Amsterdam’s red light district

Shamiso Yikoniko in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
It is unlike anywhere else in the world!

The majority of people have heard about Amsterdam’s red light district well before their visit. Leaving nothing to imagination, some stereotypes about this area are, indeed, true.

Ask anyone about Amsterdam and there is a good chance that they will tell you about the coffee shops and the red light district.

People often travel here to experience the pleasures of cannabis and carnal desires in a tolerant society — the latter in the form of sex work.

Taking a trip at dawn down the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, the main strip in the city’s red light district, you will witness a world unfamiliar to most people, in which sexual pleasures are easily and explicitly attainable.

Since 2000, this has been the case in Amsterdam.

Rooms with big windows under red neon lights line the narrow alleys.

And in window after window, women dressed in almost nothing are a common spectacle attracting attention or looking disdainfully at sightseers.

But one particular window seems to be the centre of attraction.

There, framed in smoky red velvet, stands a sultry blonde-haired woman. Her ability to flex and flaunt her body brings the slow pedestrian flow to a hesitating stop.

Next up is an outlandish woman wearing only a black lace thong and heavy make-up.

The Dutch remind me that a society has to make a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons.

And so here is how it works — men walk up and down past the windows and they see a girl they like, they knock on the door, she opens and they shortly negotiate what will be done, for how long and against what price. If they agree, the man enters, and the door and curtain closes behind him.

Amsterdam’s sex workers behind the windows typically charge 50 euros for 15-20 minutes. The longer the clients stays, the more he/she pays.

And on average the sex workers pay around 85 euros for a small room during the day shift and 115 euros for the night shift to their landlords.

Generally, sex workers pay rent for their space and run an independent business with no need for pimps.

They are unionised through PROUD (Dutch Union of Sex-workers) and get their business license only if they are periodically checked by a doctor and are not spreading diseases.

In almost every corner inside their red-lit offices, there is a red button, which a sex worker pushes to summon not a pimp but the police in the case that there is a dangerous client.

With just a slight swing off Dam Square, one walks down Warmoesstraat, one of Amsterdam’s oldest streets. Lining the street are sex shops, a condom shop with a vast inventory, men-only leather bars, and a smart shop selling “100 percent” natural products that play with the human senses.

And there is no doubt that you will have entered into Amsterdam’s famous red light district located in the old sailors’ quarter.

The Dutch have a similarly practical approach to sex work as they do to the recreational use of marijuana.

Rather than criminalise it, they control it with a policy they call “pragmatic harm reduction”.

The police in the red light district are referred to as Amsterdam “hell angels” who keep the area safe.Amsterdam’s red light district is probably the only place in the world where you will find religion and sex work standing opposite of each other.

The old church in Amsterdam (in Dutch-Oude Kerk) is located in the heart of the red light district and is surrounded by window brothels, bars, cannabis shops and magic mushroom shops.

By the time one reaches the area around De Oude Kerk, one would have hit the neighbourhood’s most dense concentration of sex work.

The church is the only needle around which the “unholy” red light district spins.

Oude Kerk is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Established in 1306, it is the city’s oldest building in the heart of its medieval centre.

When it was established, over 800 years ago, Amsterdam was in its infancy and its history reflects the city’s eventful past.

Amsterdam is a bold experiment in 21st-century freedom.

By lifting the prohibition on brothels, the Dutch government sought to give sex workers more autonomy over their profession, reduce criminal activity and improve their labour conditions.

There are around 1 000 sex workers working in Amsterdam on any given day, and a few hundred of them work behind windows in the red light district while others work in clubs, brothels and as escorts.

In total, the city has about 400 such windows, with a big majority of them located in the red light district.

Surprisingly enough, the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is low among sex workers.

According to the Netherlands national statistics, the prevalence of HIV in sex workers is extremely low. An estimated two percent of sex workers are living with HIV.

Foxxy who became a prostitute more than 15 years ago at the age of 22 out of the desire for the profession explains that most workers are knowledgeable of the health details, and routinely take medical check-ups.

Sex work, unlike the legalisation of marijuana and euthanasia, is a social vice that was (and still is) regulated by state and local government in the Netherlands and can be tracked from before the Middle Ages.

The “independently-owned business” to many Zimbabweans, like myself, is seen as incomprehensible and challenges our moral fabric and sensibilities.

Generally, well-developed countries consider the Netherlands one of the most progressive cultures on the planet. While it is true that the Dutch do have the freedom to act in ways that individuals in other societies would be jailed for or even executed, with these freedoms comes a significant amount of regulation and taxation. In truth, the red light district seems to have something to offend everyone.

The colour red has been attributed to sex work for over thousands of years. In some Biblical reference with the story of Rahab — a sex worker, a scarlet rope was used to identify her house.

Now to the history of red light district areas — in the olden days, railway workers carried red lights to leave outside brothels to signify that they were open.

This allowed them to be quickly located for any potential railway train movement.

Others speculate that the name comes from the red paper lanterns which were hung outside brothels in China so people can easily recognise them.

Today, in Amsterdam and most parts of Europe where sex work had been legalised and government regulated, you will see fluorescent lights are indicative of the area.

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