Prostitution is alive throughout the world. In the past, women had few opportunities to earn money. Port cities, where ships docked after being at sea for two or three years, drew women who were willing to trade their bodies for money. Today, many large port cities still have large prostitution populations.
Although the world’s oldest profession has typically been a rather freewheeling affair, Amsterdam sought to bring it under control. They wanted to control prostitution not to prevent the unpreventable, but to protect the women, their customers,and other Red Light district residents and visitors from the violence and the crime that often typifies these areas.
To learn the history and nature of Amsterdam’s Red Light District we took a fascinating two-hour walking Free Sandemans walking tour from Lennart, our very professional and informative guide. In addition to the sights and sounds of prostitution, the tour covered the history of Amsterdam’s sex trade and the city’s decision to regulate it.
Touring Amsterdam’s Red Light District
In the “old Days,” many of the district’s sexual trysts were arranged in cafes which were often adorned with a symbol of a birdcage outside the door. Customers met and negotiated with the sex workers before adjourning to a neighboring alley or room to consummate the transaction. Gradually more and of the cafes decided to offer this service to grow their revenue streams. They often required the women to rent back or upper floor rooms for the act. Although not technically legal, such activities were typically tolerated.
When Napoleon captured and ruled the city, he clamped down on such informal practices. While he recognized that he could not stop prostitution, he tried to reduce the chances of his troops becoming infected with sexually transmitted diseases by licensing, continually testing and certifying the prostitutes.
Although prostitution was later officially banned, it could not be stopped. It just went underground. Many women ended up being beaten, murdered or otherwise victimized. And since women could not go to the police for help, they found other protectors. By the 1970s and 80s, the Hell’s Angels provided protection in exchange for money and services. Although the district became somewhat safer for prostitutes, it became more dangerous for others. Amsterdam needed to launch a campaign to protect the prostitutes, their customers, and the general public.
The city legalized prostitution in 2000 and imposed a number of requirements on those in the profession. Prostitutes had to be at least 21, citizens of the EU and undergo a government interview (in an attempt to detect and weed out sex trafficking).
The city also took a page from Napoléon’s book. It required that all sex workers register. They are taught safe-sex practices, given condoms and tested weekly for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The city also mandates where sex can be legally performed. It also imposes limits, such as banning threesomes (two men and one woman) which can expose the woman to greater danger.
Sex workers operate in different districts within the city including:
- The largest and best known is the Red Light District;
- The Blue Light District which attracts transvestites and others; and
- A Bondage District which targets men who are looking for particularly large-breasted women and so forth.
Exploring the Red Light District
The Red Light District is a virtual sex heaven. It contains a large range and number of sex shops, strip clubs, sex shows, and prostitute “display” windows.
Our first stop was The Condomerie which claims to be the first condom specialty shop. It was opened in 1987 when a heroin crisis led thousands of addicts to resort to prostitution to pay for their addiction. This led to a surge in STDs. The store helped limit the spread of disease. In addition to providing condoms, it became an environment where men and women could request condoms, information about the proper use of them from knowledgeable people. It was much less embarrassing than going to a neighborhood pharmacy.
Although the store continues to play this vital role, the industry has come a long way since the 19th century when condoms were made of sheep and goat intestines! Today the store is also known for its custom-measured condoms and its wide selection of novelty condoms. Such condoms are more for display and entertainment value than actual use. They include those shaped like windmills, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower.
The list of Red Light sex establishments is long. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Sex shops, dozens of which are scattered throughout and around the district. They offer every imaginable type of sex product, toy and pornographic magazine, and video, in addition to condoms.
- Strip Clubs and Drag Shows charge as little as E10 for admission. One can also purchase services such as lap dancing. These strippers are not licensed as sex workers and are not legally allowed to provide sexual services.
- Peep Shows are where men can have sex talks with and watch women engage in provocative actions from separate, private booths.
- Sex Shows are where people can watch, but not engage in a variety of sex acts for prices that reportedly start at E50. For those looking for more than just looking at women and other people performing sex, there are the rooms that made the Red Light District famous.
- Prostitutes are identified by the eponymous red lights. They display their wares in display windows aligned along the district’s side streets. Patrons are satisfied in a private bedroom behind the display window.
Red Light District Display Windows
The district has about 200 display windows where sex workers display themselves to prospective customers. The windows provide a relatively safe and convenient venue in which the women to operate. Prostitutes can entice prospects with suggestive poses but are not allowed to expose their nipples or genitals. Prospects walk up and down the street to choose a preferred partner. While tourists can also walk the area, they are not allowed to take pictures. But we could take a picture of a mannequin in a window.
The women can let the prospect into one door where they engage in a bit of small talk. If the woman determines if a partner is likely to be safe, they then negotiate services and fees. After they agree upon services and fees, the woman allows her client into another door behind her window that leads into a small bedroom where each, hopefully, delivers on their commitments.
Each woman (see below for a discussion of male prostitutes) and the client can negotiate their own price. We were told the typical price is about E50 for a “basic” 20-minute session (although most engagements, as we learn, last between 7 and 11 minutes). Most women also engage in upselling. They offer additional time or a range of additional services for more money, sometimes up to E400 with the same customer.
What if everything does not go according to plan? Each room has a panic button that will bring the police to the room in a couple of minutes. And the rooms are grouped in twos. If the women can’t reach the panic button in time, she can scream or tap her stiletto heels to signal help from a co-worker. Help, counseling and sympathetic ears are also available from organizations such as the Prostitute Information Center. These organizations can also help prostitutes increase their income by helping teach them how to more effectively seduce men, negotiate more effectively and sell complimentary services.
The woman does have to pay for the use of the room, apparently about E150 for eight-hours during the day or E200 at night,. A busy, enterprising woman can earn several hundred, or perhaps more than E1,000 per shift. And since payment is in cash, they often don’t report all their earnings. According to our guide, the government may be less than diligent in ensuing compliance since the more the prostitutes earn, the more likely they will be to retire or move into another line of work.
The Red Light District has roughly 2,000 registered sex workers. Many of these work part-time to supplement other income or work for only a few months or years to get through tough financial situations or to accumulate enough money to securely move into a new job. Some, however, work much longer. Two celebrated, recently-retired veterans, for example, just retired. Both were in their 70s!
Gay and lesbian bars also exist in the Red Light District. Some of the sex shows have all types of woman/woman as well as man/woman acts. But, the district focuses overwhelmingly on heterosexual sex and female prostitutes. Why? Male prostitution is generally in another district of the city. Prostitutes prefer fast-turn-around males customers to slower-to-climax women. And women clients seem to be more interested in more discrete paid engagements in private locations.
Changes in the Air
Tourism is dramatically changing the Red Light district. Tourists and tour groups are flooding the area to gawk at sex workers and their customers. As a result, potential customers are shying away.
There is continual talk of changes. Some want to shut down the district’s sex business. Some want to disperse the sex business into additional areas to eliminate the concentration of the business. Others want to find another safer, easier to monitor and control location, such as in specialized hotels. Some feel this would more effectively protect the women by reducing trafficking and the growing role of organized crime in prostitution. The prostitutes themselves, however, object to such efforts. According to our guide, they like the ready supply of men, and especially those who are bit tipsy, who visit prostitutes on a whim, rather than as a planned trip that would be required of many hotel-based solutions. It will be interesting to see how, or if, the Red Light District changes.