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Sex work in Brussels: how prostitution ended up in the Aarschotstraat

Sex work in Brussels: how prostitution ended up in the Aarschotstraat

Prostitution has always existed everywhere and Brussels is no exception. The form of prostitution tolerated in a city often depends on the local mentality and the city authority’s attitude towards sex work. Development of prostitution is often also closely related to urban planning evolutions as we shall see from the example of Brussels.

Different forms of prostitution have flourished in different neighbourhoods across Brussels over the years. In the Middle Ages, “pleasure girls” as they are often termed in Dutch could be found in whorehouses or stews, around what is now Brussels’ historic market square. Stews were bathhouses that were more like brothels. It is here that punters slipped into both bath and bed.

A little further along, where the old stock exchange building now stands, there were also a few brothels in the fifteenth century.

In the seventeenth century brothels flourished in the Marollen district high up in the city. This was the age of religious wars and the Southern Netherlands were under the yoke of Catholic Spain. Soldiers from the Spanish army were regular visitors. Lonely men, far away from home for long periods of time, congregated in areas close to the area of Brussels where you could find the bordellos.

It may seem hard to fathom today, but in the past the posh St Hubertus Galleries were also a meeting place for prostitutes and their punters.

Archief van de Stad Brussel

The North District

Prostitution can no longer be found on a large scale in these places today. Nowadays the North District of Brussels, close to the North Station, is the focus of prostitution in the Belgian and Flemish capital.

Even before the North Station was built in 1841, brothels were to be found in this neighbourhood. The atmosphere in many of the  inns and theatres of this neighbourhood used to be rather bawdy. There was dancing, singing, drinking and carousing, but people always found time for a little love-making too.

Little by little, these brothels had to make way for the construction of the North Station, which at this time still stood on the Rogierplein. Although the neighbourhood changed as a result of urban planning, prostitution continued to exist here, albeit in a new form in and around the Rogierplein. The railway station led to a lot of to-ing and fro-ing making the station approaches the perfect place for prostitutes to recruit clients. Later, this is an activity that also spread to the boroughs of Sint-Joost and Schaarbeek.

There, in the North District, prostitution occurred behind closed doors.  Punters were welcome at ‘carrés’, family homes where the ground floor had been converted into a brothel. Prostitutes left the curtains open and with brightly coloured lights indicated that a certain kind of visitor was welcome. In addition to the ‘carrés’, there were also champagne bars. These were open day and night and visitors were well received.

Window Prostitution

Prostitution has been around forever and for many of those years city authorities have attempted to control it.  In recent times city councils have constantly been searching for a balance between keeping prostitution out and tolerating it. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, many champagne bars in Sint-Joost had to close down as a result of action by  Sint-Joost city council.

These were also the years when window prostitution was on the rise in Belgium. Originally, an invention in Amsterdam, it is tolerated in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland.  It first came about when the Amsterdam authorities clamped down on street prostitution.  Sex workers rent a window and workspace from a window operator, for a day or part of the day.  The sex worker operates independently and negotiates fees and the services provided with the customer.

In Brussels too city administrations wanted more control over sex work, and by allowing window prostitution in the Aarschotstraat, the hope was that sex work could be concentrated in this street and would decline in other neighbourhoods.

But anyone walking around the wider perimeter around the North Station knows that prostitution still exists in several streets in Sint-Joost, but equally near the IJzerplein.

Prostitution has been happening in various forms and streets in Brussels’ North District for a long time, but tolerated window prostitution is a rather recent phenomenon. However, the term ‘tolerated’ needs to be put in context. City and municipal administrations have long been searching to find the right regulations and attitude towards sex workers, whether it is their presence in the street or their statutes and the protection given to sex workers.

Today, apart from in Brussels window prostitution is tolerated in several Flemish cities: in Antwerp in the Seamans’ Quarter, in Ghent, in the ‘Glass Street’ (Pieter Vanderdoncktdoorgang), in Ostend on the ‘Hazegras’ near the railway station, in Deinze along the Kortrijksesteenweg and in Stint-Truiden on the Luikersteenweg, known locally as the ‘Chaussée d’Amour’.  Window prostitution also occurs on many roads outside built up areas.  On the Kortrijksesteenweg between Deinze and Sint-Martens-Latem some 60 windows are said to be operating.

This article is based on an article published by Brussels media outlet BRUZZ in its Big City series.

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