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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Lai

A Brief History of Amsterdam’s Red Light District

What is the Red Light District?

Amsterdam’s Red Light District is a famous city district that’s home to brothels, sex shops and museums.


Amsterdam Red Light District

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Red Light District History


Origins of De Wallen

One of Amsterdam’s biggest tourist attractions is the home of the world’s oldest profession. Here you can find streets filled with sex shops, sex theatres, coffee shops and headshops, as well as the towering Oude Kerk. Amsterdam actually has three Red Light districts, but the largest and most famous is found here in the centre within the De Wallen (or ‘The Walls’) neighbourhood – named after the medieval city walls that once surrounded it. The area used to be located close to the harbour and so was a convenient place for traders and sailors to meet sex workers during their time on land. This Red Light district is more than 800 years old, and at first only two streets were allocated to prostitution. As the Dutch empire continued to increase its overseas colonies, the population of Amsterdam grew and workers and traders came to profit from the riches brought in via the city’s ports. The district became increasingly overcrowded and crime-ridden as a result.


Prohibition and Punishment

In 1578, prostitution was outlawed though the sex trade continued to thrive. Sex workers and those who housed them were sometimes fined, flogged or temporarily banished. Some sex workers were sent to the spinhuis where they were condemned to sew and weave as punishment for their crimes. This initial outlawing marks the beginning of a complicated relationship between the state and the district that continues to this day.


French Occupation and Regulation

In 1795, the French invaded the Netherlands and proclaimed it the Batavian Republic. During this time, prostitution was legalised and strict regulations enforced on the trade. When the French left in 1813, many cities outlawed sex work again but Amsterdam continued to keep it legal, that is until 1911 when the state intervened once more. As a result, sex workers were forced to tout for business in the street. In the 1930s, the police forbade this but made an exception for sex workers working behind a window, permitting a crack in the curtain to reveal a red light or part of a sex worker, to indicate what was on offer in the establishment. Over the decades, the curtain was allowed to be pulled back further and further until in 2000 the Dutch government lifted the ban on brothels again.



Amsterdam's Red Light District Windows Open

Since they are now legitimate businesses, brothels have to be licensed and sex workers have to apply for independent contractor licences and rent their windows from licensed brothels, as well as pay tax to the state.


Project 1012: Controversial Changes

Much to the dismay of lads on tour, tourists and, of course, sex workers, Project 1012 was unveiled by the city of Amsterdam in 2007. Named after the postcode of the district, the initiative was labelled a ‘clean-up project’, in which brothels would be replaced by businesses the city deemed ‘more legitimate’, such as luxury boutiques, specialty cafés and art projects. Under the new gentrification scheme, 115 of Amsterdam's red light district windows were shut down. Offering large payoffs, the city convinced brothel owners to sell off their leases, much to the chagrin of the sex workers who had lost their ability to attract business and had not received any of the payoff. In 2015, over 200 sex workers marched through the city centre to protest against the changes and spread awareness of their newly precarious position, as many now had to enter into illegal sex work away from the relative security of the windows.


Proposed District Relocation

Though the closing of Amsterdam's red light district windows ceased in 2015, Mayor Femke Halsema recently proposed moving the Red Light District into an out-of-town, five-storey ‘erotic centre’, in an attempt to attract different kinds of tourists to this historic neighbourhood. Critics of the move have accused the mayor of endangering both sex workers and customers, as police regularly patrol the current area and street dealers are easily dealt with. There is also a fear that the new centre will see less footfall, pressuring sex workers into lowering prices.


De Wallen: Current Landscape

For now, the Red Light District of De Wallen remains an exciting and buzzing area of the city, filled with late-night hedonism and open-mindedness.


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