the Smooth City to the entrenchment of neoliberal urbanism—characterized by a fixation on city branding and foreign investment and the increasing power of finance—over the last two decades.

Visitors to Amsterdam come not just for the windmills, Rijksmuseum, and the Anne Frank house—they also want a sexual safari in De Wallen.

On a Thursday night last February, setting out to meet Boer, I walked along its cobbled lanes, where men of all shapes and sizes, ages and dress, leered, jeered, and peered into the red-lit windows. Behind the glass, women—many seemed to be from former Soviet states—were presented in lingerie or less. Some beckoned would-be clients with faux seductive hand gestures or blown kisses. Others scrolled on their phones as if waiting for a bus. Sex shops with mannequins in black latex masks and leather outfits straddled giant advertisements for “feminine health products” that could pass for posh vibrators, vape pens, or handheld blenders. The pungent smell of marijuana filled the air. I got a bit lost and did a few inadvertent laps before Boer found me. “It’s a unique part of the city,” he said. “De Wallen is the last unpolished urban space. We need to strengthen and enhance these unique qualities, where necessary of course, but, above all, let the area be what it is and what it wants to be.”

As we walked around, Boer stressed that there was more to De Wallen than the sex industry. He pointed to what looked like an ordinary canal house, the kind you’d find when looking up Amsterdam on Google. But hidden inside is a Catholic church: the “Our Lord in the Attic,” built in the seventeenth century in response to the Reformation that denied Catholics the right to worship. Around the corner was Café ’t Mandje, one of the city’s earliest gay bars, established by Bet van Beeren in 1927. To quote Boer’s Wallen manifesto: “Divergent, close-knit communities are permanently based in the area. Sex workers, artists, student fraternities, Coptic entrepreneurs, religious groups, a large Chinese and queer community. Large crowds fill the area from the late afternoon onwards, enhancing a—for Amsterdam unusual—feeling of sensory intensity, limitless expectation, needless friction, and positive disorientation.” This is what’s at stake as the neighborhood is sanitized beyond recognition.

We circled back to Amsterdam’s most famous canal, the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, and stopped to admire what, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the world’s longest 3-D printed steel bridge. Unveiled in July of last year, the twelve-meter-long “MX3D Bridge” was printed by robots and includes sensors that send live data, like pedestrian numbers and weight loads, to the Alan Turing Institute, the United Kingdom’s national institute for artificial intelligence. As we crossed it, I imagined stepping into a future where De Wallen would be populated by sex robots. Technology is driving sex toy innovation, with the rise of “teledildonics”—essentially, Bluetooth-enabled sex toys—along with life-size, AI-enhanced sex dolls made of silicon that can chat, moan, and respond to touch via sensors. But the few sex robot brothels in the United States, Canada, and Europe are seen more as a “try before you buy” experience. Already, the Campaign Against Sex Robots warns of emerging moral and ethical dilemmas to counter “the normalization of androids as substitutes for women.”

Opening Diors

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Dutch government turned to tourism to make up for the economic slump. Empty office spaces were converted to hotels while new ones were rapidly built. At its peak in 2019, the country’s tourism industry was worth just over $100 billion, some $30 billion more than in 2010. That’s not a bad number for a flat country that has terrible weather, bad beaches, and near-constant wind. Much to the chagrin of city officials, however, visitors to Amsterdam come not just for the windmills, Rijksmuseum, and the Anne Frank house—they also want a sexual safari in De Wallen.

On a sunny but cold day in late February, Amsterdam Greens city council member Zeeger Ernsting, a resident of De Wallen for nearly two decades, took me around the neighborhood to show me how Covid-19 has exposed its troubles in a new way. In the near total absence of tourists, it became clear that De Wallen no longer catered to locals. There were no bakeries, no butchers, no grocery stores. “The question always is, has the tolerance disappeared, or has the nuisance gone up?” Ernsting asked. “I think the nuisance has gone up; it grew too much at a certain point. But there’s also a lot of people wanting to make money out of the nuisance.”

Housing is one of the battlegrounds in this fight for De Wallen. Its central location, not to mention seven hundred years of history and famous architecture, make it a highly desirable area. Last March, Amsterdam lost a court bid to ban Airbnb rentals from its inner city. In the end, property owners were limited to renting out their homes for up to thirty days a year. Yet it seems misleading to place the blame solely on Airbnb, given that amsterdam&partners, the city’s tourist, marketing, and business lobby, represents the hotel industry and, the Dutch-founded hotel-reservation platform. According to amsterdam&partners the city opened eight new four- and five-star hotels and created twenty-five hundred new rooms over the last two years. A moratorium on new hotel construction has now been ordered.

After meeting Zeeger, I joined Zef Hemel, Amsterdam’s former senior planner, who took me to Leidseplein Square, on the edge of the inner city, where the hundred-year-old Hirsch building is now home to an Apple store. We watched tourists take selfies on the nearby historic Dam Square, outside the Royal Palace. A Dior luxury clothing store will soon replace a Dutch bank. Hemel had similar stories to tell about many buildings.

He feels that bad policy and decision-making has accelerated what he views as the inner city’s decline. A prime example is the so-called “red carpet” metro line, Amsterdam’s beleaguered north-south city rail project that cost an estimated $3.3 billion, twice the initial budget, and opened seven years later than planned. The idea behind the project was to build underground, decluttering the street and creating larger spaces for pedestrians and cyclists; however, it has simply directed more people to Amsterdam Centraal Station, which is walking distance from De Wallen. “No one considered the impact of all this,” Hemel told me. “They said too many were going to the city center, then they made it even easier for people to go there, to visit the red-light district.” The more fundamental issue, as he sees it, is that the city center no longer serves its residents. “This place has lost its soul,” he reflects. “As citizens, they wonder what the future of the historic inner city will be if it is no longer used as a communal space. If it still functions mainly as an amusement park, like Disneyland, what use to them is it?”

Indeed, De Wallen has become a simulacrum. Those hard-fought battles for inclusivity and acceptance, the hidden underworld with its vice and violence—all that has been commodified and repackaged as a dazzling amusement park for Instagrammers and lads on a weekend romp to the vomitorium. Meanwhile, sex workers are being turned into outsiders within the city’s old walls. “Amsterdam is known for its sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” Brenda told me. “Why change that?”