When you hear the term “red right district,” Amsterdam is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Though it’s certainly not the only red light district in the world, it’s definitely the most well known. De Wallen is the historic neighborhood in Amsterdam where an estimated 350 sex workers legally exchange sex for money on a daily basis.
Of those 350, 201 of them set up shop in the iconic window brothels, which are occupied from 8 AM – 6 AM. Rates vary, with the starting rate for sex priced at 50 euros for 15 minutes. As credit card companies don’t want to be associated with sex work, only cash payments are accepted.
Pro tip – if you’re a tourist who is not trying to pay for sexual services, get the fuck out! Sightseers who come and take pictures actually deter business because most people seeking out sex are trying to do so discreetly and don’t want some bozo American snapping pics and posting them on the gram.
So how did Amsterdam come to be synonymous with legalized prostitution? Have the Dutch always been chillest motherfuckers around or is this a more recent thing? I did some digging to find out.
The Early Days
The neighborhood of De Wallen came into existence in the year 1270, originally serving as a trading port. Where sailors frolic so do sex workers, and as the Dutch Empire expanded abroad, Amsterdam became a wealthy city where money flowed freely on all things debaucherous. De Wallen, meanwhile, experienced a population boom and developed an unsavory reputation. In Medieval times, priests and married men were actually banned from entering the neighborhood so as to avoid corrupting themselves.
While prostitution in the early days of De Wallen was not strictly prohibited, it was definitely frowned upon. But the Dutch Revolt of 1578 changed all that, ushering in new Protestant leadership that outlawed sex work. Of course, this didn’t stop sex workers from doing their thing, but it did force them to to get creative. Oftentimes, madams would operate brothels disguised as boarding houses.
During the 19th century, brothel owners began using red gas lights to discreetly alert potential punters that sex was for sale. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to Amsterdam in 1811, he realized that his success depended on the happiness of his soldiers. So, he lifted the ban on brothels and instituted checks on sex workers to minimize the spread of venereal diseases amongst his troops. For all the oppressive, imperialist bullshit this dude pulled, you got to give him credit for his pro-sex work stance.
20th Century and Beyond
Brothels operated freely until a new ban was instituted in 1911 that targeted the brothels themselves rather than sex work as a whole. Thus came the birth of the window system, which Amsterdam has become famous for. Trompettersteeg, the narrowest street in the world (just one metre wide), is one of the city’s original alleyways where sex workers would stand in curtained window-fronts. During the 1960s, street prostitution was officially outlawed, further popularizing the window-front solicitation style.
In 2000, the Netherlands officially classified sex work as a legal profession. Up until this point, sex work had been decriminalized but sex workers had not been eligible for social benefits. While the Dutch are known for their progressive politics, not all Amsterdammers are down for the cause. Many think De Wallen has become too congested by tourist-generated foot traffic. In 2019, the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, proposed shutting down all sex work operations in De Wallen, much to the dismay of sex workers. The COVID-19 lockdowns served as a catalyst to make this transition a reality. In 2020, the city shut down all guided tours of the red light district.
An Uncertain Future
But not all hope is lost. Halsema has no intention of ridding the city from sex work all together. She simply wants to relocate the red light district, with the goal of improving working conditions for sex workers: “If you walk through the very narrow streets, you see huge crowds of tourists standing in front of the windows photographing foreign women who are vulnerable and laughing at them.”
With the world still on pandemic-induced standby, it will be interesting to see how all this plays out. I for one can’t wait to cross Amsterdam off my bucket list. While I refuse to partake in the gawking of sex workers, it would be cool to smoke a fat joint and stroll around De Wallen, with its beautiful architecture, rich history, and pro sex-work energy.