Amsterdam: Uneasy in the Red Light District

BY ONEIKA RAYMOND

It’s probably telling that my first post on Amsterdam is about the Red Light District, but I am unsure how to feel about the legal prostitution here.On the one hand, I appreciate the transparency of the whole affair. The industry is governed by rules that it must follow to ensure the health and safety of those in it. People have had sex recreationally since the beginning of time, and prostitution, they say, is one of the oldest professions on earth. People want to –need to–“do it”, and in this consumer culture, some will naturally pay to satisfy their carnal desires. The legalization of prostitution de-stigmatizes the industry and creates a free market in which a person can purchase the service of sex if they have the means to do so.

It all makes sense in theory.

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But then… Liebling and I take a stroll through the Red Light District on a Saturday night and the harsh reality of it makes me feel slightly uneasy. The streets cut by canals are narrow, teeming with people (mostly men), brightened by neon signs selling sex.

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The rows of windows are filled with women awaiting their next customer. All different shapes and sizes, the only thing that seemingly unify them is the revealing clothing they wear. One stares blankly out to the street, unflinching as a man with a large blow-up penis tied to his middle thrusts it noncommittally in her direction, his group of six or so friends egging him on. Another massages her large, surgically-enhanced breasts and mouths words I’m unable to make out to passerby. She’s going for sexy but her gesturing is over the top.

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It’s none of my business but I wonder about these girls: where they are from, their back story. What do they think? What do they feel? I don’t judge them but I wonder if they’re happy, I hope that this is something they chose and that they aren’t being subjugated and objectified by a demanding public. I want to ask the choosers what motivates them is to sell their sex, an act so taboo in most places in the world? Commoditizing one’s body is a foreign concept to me. I can’t put myself in their shoes, but I want to understand.

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We spend fifteen minutes walking the main strip and then leave. Liebling stops for fries, the greasy thick-cut ones they wrap up in a paper cone, but I’m still haunted by the ladies in the window. Our last day in Amsterdam, Sunday, they are momentarily forgotten — it’s museum day for us and my head is instead filled with Van Gogh and his artistic vision and tragic sorrow — but Monday rolls around and I find myself back in London googling “prostitution in Amsterdam”.

I come across supposed real accounts from men who have dabbled. I read that it is 50 euros for a “basic” liaison of twenty minutes or so and that deviations from this are extra. I learn that prostitution in the Netherlands was only legalized in the 1990’s, and that more than two thirds of the working girls in Amsterdam are foreigners from poorer countries, many using their bodies as a ticket to financial freedom. I learn that as the sex industry in the Netherlands has increased in revenue, so has the amount of human trafficking into the country. Organized crime rings smuggle women into the country illegally and then force them to join the sex trade.  Yes, I know, I understand that some have willfully chosen this profession and more power to them. Still, it is sad to know that for others there was no choice, so with a mouse click I shut the browser and move on to something more uplifting. But then… my mind wanders again and in the moment I blink I can see them — the girls — behind my eyelids, burning holes into my consciousness as they wait for the next customer.

Have you ever been to the Red Light District? How do you feel about prostitution and its legalization? Is it immoral or necessary?

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79 Comments

  • I am against prostitution. Sure, there may be the odd woman or man who genuinely wants to be a prostitute (and, as you said, more power to them) but I simply cannot support something that forces so many people, especially women and children, into a degrading, suffocating, miserable life. It’s a slippery slope, of course – if we condone prostitutes in Amsterdam, why not Bangkok? etc. I would fully support the profession if it truly was a person’s choice, and then I agree that it should be legalized. It just breaks my heart to see so many people being taken advantage of and often having to pay off family debts (i.e. young women in Asia).

    But it’s all about supply and demand, right? I think that there needs to be much more education, especially with travellers, about the consequences of sleeping with prostitutes. It’s not just a fun, stupid thing to do on holiday, which is how I’m sure many people justify it when they travel. It carries serious weight. Until the prostitutes themselves, and NOT the crime rings or pimps, hold the power, I cannot support it. I do not judge the prostitutes, but the men and women who sleep with them.

    I have been to the Red Light District in Amsterdam, and other such districts around the world (often by accident, like in Japan), and, although it claims to be legal, I can’t help but feel so awful. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s moral, doesn’t mean it’s right.

