I am on a 16 day backpacking Trip to Europe with my friend Amrita. Amsterdam happens to be our first stop on this adventure. In the last two days here, we have successfully struck off a few items from our bucket list. Now, we are heading towards the most infamous part of the city, that bears witness to Amsterdam’s darkest secrets for centuries.
“Follow the red lights on the streets and you will be there” said the lady with a wink. Shortly, we reached Amsterdam’s RLD, which is only a few minutes’ walk from the 800-year-old Oude Kerk, also known as Amsterdam’s Old Church. Having read much about the place, I had painted a picture of the place in my mind, but seeing it with my own eyes amazed me. The Amsterdam Red Light District simply oozes charm and one cannot help but admire the old buildings that lean at odd-angles, and the tree-enshrouded canals. In ancient times, Amsterdam was enclosed and protected by earthen walls and hence the name “De Wallen”. Tourists from all over the world were flooding the streets and the spirit all round was festive and intriguing. Thousands of men, young and old, couples holding hands and pointing, clearly in shock of it all, giggling groups of women celebrating a hen night, are regular sights at the place.
Past and Present
Prostitution in Amsterdam dates back to the fourteenth century and it has always been concentrated on the same part of the town. . Amsterdam, in those days, was a magnet for immigrants, merchants and tourists. It was a trading hub; thousands of sailors landed here and had enough money to spend. There was also a large segment of poor immigrant women, with little prospect of marriage. Given the circumstances, the oldest profession flourished.
As early as the 1300s, women carrying red lanterns met sailors near the port. Bars, clubs and risqué entertainment venues flooded the area. In Napoleonic period, French soldiers were the main customers of prostitutes in De Wallen. But prostitution wasn’t legal until 1811,window prostitution appeared in 1930s, but the brothels were not legalized until 2000. Today, brothels need a permit to function and both prostitutes and brothel owners pay taxes.
While the exact number of prostitutes in the city is not trackable, it is estimated that around 1000 work in the city on a given day. There are more than 400 window brothels around the city and the majority of them are concentrated in De Wallen. These window brothels have BLUE and RED lights. BLUE lights are generally used by transgender prostitutes. The others work in clubs, brothels, escort service companies or from home.
Where do these women come from and why?
The confidence that these skimpily clad women exuberate, is bound to catch your attention as you wander the place. A question that came to my mind repeatedly was “Are these girls victims of “human trafficking?”. Well, if you take a Red Light Tour offered by former Sex Workers, they will tell you specifically not to look at these women as victims. This is their choice in a given situation. This holds true for the majority, though there are a few proven cases of forced prostitution. While some of these women are Dutch, many come from East European countries. Some of these ladies are single, some are in a relationship or married, with or without children. Most of them are between the age of twenty-one to thirty and not with very high level of education.
Who are the clients?
While I got answers to most of my questions, some still remain unanswered. It is evident that these women have been labelled as sinners by the society, but no one seems to question or bother about the identity of the man who visits them. Perhaps he is a happy family man, perhaps not. Who cares, as long as the society knows him as a “Respectable Gentleman”.
I referred to a more recent survey to find out that most of these clients are between twenty-five to forty-five, and belong from all walks of life. They are mostly tourists and Business Travelers though.
Facts about Amsterdam Red Light Area
Amsterdam Red Light Area is one of the safest sex markets of the world. The local government has taken many measures during the last few decades, to make this area safer. As a result, there is fervent police patrolling and surveillance in the area
While it is totally fine to take pictures of the beautiful buildings, bars, churches and canals in the Red Light District, the prostitutes don’t want to be photographed. They like to stay anonymous and people should respect their point of view.
Amsterdam prides itself, and rightly so, on its wholly liberal and tolerant attitude, embracing the fact that people might be into prostitution and this is only human. So instead of criminalizing everything, this very upfront city wears its heart on its sleeve-what you see is generally what you get.
After a visit to Amsterdam’s Red Light Area, I have been able to find answers to most of my questions and the experience is definitely one to be cherished forever. Undoubtedly, we couldn’t have asked for a better start to our Euro Trip.
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