By Clémence Waller, Edward Szekeres and Valerie Scholz
Used condoms stuck to trash cans, empty metal booths, puddles on the pavement. Silence in the air. In the final months of the Groningen Tippelzone, sex workers are left out in the cold due to stigma and bigotry. It’s the calm before the storm.
For retired sex worker Carmen Kleinegris (61), life proceeds in waves. The crest: a carefree moment, a young girl sitting in the passenger seat of an expensive sports car, blonde locks of hair dancing around her head, marvelling at the glistening sea in the moonlight. The trough: seven men around her, hours of agony, a rape that she will never forget.
“I am still an outsider 40 year later because of my experience”, sighs Carmen who went on to work as a social worker after 5 years of prostitution that helped to pay for her education.
Sex work is a highly stigmatized occupation in Dutch society. In fact, it is not accepted as a profession at all. “You have a stamp on your head: you did an abnormal job.” This reputation remains for a lifetime.
Women like Carmen feel isolated from society. “It often feels like you´re from the moon,” she says. Others are shamed into hiding part of their identity and history: “You are included in society as long as you shut your mouth about your work.”
Carmen is fighting a losing battle. Her country, the Netherlands, is dismantling one of the main features of its famously liberal prostitution policy. Dutch cities are shutting down their legal street prostitution areas, these areas are called Tippelzones. The Groningen Tippelzone will be closed down by March 2019 while the one in Utrecht will follow suit later that year.
The Groningen Tippelzone
A Place to Work
A small white container house hidden under overarching branches marks the entrance to the Groningen Tippelzone. This is the Housekamer. It offers a safe resting space, medical care, hot beverages and a dedicated area for drug use.
The pick-up area offers three plastic shelters against the cold autumn winds. Large bricks at the side of the road ensure that women cannot be injured by cars driving by. The road leads to an area of compartments for sexual intercourse, each separated by a wall for privacy and equipped with a trashcan for condom disposal.
The place might seem grim, but it offers something sex workers need, and don’t have when working the streets: safety. “A Tippelzone is a place where street prostitutes can legally do their job, in a controlled area”, Carmen explains. The sex workers are registered, the area is overseen by police forces and aid is provided by volunteers and social workers.
A typical workplace
Safety and Professionalism
Tippelzones were first introduced in Holland in the 1980’s, as a measure to remove street prostitution and heroin addicts from the city centre. They made the providing of health and social services for sex workers easier. The confined space allows for immediate countermeasures in case of rape and rooms for safe drug use.
The installation of Tippelzones also increased the professionalism of prostitution, according to Carmen. During her 5 years of managing the Huiskamer Aanloop Prostituees (Living Room for Prostitutes) in the Utrecht Tippelzone, she taught and organized regular courses for sex workers ranging from make-up and hair tutorials to sexual education. This was done not only for the women’s safety and education, but also to improve the image of prostitution within society.
No Future for Tippelzones?
While sex workers defend Tippelzones because of the safety they provide, their arguments are not often heard. The Groningen municipality decided to close the Tippelzone because they consider it to be “inhumane”. With this measure, they hope to have “fewer women in an unsafe environment”.
Not only has the city turned against the concept of the Tippelzone, but aid organizations have also turned against the Tippelzone. The Salvation Army and other charitable organizations are already working hand-in-and with the government, aiming to reintegrate former sex workers into regular life.
The Salvation Army feels that the concept of the Tippelzone is outdated. Times have changed, so have the sex workers. Before, drug-addicted prostitutes worked to afford drugs. Nowadays, women enter the Tippelzone clean, but sometimes slip into addiction due to the strains of the job and the high availability of drugs in the area. According to Carmen, around a third of the women working in the Utrecht Tippelzone are drug addicts.
“The most important thing is the women” explains Salvation Army specialist for the Tippelzones, Ineke Van Buren. She disagrees with sex workers who defend their profession, like Carmen Kleingris. “None of the women want to work in prostitution in the future”, Ineke adds.
The Salvation Army partners with the municipality to offer individual and voluntary step-out programs for the prostitutes. “We ask them, how can we help you to fulfil your dreams?”. Even after 20 unsuccessful rehab therapies, the women can always return for help. “People are not hopeless, there is always hope and we will always keep hope”, says Ineke.
But Carmen disagrees: “All these programs are just to keep everybody still.”
“Society is Getting Prude”
Despite good intentions, reality sometimes differs. Many sex workers disagree with the notion that the closure of the zones will lead to any positive effects on the health and safety of sex workers. They believe these closures will push them further into the shadows and make their profession more stigmatised, ostracised and dangerous.
“The entire system is a mess!” Mischa (41), a former Tippelzone sex worker, exclaims.
Despite the closure of the zone, these women will continue their work, only in riskier conditions. They will take their clients to abandoned places, hiding from both police and fines but also from safety. Even going online is dangerous, resulting in fines or worse being made homeless by landlords, she adds.
“These women feel like they have their back against the wall,” says Gonnie Lemckert (74) local charity worker and head of Straatmadelief, a sex worker aid society. Being a retired sex worker herself and having supported the prostitutes of the Tippelzone in Groningen for over 18 years, Gonnie knows “these women don’t trust anybody”. This makes counselling by organizations difficult.
Carmen believes, public perception contributes to the stigmatisation of prostitution. “We don’t want you there, so we thought the best thing is, you are going to stop. That’s bullshit”, she says.
The controversial idea that no woman wants to work in prostitution and wishes for a “normal life” has bewildered Carmen all her life. Sex work is normal to Carmen. “Many people work with their bodies in factories, handicrafts or construction why is sex work different”?
Sex workers find that the proposed governmental measures are theoretically efficient, but doubt they are realistic. Mischa worked as an interviewer for a study investigating stigma and violence against sex workers in the Netherlands.
The results of this research, conducted by Soa Aids Nederland in collaboration with PROUD, the Dutch Union for Sex Workers, show that prostitutes tend to enjoy their freedom, independence and find work enjoyable. This raises the question if integration into “normal life” is even desirable amongst the majority of sex workers.
Thirty years ago, society accepted prostitutes, today opinions have changed. These women face an uncertain future. Municipal policy and an increasingly conservative society further the stigma towards prostitution.
When asked what will happen to these women after the closure, Mischa laughs sarcastically. “I think they are going to marry and have a bunch of children and be a good housewife for the rest of their life”.
A life of crests and troughs have taught Carmen a valuable lesson: “It’s shit now, it’s really pure shit now… but maybe tomorrow it’s better”.