Turning on the Red Light

Raindrops on an umbrella in Amsterdam

In the 1600s Amsterdam was one of the richest cities in the entire world. Home of the Dutch East India Company, the city’s ports saw thousands upon thousands sailors come and go as spices were brought from the Far East. These sailors, fresh off of months at sea, were eager to take advantage of the pleasures of land and soon dozens of brothels popped up on the streets near the harbor.

Over time, as the world changed and the spice trade became less profitable, Amsterdam’s prosperity declined. With the drop and trading, the sailors no longer visited the city on throngs, but the prostitutes remained. Today, the sailors have been replaced by College Boys and Stag Parties, and the herbs and spices have been replaced by…well other herbs and spices. The modern city of Amsterdam is home to one of the largest Red Light Districts in the world.

When I visited Amsterdam in September 2011, I knew I wanted to visit the Red Light District but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little apprehensive. In my mind it was a shady area, made up of tight dark alleys filled with creepy men in trench coats. Needless to say it wasn’t like that at all. In fact, the Red Light District is much like every other street in the city except for the addition of neon lights and large plate glass windows. And of course, each window showcases a woman for sale…something that can be hard to wrap your mind around. (Note: The girls are for the most part young and very pretty and dressed in what could be considered a bikini. Very VERY rarely is there any actuall nudity in the windows. Obviously, you know whats going on behind closed doors- but actually walking around the area isn’t a vulgar experience)

Statue from the Red Light District

Statue of "Belle" in the Red Light Distrcit in Amsterdam

Here are a few tips for visiting the Red Light District I picked up during my time in Amsterdam:
1. Do NOT under any circumstance take photos of the girls. There are stories of them exiting the windows to chase down tourists and destroy the offending cameras. They are fine however with you taking general “Red Light District” photos – as long as they aren’t in them.
2. If you are a guy, you will be solicited. If you aren’t interested, don’t approach the windows – It’s not a zoo. Since I was a girl, no one thought I was buying, but that doesn’t mean my presence was totally welcome – I was just in the way of potential customers.
3. There is a Prostitute Resource Center that can be visited by tourists to get additional information about the area. It’s a good place to start your visit.

Closed Curtains in the Red Light District of Amsterdam

Windows in the Red Light District

• There are no pimps. Each window is owned by the building its part of and leased individually to a working girl. The girls pay to lease the windows by the hour based on the windows location. More desirable locations cost more.
• Each girl can set her own prices and hours. It is also their sole discretion which customers they take and which they turn away.
• Owners of windows are responsible for providing security as part of the cost of leasing. Cameras are monitored for any suspicious activity.
• When I was there, the going rate was 50 Euro for 15 minutes.
• There is no “Upstairs” or “Back Room.” After a customer pays, the curtain is simply closed for privacy. Once the customer leaves, the curtain is reopened to signify that the window is once again open for business. A closed curtain means no one is available.
• The oldest prostitute is 85 years old and apparently books up months in advance.
• The windows are grouped based on themes. That way you don’t have to walk to far to shop around. I’m not going to elaborate more than that.
• There was an experiment several years ago with male prostitutes. However, it didn’t go well and it was shut down after a week. Today, all the prostitutes are female (at least in appearance). They will take female customers – but only for additional fees.

Disclaimer: I realize the information in this post isn’t in the taste of all my readers. However, I believe that there is always merit in learning more information about a new place to get a better understanding of the city as a whole. By providing this information I am in no way endorsing or condeming the practices described in this post.

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One Response to Turning on the Red Light

  1. rob says:

    It’s been years since my then-gf and I wandered through the red light district. We chatted with a cop on the way in (there was a constant cop presence) and he recommended, in addition to not taking photos, not being disrespectful.

    He related a story of a tourist (American, of course) who pointed and laughed as he and his group of friends walked by. Next thing he knew a bikini-clad prostitute came running out of her place of business, knocked him down and slapped the crap out of him. The cop stood by to make sure she didn’t do any real damage to anything other than his ego, and to prevent his friends from participating. When the guy got up, demanding the cop “do something” the cop just laughed and then pointed out that it was his own damned fault for being an ass, and instructed the whole group to leave and stop bothering the girls.

    I was a little amused, and definitely realized that I was in a different world than safe and ordered Ottawa!

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