A Week in the Red Light District

Ashley Johnson | contributor

I had the opportunity to study abroad this past summer in Copenhagen. One of the classes I took there, Prostitution and the Sex Trade, included a five-day study tour in Amsterdam, the capital of Holland. Amsterdam is known world-wide for prostitution. This made it a perfect place for my class to gain an in-depth knowledge of the bustling European sex industry. We spent most of our time in the infamous Red Light District. The Red Light District is the epicenter of legal sex work in Amsterdam, and attracts a bulk of the city’s annual tourists. It was an experience I won’t soon forget, in a city that made me question my understanding of sex work.

View of the Street from Inside the Red Light MuseumBefore I went to Amsterdam, I was of the opinion that prostitutes were inherently incapable of consent. I had just gotten out of a class on human trafficking, and in my mind, all prostitutes were victims. When I arrived, my perspective was immediately questioned. My class met with former sex workers who adamantly defended their position as voluntary entrepreneurs. While both of them recognized that human trafficking often results in involuntary prostitution, it does not negate the fact that the vast majority of sex workers in the Red Light district are there because they choose it.

I was initially really nervous to walk around the district, especially at night. By the end of the week, though, it became a sort of home-base for my class, and I grew more and more comfortable walking around there. The district is basically one street, maybe half a mile long. There are narrow streets, and even narrower sidewalks, framing one of Amsterdam’s many canals in the middle. The area comprises of sex shops, selling various sex toys and other sex-related products; a Red Light Museum, which used to be a brothel; a handful of theatres, featuring either peep shows or sex shows; and, the most well-known part of the district, the high-windowed houses where prostitutes stand provocatively, waiting for customers.

The first thing I did in the district was take the Red-Light Museum tour. The museum is set up the same way as a typical red-light house. The window rooms, framed by red lights, each have a curtain in the back leading to individual bedrooms. The rooms are simple and clean, and each one has its own adjoining bathroom with a tub. The people (mostly women) who advertise themselves in the windows are essentially independent contractors. They pay rent on their window for a specific time slot based on how high in demand space in the district is, and work however many of those allotted hours needed to cover window rent and their living expenses.

In addition to providing a great deal of information on how working in the district actually works, the Red Light Museum also gave some information on trafficking in the area. Considering how visible the Red Light District is, there is not much room for illegal activity; while it is difficult to know exactly how many people are trafficked in any given area, most people working in the district agree that roughly 8% of sex workers in the area are Victims of Trafficking.

Another place of interest in the Red Light District is the Prostitution Information Center (PIC). Founded in 1994, PIC aims to provide assistance and community for sex workers in the area, as well as give spread information to the general public about the condition of sex workers. The center works very closely with PROUD, the sex workers’ union in Amsterdam. Some of the key issues currently being taken on by PROUD are: The criminalization of underage prostitution, legislative efforts to raise the minimum age to 21, and the publicity of city’s prostitution registry.

The most eye-opening part of my Red Light experience was attending a sex show at a club called Moulin Rouge. The one-room theatre features a stage surrounded by rows of benches on three sides, which were completely filled with patrons. The club rotates six acts throughout the night; four strip acts and two sex acts, where heterosexual couples have sex on the stage. While this may sound like a very uncomfortable experience, it was actually a lively and fun atmosphere. Any awkwardness felt by the audience was quelled by the relaxed tone emitted by the performers. In a way, the laid-back approach to sex and sex work in the club was a reflection of how the city as a whole treats prostitution. ♦

Photo: View of the street from inside Red Light Museum. Author’s own.

Check out more from our March 2016 issue!