Red Light District Amsterdam

23 Comments 24 August 2010

As the night falls, the red lights become more evident

I really didn’t know what to expect from the infamous Red Light District in Amsterdam; but I was certainly intrigued and excited to check it out.  I like the sleeze, the grime, the passionate, and I really like things that challenge my way of thinking – so I had high hopes.  Yet those hopes were tempered with my thoughts around “is this just another one of those…”  One of the bad things about traveling is that you’ve been a lot of places (duh), but they all start to seem the same in some ways.  Would the Red Light District be like Pad Pong in Thailand, or the Tenderloin in San Francisco, or like the alley I used to live off of in Vietnam (there were a number of brothels there)?

First of all – I have to answer the question that plagued me when I arrived in the RLD – Why use red lights?  Why not blue or yellow or green?  Here’s the answer I found on the origin of the red light:

According to the Origin of Phrases site, the term “red-light district” dates back to the railroading days around the beginning of the 20th century. Railroad crews used red lanterns for signaling and lighting, and most crew members carried one with them as they left the train yard. When they paid a visit to a working girl, the men would leave the lantern on the porch of the prostitute’s house while they were inside, probably to signal that she was busy.

My first stop in the Red Light District was during the day – where I found a very different scene.  Many of the windows were empty, and the ones that did have women in them were kind of shocking.  Not because they were raunchy, but because it was mainly women who were a bit older, slightly overweight and they all seemed to be standing/sitting there in their lingerie talking on their cell phones.  Very strange.  I wondered what the point was if they were going to try to ‘sell’ themselves while talking on the phone – I don’t really find that sexy.  In fact, I get upset when I’m at dinner and someone takes a phone call or checks their messages; it’s rude.  I’d have a hard time buying sex while someone was talking on the phone.  Yet, they were the veterans…so I defer to them.

However, as I wandered around the area, I realized that it’s a perfectly lovely area – can you believe I took this photo from one of the many canal bridges in the RLD?

Red Light District by Day

During the day it’s gorgeous, and it one of the oldest parts of the city so the architecture is grand, and the trees sway over the canals bringing an air of serenity.  However most of the stores in this area were for the sex industry – so I stopped in the condom store and was amazed at the creativity.  They turned condoms into art forms

Condoms as Art?

There was also sexual art in the cobblestone path circling the Old Church which I found quite intriguing (the art and the placement of it next to the church).

However as the night falls, the glow of the red florescent lights become more apparent. There is a distinct change in atmosphere as it gets louder and more crowded.  More boats of bachelor and bachelorette parties show up; there’s more drinking, more reveling, and more people watching.  This all reminded me of Las Vegas!

Slowly the ‘younger’ women showed up to work to sit in their windows and work on their marketing strategy. Yes this is work – a real job.  Prostitution was made legal in 2000 and thanks to that these women pay taxes and get health insurance.   Their marketing strategy seemed to consist of wearing very little, playing with their hair, and engaging men as they walked by.  Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take pictures of the women working else you deal with their body guards; which I really didn’t feel like doing.  So this is really the only shot I got.

Look closely to see the woman peering out

So – you may also be wondering – why windows?  Why don’t the women simply stand outside like they do in Vietnam?

I found this explanation from Red Light District Guide Website

The authorities quickly realized that it was impossible to enforce the law in the area around the Old Church, the old prostitution district. So an unofficial policy of tolerating this business was adopted. As long as the women worked inside and were not standing in the door openings they could do their business. Women made potential customers aware of their presence thru a small opening between the curtains and a soft knock on the window.  As the years went by the curtains opened more and more.

I longed to learn more about this interesting neighborhood and history, but unfortunately I missed the one and only weekly tour from the Prostitute Information Center .  They had been short staffed the week I visited, but I had heard their tour and information is amazing -so definitely stop by their store if you are in the area.

Since I couldn’t take any photos of the windows, I had to find other things to photograph.

Not really sure where to start with this one!

Alas – to end my night – I decided to give it a shot myself…a little moonlighting behind the window.  The Prostitute Information Center allows you to take photos in their window.  So since I am a bit older, and slightly overweight, I decided to go with the marketing strategy of the veterans.  What do you think?!

Your Comments

23 Comments so far

  1. Mom says:

    You come by this inquisitive streak naturally. I’m not really sure how to comment on this story, but very interesting. Mom

  2. Patti says:

    On my 3rd day in Amsterdam, I left the hotel without my city map and promptly lost myself in the Red Light district.

    I realized I was there when men kept giving me those looks…..and it was in the daytime!

  3. The weirdest thing about the Red Light District was watching families walking past all the prostitutes, and the kids don’t even care about the girls in bikinis in the windows.

  4. megan says:

    Those two photographs at the end are hilarious – love you getting into the spirit of things with your phone!!

