COME IN: Sex worker Elsa in her window.
Elsa stands inside a body-length window in a tight-fitting bodice, chatting to the men who walk past To get inside, a client needs to tell her what he wants and to pay upfront.

“Regular sex costs euro 50. Anything else, like anal sex, bondage, costs at least another euro 50,” she says.

If Elsa doesn’t like the look of him, she can simply shut her window, which can only open from the inside.

“The Windows” is a key feature of the red-light district of Amsterdam, a city that has gone further than most to normalise sex work. Elsa’s window is a little different from most, as she rents it and a room behind it from My Red Light, a for-profit collective run by sex workers.

She is one the of sex workers that 'give pleasure' to throngs of clients who visit the famous district in the centre of the Dutch capital. 

Elsa’s friend, Foxxy, who is part of the Dutch sex worker union, Proud, encouraged Elsa to move across the canal to these rooms.

Foxxy, who has been a sex worker for over 15 years, say that sex work is just work for her.

“I like sex every day. I was having a lot of it and my friends said to me I should think about charging for it, so I did,” explains Foxxy, who is also on the board of PIC. “The day that I stop like having sex, is the day I will stop doing this.”

Another fellow sex worker Karin provides sex for people who are disabled, physically and mentally, and elderly. She is also a registered nurse and gets her clients through an agency.

“I also like sex. I like that I can help people to feel better,” said Karin, who said she “has been 45 for a few years”.

Elsa, who is originally from the US says she likes the safety aspect and the decor of the red light district, which makes it attractive.

“I come from the US, but it is not safe there for anybody these days, much fewer sex workers. I feel safer here,” laughs Elsa, who claims to be 25 and said she has been involved in sex work since she was 17.

“I really like the connection with people. I like to offer a service that makes people feel better. It’s good money and I can set my own hours.”

In Amsterdam, where sex work was legalised in 2000, sex workers are required to register with the local chamber of commerce, where they are classified as “personal carers” and taxed as freelancers, paying both VAT of 21%, as well as personal income tax.

To work in the windows, women have to be over the age of 21, communicate in English or German and able to work legally in the Netherlands.

The city pays for a health clinic for sex workers, which offers free services, and the HIV rate among local sex workers is lower than the HIV rate among the city’s students.

In some parts of South Africa, over half of the sex workers are HIV-positive, but reaching them with HIV prevention programmes is hard because sex work is illegal.

Kholi Buthelezi, the national co-ordinator of the South African sex worker organisation Sisonke, marvels at the safe conditions for sex workers in the red-light district: “I noticed they have panic buttons in the rooms,” she said.

“But in South Africa, we get chased by police. We run away until our high heels break off. We get raped. There is no protection for us.”

Buthelezi believes that sex work should be completely decriminalised, as it is in Amsterdam. She is unimpressed by the “Swedish model” that SA supports. She said that the Swedish model is “a big no-no. If you target the client instead of the sex worker, it is the same thing - you drive sex work underground and make it unsafe.

She believes that the Swedish model criminalises sex workers’ clients and those who run brothels and escort agencies rather than sex workers, arguing that the basis of sex work is exploitation, as no woman would do sex work if she had a choice.

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