Amsterdam’s Red Light Districts: Behind the Windows


Amsterdam’s Rossebuurt (Red Light Districts) are a must-see on many visitors’ itineraries. The largest and most well-known is De Wallen, a warren of historic alleyways south of the Old Church and straddling the canals that is home to several hundred illuminated one-room cabins in addition to a medley of sex stores, peep shows and coffee shops. The area attracts bustling crowds of potential punters and gawking tourists alike.

As female travelers, it can be difficult to know how to feel about going to watch these prostitutes peddling their wares in the windows.

On the one side, prostitution is, of course, legal in the Netherlands – meaning that working practices are regulated, health is monitored, support is provided and legal protection is offered to sex workers. Working permits are not issued to migrants from outside of the EU, and the minimum working age is 21. Such laws go a long way in protecting the women who work there and, theoretically at least, cutting down on human trafficking.

However, just because trafficking is reduced doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen: the Netherlands is listed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime as a top destination for human trafficking, and according to the International Labour Organization, as many as 9,000 people may fall victim to this annually. There have been some horrific stories in the news over the last few years, including a 2009 case which involved 140 Nigerian women aged 16-23 being trafficked in by just two men. This video offers a stark reminder of the truth that lies behind some of those lit up windows, where the vast majority of sex workers are foreign and come from economically deprived countries.

Even looking past the horrors of trafficking, it would still be naïve to think that all of the women you might see in the windows in Amsterdam are able to ply their trade just like another other worker in any other business. Paying taxes doesn’t automatically protect people from prejudice, with many sex workers reporting discrimination and harassment. And unfortunately, it seems that even the relative security of the Red Light District’s cabins cannot always protect women from the everyday dangers of the trade; you can read an interview with one Amsterdam sex worker here, who describes the murder of a colleague, her own vicious assault, and the usual appalling litany of clients who try to do more than is permitted, to avoid using condoms, to get out of paying…

It’s for these reasons that, even though I am in favor of legalizing prostitution – as a means of empowering and protecting workers, and in support of the rights of women who willingly work in the sex trade – I find it difficult to explore Amsterdam’s Red Light Districts without feeling uneasy. It’s hard to wander the shopfronts and celebrate it as a victory for good sense and liberalism, when at the same time you’re looking into the women’s made up faces and wondering just what their story is.

So what should you do as a female traveler? Eschew it all together? Go, and feel uncomfortable and conflicted?

The solution may well lie in the Prostitution Information Center, a charity set up in the heart of the Red Light District by former sex worker Mariska Majoor dedicated to educating the public about social conditions in the sex trade, advocating for sex workers’ rights and campaigning for better laws to protect them. The Center is home to De Wallenwinkel store and a mini-museum, and organises lectures and guided tours, all of which are led by former sex workers.

Exploring the area by this means will ensure that you get a real insight into the area and those who work there ­– in a respectful fashion.

Share your thoughts and experiences on encountering the sex trade – in Amsterdam or otherwise – below.


About Author

Leah Eades is a compulsive traveller and freelance writer, whose adventures so far include working in an Italian nightclub, contracting a mystery illness in the Amazon, studying at a Chinese university, and cycling 700km along the Danube River. She blames cheap Ryanair flights for her addiction. Having recently graduated with an English degree, she is currently based in Florence, Italy.

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