  5. Emily says:

    Ha, what a great piece! That boob on the cobblestone path is hilarious. Never knew the origin of the name red light district, but that makes total sense. I’m going to Amsterdam for the first time next year and definitely want to check it out–looks crazy! I walked around the red light district in Hamburg with some friends, and that was a hoot.

  6. Marcella says:

    I’m from holland, and i think it’s a shame that it’s legal.
    most of the girls/women there are under age and forced to be there. But still, it’s a part of amsterdam, and it’s such a beautiful city.

    • admin says:

      Yes – Amsterdam is a beautiful city – and like most cities – it also has it’s questionable areas. Sure – I know that for some the Red Light District isn’t what they want to see, so hopefully they can overlook and check out the other wonderful parts of the city! As to my feelings on the prostitution, I have no idea what the true conditions are – I think few people really know that.

  7. Laura says:

    That is hilarious! Who knew there was condom art? I had no idea that prostitution was legal in Amsterdam so thanks for this enlightening article. (Btw, you totally could have rocked that window without the phone 😉

  8. Kayling05 says:

    I LOVE the “condomerie” (condom shop). My friends and I bought Novelty and regular condoms while there. What you missed though, is the Sex Museum (which, really, is more like the museum of porn). It’s HILARIOUS and I highly recommend it. Picture taking allowed and it’s only about 3 euro to enter.

    • admin says:

      Bummed that I missed it! So next time I have on my list to go to the museum of porn…oops – I mean sex museum AND go see a live show. A reason to go back and visit Amsterdam!

  9. islandmomma says:

    The comment from the Dutch lady is a bit sobering. After reading so much lately about sex trafficking I wonder, though, I would expect that since it is so open and controlled then there would be less chance of the girls being exploited? Isn’t that the point?

    I was there some years ago, and was in the district without even realizing it! That was daytime, as you say, it’s a pretty area, and it was only when we noticed the girls in the windows that we knew where we were. Daytime, it didn’t seem sleazy at all.

    • admin says:

      yes – by making it legal, it is supposed to be safer. The fact is that prostitution is the ‘oldest profession’…it will happen everywhere whether legal or not. I like the idea of legalizing it as at least it does set up some rules and support around it – more so than other countries offer!

  10. bessiejulia says:

    “I’d have a hard time buying sex while someone was talking on the phone.” Agreed, Sherry!

    Love how you balance the beautiful historic elements with the truth of the industry. Also love that your mom commented. :)

  11. Max Verde says:

    I was a cabbie for a year in a small American mid western city where prostitution was locally legal.I remember that the lights at this time were blue, I was told this was traditional in this area.I only entered a brothel once ;in search of a fare who had made me wait for him. I was amazed that the place had perfect decor-pink flocked, striped wallpaper- red carpet,and a pink sofa with dingle-balls.The town is “clean”now but there seems to be a little nostalgia for that era.The county historical society proudly displays the canopy from the most renowned whore house.Not on my part,though. I think the town was physically and morally a corrupt stinking hole then.I’m glad it has changed.

  12. Mark H says:

    I similarly wandered through the redlight district of Amsterdam and was really disappointed that it felt as grimy and tasteless as any of the numerous illegal but tolerated areas in other cities of the world. If it has helped the conditions for the women then that is a truly positive thing but I can’t help but think that at least some of the women are there against their own will. As always, a beautifully written and insightful article on Amsterdam’s steamier side.

  13. Anil says:

    The funny thing I noticed during the day was the “uninterested half-bounce dance”…while on the cell phone of course! Guess getting the window in the afternoon doesn’t get you much but a bunch of tourists trying to take your picture!

    • admin says:

      I figure they must be there in the window in the middle of the day because it’s worth it in some way…so they have to be getting business from somewhere…right?!

  14. Alisha says:

    I have never been to the red light district in Amsterdam, but it is on my bucket list. Your photos are interesing…especially the sexual art on the cobblestone path….now here is someone probably trying to justify that they spent some time around the church.

  15. I think it must be tedious standing in a window with tourists gawping at you, I’d also be thinking of ways to pass the time, like chatting with my friends on the phone. I’d have thought that all the crowds doing the tour might be a bit off putting for potential clients too

  16. Kelsey says:

    What an interesting little tidbit about the lantern history!

  17. @ marcella, the last three years the redlight district has changed a lot. It probably was a real big laundry money fest but these times are over. Same goes for the girls who work there, there is not even one girl under aged. Because the landlords will be closed down if they rent the rooms to underaged girls. Really a lot has changed.

  18. Marcel says:

    Cool website for everyone who want to get the know the Redlight District Area:

    Here you can order a tour with a professional guide….Did this tour a two weeks ago. Would recommend it to everyone. My guide could tell me way more than I could amagine!

  19. Harvina says:

    Amsterdam is safer to legalize this shops open for women around the window. Banned prostitution could be more dangerous for women safety. Like many countries dones’t allow such thing only those country facing many rape, murder after rape under age and many issue. Thanks for sharing such a worth full information.

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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