Dimming the Lights

EVERYONE HAS AN OPINION ABOUT WHERE Felicia Anna works. For the past nine years, the 33-year-old Romanian sex worker has attracted clients by standing in the glowing windows of the world’s most famous red-light district. The area’s reputation, she says over a coffee on one of Amsterdam’s cobbled, canalside streets, means it attracts more controversy than any other form of prostitution. “We’re always in the public eye, literally,” she says, laughing. (TIME has used pseudonyms for sex workers interviewed for this piece.)

Nicknamed “De Wallen” in Dutch for its position near the old city walls, the red-light district’s medieval buildings have hosted sex workers since the 15th century—long before the Netherlands began regulating and taxing prostitution in October 2000. Today, escort services and sex clubs make up a significant part of Amsterdam’s sex-work sector. But De Wallen’s window brothels, popularized in the 1960s, remain iconic: the literal manifestation of the clear-eyed Dutch approach to activities that other countries would rather sweep under the rug.

In recent years, though, a crisis has been building that leaves the fate of the red-light district uncertain.

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