Feb 12th, 2020, 09:20 AM

A Glance into Amsterdam's Red Light District

By Hannah Latorre
A canal leading into part of Amsterdam's red-light district, Photo Credit: Hannah Latorre
Sex tourism and its popularity in the oldest district in Amsterdam


Planning a trip to Amsterdam comes with its common tropes and tourist “must-dos”. People will advise you to walk along the canals, buy stroopwafels and maybe even invest in edibles because, let's be honest, weed and Amsterdam go hand-in-hand for tourists. The less common advice given is to walk through the red-light district at nighttime. After attending the Heineken Experience and walking along the streets of Amsterdam, a few friends and I broke off from our group to see the red-light district at night. When we told the group that we were venturing there instead of going for drinks, their faces turned to shock.

“Wait seriously, be careful there it's dicey,” someone said.

To anyone, this would lead you far away from adventuring into this district. However, after doing my research I was only more intrigued to go. We walked a short distance and approached Dam Square where small streets and alleyways broke off into the famous Red-Light District.

This district is quite rich in its history as it is the oldest part of the city. Dating back to before the 15th century, prostitutes arrived here to make a living. In the early days, since Amsterdam streets were situated on various interwoven canals, it was believed that sailors would come off of their boats from their long journeys, and once the women got wind of this, they found a way to make money for themselves. The women would wait outside along the canal for men to arrive and then offer their services for pay. Eventually, in the 1960s, the police made it illegal for the women to solicit in the street and in the doorways. It was only tolerated for women to sit behind a window with curtains half drawn.

Today, prostitution is legal in Amsterdam and has been since 2000. The legalization of this profession is aimed at regulating the business, protecting the women and preventing organized crime, human trafficking, and money laundering. Now, sex workers in the Red-Light District are registered with the government, under a self-employed title and included in the same tax bracket as a tour guides would be.

Currently, the district is bustling at night around 9 p.m. to the early hours of the morning. While there are still women in the windows during the daytime, the district feels and looks completely different at night. As my two friends and I walked through the streets, I was shocked by the crowds of people. Compared to daytime where you see locals walking their dogs and casually strolling, the nighttime scene became strictly touristic.

Particularly, it is interesting to focus on the number of tourists you see walking down these streets at night. Crowds of people are lined up for sex shows, peep shows and many walked towards the doors after the women wink at them and gestured for them to move closer. Although people looked intrigued, some even shocked, I did not see a single person actually venture to the women for sex. This could either be due to the timing or the number of people in the streets that would see you engaging in an act considered scandalous. It got me thinking to do further research on how many people that are walking in this area at night are actually paying for these services and how many of them are just tourists eager to see the oddity of the streets.

Image Credit: Unsplash: Kon Karampelas 

As it is difficult and almost impossible to interview people in this district, I turned to Reddit and several other blog platforms where people wrote about their experiences in the red-light district. One user commented on the fact that tourism and gentrification of the area have driven several of the workers out.

“The tourists and the gentrification of the area are what’s driving most of the workers out, why bother paying a high rent charge for a window to be stared at like you’re an animal in a zoo?” Dougal12, a user on Reddit posted.

He has a point. This is specifically why it is strictly enforced to resist taking photographs of the women. For tourists, and specifically Americans, it is easy to imagine that such an oddity would be worthy of a photograph to show others. However, in the eyes of Amsterdam, this is as much as a profession as a 9 to 5 job in an office. You wouldn’t walk into a corporate office and photograph people working at their desks.

Scrolling further through Reddit, I found a post made by a local discussing how he does not and never has made use of the RLD, The Red Light District, further proving that this district is merely a tourist attraction for tourists.

"To be fair, the entire district is so overrun by tourists that I kind of expect this level of service. I live in Amsterdam and haven’t made use of the RLD. You’re not going to find a great experience at the RLD.”

Since sex work and prostitution is legalized and culturally accepted in Amsterdam, this may further provide reasoning for the number of tourists visiting for the sole purpose of procuring sex. Sex tourism is a huge industry that is almost never talked about. I was not aware that this type of tourism existed before visiting and doing my research on the industry. Specifically, sex tourism is defined as travel for the purpose of procuring sex. This can be in economically disadvantaged countries where sex work is illegal or in countries such as the Netherlands where sex is legalized. According to the CDC, typical sex tourists are 30-40-years old and highly educated men. Due to Amsterdam’s acceptance of such practices, tourists may feel more intrigued to travel to such an area where they can procure sex legally rather than an area where it is illegal and supports human trafficking.

Is this trend of tourists trying to be more ethical or simply engaging in the practice because it is not legal where they are from? In contrast to our night time visit of the district, during the day time, the streets are no longer alive and bustling with tourists. Instead, the windows are practically empty, with only a few women in the hidden crooks of the alleyways. The street looks average compared to when it is brightly lit up in red neon at night. 

Image credit: Flickr: A-PA 

Upon visiting the red-light district and learning about its history, it became clear that this district now serves merely for the tourist's pleasure. Not only has tourism affected this area and its business, but it has also affected the locals and their view on the district. A district that used to be popular among locals and tourists for the actual service these women provide has now essentially become a tourist attraction because of its dissimilarity.