    Reply
  • I am not in favor of prostitution legal or otherwise. It is demeaning to all of humanity. Even if the woman went into it willingly, I cannot say more power to them. That is not true power. Yes, it is true that it one of the oldest professions, but that does not make it alright. That simply tells me that somewhere in human history we lost touch with the true nature of ourselves. The people who sleep with them are no different than the prostitutes. The fact that prostitution is so widespread (legal or not) and that porn is so prevalent on the internet is an indication of how low the world has sunk.

    Reply
  • I visited Amsterdam’s Red Light District years ago when I was in Europe with my dad and brother of all people (awkward). I was also haunted by the images of the women selling their bodies in the windows. I personally think that it’s very sad and immoral, and my guess is that most women would prefer to have a profession where they don’t have to sell their bodies for profit. It makes me think about the porn industry which is a form of legal prostitution. There are many in the porn industry who love what they do, but then again, there are many others who don’t and who are very depressed and drug addicted. I personally don’t think that prostitution should be legalized, but then again, I don’t know if doing so would have a positive effect, especially for those who are subject to illegal sex trafficking. Great post!

    Reply
    • There’s nothing wrong with consensual prostitution, and it doesn’t have to involve intercourse, it can just be admiring their beauty and potentially their innate character, plus caressing, massaging, embracing.
      It can be a healthy experience, especially with a truly beautiful woman, who’s healthy and in great shape,… and same being with the customer. Beautiful human physical contact and appreciation is what it can be at it’s best. Respect.

      It’s such a shame so many ‘moral’ regular folks let their body ‘go’ and don’t uphold physical beauty and health.
      That’s much more immoral than the consensual sharing as I’ve described above.

      I could write this more clearly but I’m being brief for the comment.

      Reply
  • I’ve walked through the red light district in Amsterdam many times and I think prostitution should be legal. There will always be prostitution, legal or not, and I see no good coming out of criminalizing it. Legalizing it adds protections that can’t be found in an illegal trade. Of course, I’m very against illegal sex trafficking but I think adding legal protections reduces sex trafficking.

    Reply
  • I really hated the Red Light District and hate it even more that it’s a weird tourist attraction. It felt so strange to be walking down those narrow streets while middle-aged tourists giggled and pointed at those poor girls. I had a tour guide while I was there and he was proud of how open they are about prostitution and that it’s a great way for these women to be independent and earn a decent living. I just think it’s really sad that prostitution is the only way for them to make an income and I don’t believe they’d do it if they could find a nice office job that paid the same.

    I do think it’s great that there is a lot of protection for the women but it still feels weird.

    Reply
  • For what it’s worth, Amsterdam has tried to keep it as safe as possible for prostitutes. Unfortunately, there will always be people to abuse the system. It’s unfair. But, imagine if someone were a prostitute in the US. They would have practically nothing to keep them safe.

    Reply
  • Another great post, Oneika.

    I haven’t visited Amsterdam yet so I can’t comment on it’s Red Light District but like you, prostitution makes me uneasy. I watched it on the daily living in Gabon and couldn’t help but ponder how it all works. I’d see old, French men sitting down to dinner with young Gabonese girls and wonder if it was actually a genuine relationship or just an ‘arrangement.’ The amount of stories of men with wives and children back home and Gabonese ‘girlfriends’ at work astonished me.

    I like to think that I’m a pretty liberal person but there’s something about prostitution, legal or not, that doesn’t seem right to me.

    Reply
  • Oneika, your post is very timely since this very issue is coming before the Supreme Court of Canada quite soon.

    I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m not against legalized prostitution. My opinion is like being pro-choice about abortion…I think that people should have the option to choose it if they wish to. Blame my liberal (okay, radical) equity studies degree but I don’t think the government should tell people what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.

    I knew a transwoman in school who was a sex worker and she just genuinely liked sex. She had a partner, was extremely intelligent and well-spoken and wasn’t embarrassed about her chosen profession. The challenge in Canada is on the premise that it is indeed safer for women to have this work legalized because they could hire bodyguards and take their businesses inside (at present, it is illegal to “live on the avails of prostitution” or to use a dwelling as a “bawdy-house”) which limits freedom of expression and violates rights to security of the person.

    The issues you and a few other commentators brought up are very true; however, they are not necessarily symptomatic of the institution itself. In fact, the most common destinations for trafficked victims are the US, Australia and Japan where prostitution is not legal. I agree that these crime rings must be stopped, but I think it’s a separate issue (which legally, it is).

