Amsterdam's Red Light District


Even if you know absolutely zilch about Amsterdam, you would have heard about its Red Light District. De Wallen or De Walletjes is one of the most famous tourist attractions of the city. Tourists come here in droves (myself included!) to see women of all nationalities display their 'attractions' in big glass windows illuminated in red light. De Wallen, Singelgebied and Ruysdaelkade, form the Rosse Buurt or red light areas of Amsterdam. 

Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands and was legalised in the year 2000. But it was not always so. A perusal of the country's history indicates that during the Middle Ages (ie 5-15 centuries AD), prostitution was tolerated as a 'necessary evil' but considered to be a dishonourable profession. In the 16th century, the city of Amsterdam started regulating prostitution. Only the police could keep a brothel. According to accounts dating back to 1413, these were confined to two streets in Amsterdam, Pijlsteeg and Halsteeg. Those who practiced prostitution elsewhere in the city were arrested and their clients fined. 

In the 17th century, however, with the decline of the Catholic religion and rise of Protestantism, the city stopped regulating prostitution. It was outlawed and prostitutes were considered 'evil' and having a polluting influence. Moreover, the implementation of anti prostitution laws was weak and and the enforcers preferred to leave brothels alone as long as they did not cause any trouble. 

In the 18th century, with a growing middle class (possibly due to the Industrial Revolution), public attitudes towards prostitution became more rigid, moralistic and conservative.  The working conditions of prostitutes was bad, with many of them living in poverty, being exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and bearing the illegitimate children of their clients. 

In the beginning of the 19th century, when Netherlands was under the rule of King Louis Bonaparte, prostitution was once again regulated to protect soldiers against venereal diseases. Prostitutes were forced to register themselves and undergo mandatory medical examinations. They were provided with a red card which was a sort of work permit. If they were found to be infected with any venereal disease, their red card was taken away and replaced with a white card and prohibited from working until they were free of their disease. 

Later in the 19th century, prostitution came under the purview of the Abolitionist movement (a movement in Western Europe and the Americas to end slavery) that called for the abolition of regulated prostitution in the manner that it was being practiced at the time.  The living conditions of prostitutes continued to be bad or worsen. They were usually under the control of a madam, living under severe debt and with strict control over their mobility. At first the movement targeted only the mandatory health checks for prostitutes but later shifted focus to the exploiters and people who profited from prostitution 

From the late 20th century onwards, a policy of tolerance or gedoogbeleid  was adopted by many local governments. This policy was premised on harm reduction based on the belief that anti prostitution laws would be counter productive and the best way to protect women was to 'tolerate' prostitution. Although prostitution was defined as a legal profession in 1988, it took until the year 2000 for it to move from the limbo of 'tolerance' to getting full legal status. 

The Netherlands is one of the most progressive countries in the world. I recently heard that due to a negligible crime rate, their empty jails are being used to house Syrian refugees! So the way their history, on the issue of prostitution, has evolved, is nothing less than commendable. However, as one of the top three organised crimes in the world, the dark underbelly of this profession is not so easily controlled. The Dutch government has been cracking down and shutting brothels where crime is taking place and I am sure they will have to continue to be alert and active to prevent crime and injustice. 

So what did our trio do on that chilly May evening in De Wallen? After my husband and I picked up our fallen jaws from the pavement and after our eyes had settled back into their sockets, we took a brief tour of the streets of the RLD. I held fast to my husband's hand and hissed a warning of  "Only Looking!" at him. 

I witnessed a gorgeous woman with platinum blonde hair, barge out of the window and threaten to break a man's camera when she caught him photographing her. (Photography is STRICTLY prohibited in the RLD). I looked at the sex toys displayed in shop windows in awe, my mind not comprehending to what use they could be put. I looked askance at a young man (overcome by a smorsgasbord of morality and feminism) when he gawked at one of the girls in the window and said "What a rack!" and then proceeded to negotiate a deal with her for 50 Euro. I smiled at how my two escorts barricaded me against the testosterone driven crowd. I argued that I wanted to visit the museum of prostitution while my husband and his friend dissuaded me. It was only because I could barely feel my toes in the freezing five degree temperature that I gave up the idea. 

I finally came away from the RLD feeling philosophical about the complete commodification of the female form and an economy that is built upon two breasts and a vagina. 

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4 Responses to Amsterdam's Red Light District

  1. Unknown says:

    What a great researched and analytical write up Deepa! So much to be known and felt - world travel like this enriches our thoughts and perspectives! I just visited a village in southern France and was fascinated by the history and culture.

    Keep writing more!

    Snigdha

  2. Good one, nicely worded. It is a surprise that jails are being used to keep refugees as they are empty! Lucky folks :)

  3. Wonderful. Perhaps the country I ve been to most , must have been more than a dozen times. But it never occurred to me to do such research as you on RLD of Amsterdam.
    Indeed the country has quality life and an envious one too.

  4. Deepa says:

    Thanks for visiting my blog.

    @Anilkumar: I would agree with you 100% about the quality of life in Amsterdam. Although I understand that people pay nearly 52% income tax. But then they know their tax money is put to good use.

    I actually didnt do THAT much research. Most of the information is freely available on Wikipedia. I just pulled it together in one place and connected the dots.