Passports and panic buttons in the brothel of the future

Tapping his fingers on a biometric keypad, George Vos opens the door to his workplace, ushering his visitors up the stairs into a darkened room of scarlet bedding and golden-embroidered cushions, of multi-coloured sex toys and, in the corner, a large, black cage.

It is far from an ordinary office, but Mr Vos is no ordinary man. A one-time transvestite prostitute turned entrepreneur, he is now the manager of Villa Tinto, the designer-finished, state of the art, super-brothel in the centre of Antwerp's red-light district intended to revolutionise the image of prostitution in Belgium.

The business, set up by a well-known Belgian businessman, Franky De Coninck, is ground-breaking in its design and in the ideas behind it. Not only was the building designed by the architect Arne Quinze - who has advised Brad Pitt on his interior décor - but it also has a host of features aimed at making life safer for prostitutes and clients.

Opposite the brothel entrance, in the Schipperskwartier dock area is a police station. Each room in the brothel has panic buttons in case clients turn violent. A doctor is just around the corner and, because of the biometric keypad, there is no sub-letting of any of the 51 rooms to unauthorised prostitutes.

No one here is a victim of people-traffickers and only women with EU passports can work from Villa Tinto.

"It's safer, it's more open," said. Mr Vos. "There is no exploitation because the girls are free to come and work when they want. Everything is controlled."

Yet the creation of such brothels has polarised the debate in Europe over how to deal with prostitution: should it be gentrified or should those who seek to buy sex be criminalised? In Paris, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe discussed the continent's different approaches to the sex trade. Women's groups have stepped up their opposition to new experiments in tolerance.

But in Antwerp itself, Villa Tinto is deemed such a success that it features in the political campaign for forthcoming municipal elections. For several centuries, prostitution has been centred in the port district of Antwerp but, over the past few years, it has been concentrated into just three streets.

Outside Villa Tinto, the Socialist Mayor of Antwerp, Patrick Janssens, is trailed by television camera crews as he extols the virtues of a policy which, he says, has revived large chunks of the city. "We have concentrated prostitution into three streets and that means we can put in place tough criteria," he explains. "Most of these people are working in extremely good conditions. It was not like this five years ago. Now we have been able to create a situation where women are more independent, they are safe to the extent that the individual prostitute has to provide her fingerprint when she rents the room."

Antwerp is increasingly a model for Belgian cities and, potentially, for others in Europe. Delegations have visited from Brussels, Charleroi and Liege. Villa Tinto is trying to open another brothel in Barcelona.

Mr Janssens says that five years ago he would not have felt safe walking these streets. Now he recommends a tour of the three streets to out-of-town visitors.

With its designer credentials and reputation as a super-brothel, Villa Tinto attracts a mix of tourists and punters from across the social spectrum. Mr Vos said: "It has all types of clients, ranging from 'the normal guy working in the street' to lawyers and doctors."

But Mary McPhail, secretary general of the European Women's Lobby, believes all those seeking to use prostitutes should be treated as criminals. She said: "If such a showcase of elite brothels [like Villa Tinto] did emerge it would be no more than a front for what most people experience, which is intimidation and violence. We believe it is a criminal activity for one person to seek to buy access to another's body through prostitution."

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