    I hope this was interesting, besides appalling! ha.

    Yours in Travel,

    Alyssa

    Reply
  • Prostitution is legal in Melbourne, but the prostitutes have no laws/regulations to help with their work conditions.

    In an ideal world, I would prefer that no one needs to sell their bodies to make a living and prostitution wasn’t a thing. However, it is a thing. And so, I do see a need for their to be regulations and laws to protect the women who do it (and men? are there men?).

    That all being said, I would also be haunted if I went to the red light district. I lived in St Kilda for a while in Melbourne which is known for it’s prostitutes and I never ventured onto the streets most well known for that activity. I didn’t want to see it.

    Reply
  • So does this post mean you did not like the city, or enjoyed your trip?

    @Topic: Prostitution happens even on the informal scale. A woman who finds herself without the means to feed her herself, or her children may sleep with a man she does not like, or have any attraction to. She knows he is after her and he likes her, and she sleeps with him to get that survival money. She may find herself in situations from time to time and start sleeping with him to get some money to get through life. This is a form of prostitution, even though she has never stood on a street or offered herself to numerous men, she is still selling sex for money. This form of prostitution happens very often.

    I honestly believe that prostitution should be legal, and zoned just like it is in Amsterdam. I want to know that all forms of prostitution will take place in one location and so I don’t have to worry about some rub and tug opening next to me. Those who operate outside of the law and zone should face extreme fines. Now, I do not like the window front merchandise setup like they have there, this is not necessary, the windows should be blacked out like they do adult video stores and people can conduct their transactions privately and at least the prostitute has some measure of annonymity.

    Reply
  • Great post Oneika! The sex industry always leaves me feeling uneasy as well. I grew up in Germany, where prostitution is also legal and there is a similar sex mile to the one in Amsterdam in Hamburg. I don’t judge the girls- if they are happy with what they are doing then they should. I have a problem with the many trafficked girls and how they get exploited. Most of the times you can’t tell if a girl has been trafficked or if she is doing it out of her own free will. And to be honest most men don’t even want to know and that’s what I find most upsetting. I met trafficked girls in Cambodia (where I live) who are so traumatized by what happened to them that they won’t be able to live a happy life again without a lot of professional help and counseling.

    Reply
  • You brilliantly captured what many of us, probably mostly women, have felt when visiting the red light district. I’m conflicted about prostitution, in part I believe it should be decriminalized, where the penalty, danger and targeting of prostitutes is reduced if not eliminated. I’m also aware how dehumanizing and exploitative it is for the millions of children and young women who are no better than sex slaves. After all, until we have some governing international regulations where every country abides by it, prostitution will remain a dangerous industry for girls and boys around the world.

    Anyway, I believe the reason some of us feel uneasy when touring Amsterdam Red Light District is the fact its dehumanizing to see young girls and older women in their underwear displayed like objects on these windows. I remember when one time I ended up accidentally making eye contact with one of the girls and how quickly she looked away. I think I read somewhere few yrs back how the government was debating restricting it further since most Dutch men do not seek these prostitutes and its mostly British and other international male tourists.

    Reply
  • I never been to the Red Light District in Amsterdam but I have seen something similar in Barcelona, Spain and New Orleans, LA. I reacted the same way you did: What is their story? How did they end up here? What about their family and why haven’t they rescued them? I probably would feel the same way in a strip club (which is why I never been to one). I feel so sad for them and wish that their life could turn around.

    Reply
  • Someone ought to take speak up for us lurking in the shadows. Here goes.

    No one should be abused or exploited against their will. However, between consenting adults, in privacy, I don’t feel prostitution is much different than the vast majority of the activities of capitalism. In fact there is a lot less subterfuge involved.

    Now really from the shadows – I’m getting really old and I still desire intimacy (?) with the opposite sex. I find it really difficult to accomplish this feat for a couple of reasons. 1. As I age I don’t find women that are available to me are attractive, without running through my assets to gain the favor of the desirable ones (is that not procurement), and I’m quite sure the reverse is true. 2. The process to achieve a desirable sexual liaison becomes most difficult at a time when endurance and the demands are most disparate.

    In the interest of cooling the ire of some to this post let me say I don’t engage in the use of prostitutes. It is illegal and unsafe for all concerned where I live. If it was legal and safe then I would earn your enmity.

    Reply
  • Hi Oneika! I just finished my thesis on marketing Amsterdam as a tourism destination to people ages 18-35 and I thought I would throw in a few of my insights on the topic. They aren’t particularly related to the ethics of prostitution in the Netherlands, but its impact on Amsterdam’s tourism industry.

    First of all, your article is so eloquent, and perfectly captures how I feel about the topic. Other readers may find it interesting to know that the laws in Amsterdam also regulate the operating hours of brothels (and other places where prostitution is openly practiced) due to public safety concerns – for the sex workers and those who pay for sex. For example, brothels must close between 5 am and 9 am on certain days of the week, because there simply aren’t enough people on the street during those hours to provide a sort of public safety net, a ‘neighbourhood watch’ of sorts, so that sex workers and those seeking out sex workers do not find themselves alone on a dark corner and hence, more vulnerable. I thought that was an interesting law (not that it actually stops prostitution during those hours, but still). Dutch law also bans double shifts for prostitutes.

    In my thesis research I found that 46% of visitors to Amsterdam visit the RLD. I also discovered that, for about half of people aged 18-35, the RLD was actually a major deterrent for visiting the city. In other words, legal prostitution and the RLD – and the image it gives to Amsterdam – made them not want to visit. A pretty even split, no?

    In recent years the Dutch gov’t has attempted to ‘clean up’ the RLD area through Project 1012 (named for the RLD’s postcode) by peppering the district with new restaurants, artist studios, etc. and providing funding and grants to projects that make it more of a cultural centre. Some of my Dutch friends have expressed concern over this since the RLD is a major part of Amsterdam’s cultural and historical identity, and some feel the gov’t is trying to ‘gentrify’ the area. There is no general consensus over whether this will actually attract more tourists, or deter people from visiting. Interesting stuff!

    Here’s an excerpt from my thesis regarding Project 1012. It might not make sense 100% since it lacks the context of the rest of my paper, but I think it’s still interesting:

    Assisting in this rebranding effort was the 2010 crowning of Amsterdam’s central Canal
    District as a UNESCO World Heritage site, which Kadushin suggests helps draw the gaze
    away from the city’s Red Light District and coffeeshops to its city’s “truer core”, the
    concentric loops of canals the burgher’s dug up in the seventeenth century. With focus shifting to the city’s canals, history, and culture, a rebranding effort seems more likely to succeed, especially given investment by local government. An April 2013 article in The Guardian reflects on this rebranding effort, indicating that,

    “The municipality says its tolerance is being abused as the [city] centre is being
    overwhelmed by tawdry sex shows, drug dealing, and British stag-party
    weekenders. Organised crime has moved in and many businesses are fronts for
    money-laundering and human trafficking. So the city is rebranding itself, and has
    invested upwards of €700m on remaking its cultural institutions over the past
    decade.”

    Part of this investment is Project 1012 (named after the Red Light District’s postcode)
    which aims to clean up the neighbourhood by closing half of the window brothels and
    coffeeshops, opening upmarket shopping and restaurants in their place.
    Forbes contributor Cecilia Rodriquez indicates that, “the city plans to expropriate property
    of owners refusing to leave, close all businesses unable to prove they are not criminal
    organizations, and to buy buildings that rent space to such businesses”

    Other Project 1012 efforts include a 2008 project to provide free studio space to
    artists and designers in former brothels, and the transformation of a former gambling house
    into the Mata Hari bar, a micro-brewery, deli, florist, and homewares store.
    Local business owners remain divided over whether it is a good thing for the area, or if the
    area will lose its edge – and attraction for tourists – entirely. A July 2012
    article in Forbes, “Minus Sex Shops, Marijuana and Prostitutes on Display, Will Amsterdam
    Be the Same?” echoed this sentiment. Rodriquez remarks, “If the campaign keeps up, the
    city may have to rename its most famous neighborhood. How does the Pink District
    sound?”

    Reply
  • I completely agree with your thoughts on the red light district. I felt the same way wandering its streets, uncomfortable and saddened by the woman in the windows. Many of the women looked unhappy, and I have to say the crowd of people the area attracts is generally unpleasant to be around on the best of days. I would almost go as far to say it is the least safe I have felt in a European city, despite the fact the streets were crowded. It was not a nice atmosphere at all.

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