tagReviews & EssaysAre the Red Lights Dimming in Amsterdam?

Are the Red Lights Dimming in Amsterdam?


Amsterdam, the crown jewel of the Netherlands, a city famous for its canals, the van Gogh Museum and the famed Rembrandt painting The Nightwatch is also famous for its red-light district. Called the Wallen in Dutch, Amsterdam's red-light district is the most open in Europe featuring lingerie-clad women selling themselves in storefront windows. Prostitution in the Netherlands has been tolerated for years and in October 2000 it was formally legalized when the government it could better control the activity through regulation than by making it illegal. At that time city officials began inspecting and licensing brothels.

In Europe, where window shopping with your bible toting in-laws can become an adventure as you peruse the wares offered by the shops. You may pass a clothing store featuring the latest fashions, a curio shop selling fine hand carvings or fine crafted beer steins and suddenly find yourself looking at realistic dildos, vibrators and a wide assortment of sexual devises all openly displayed in the local Sex Shop. While shops in the United States sell these items they offer a much lower key display if they have any windows. The red-light districts take it a step further, giving window shoppers an entirely different set of wares on display.

In a country long famous for its social liberalism and tolerance, where abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the sale of soft drugs are legal, but state controlled activities, Amsterdam was often seen as the forefront of this liberalism. Besides the red-light district in the city, they featured cannabis coffee houses as well as other businesses selling drugs. However, recently the increasingly conservative city officials have been planning to close down nearly a third of the window brothels, more aggressively prosecute marijuana growers and more closely regulate coffee shops that sell drugs. Numbers of the coffee shops have already been closed down.

I find I am not alone in being concerned in what seems to be a radical change in a very forward thinking handling of some age old vices. Rather than criminalize the activity, which will happen whether the government or organized crime and gangs are running it, keep it under the guise and control of government where it can be taxed and safely regulated. In Amsterdam, the city tourism board indicates that a third of visitors to the city list the red-light district as the attraction they most want to see when they come, and you have to wonder how many other people really come to see the district, but are embarrassed to list it on surveys.

The local prostitutes union, The Red Thread, is strongly against the plans, saying the officials are trying to "...remake the district into a 'Disneyland.'" They are afraid the move will backfire causing more women to work for pimps, much like in the United States. Caroline Leijsen, a spokesperson for the Amsterdam Tourist and Convention Board says, "Prostitution is an age-old profession and Amsterdammers find it hypocritical to hide this away." (1)

Likewise students in the city complain that if the city closes down the coffee shops, tourist and others will simply buy the drugs from street dealers, again much like the United States. While this appears to be a step backward from Amsterdam's progressive thinking, their city officials cite rising crime as their prime motivation. They worry not only about petty thievery, but also more serious crimes including money laundering and the trafficking of women and children.

So while the city continues tightening its regulations on the coffee shops and make plans to purchase 18 buildings, which currently contain window brothels at a cost of $21 million effectively shutting down about a third of the brothels in the area, we'll have to wait and see what happens to crime. While the tourism board thinks perhaps the smaller concentration of prostitution will not have much affect on tourism and will make regulation easier. The Red Thread indicates the problem lies with the poor Eastern European women brought in to Amsterdam and exploited by pimps working out of nightclubs or on the street instead of the red-light district.

Certainly the trafficking of women and children, along with money laundering is serious enough to warrant concern, it seems apparent that criminalizing drugs and prostitution will only increase the problem, driving the customers into the hands of organized crime. So perhaps, if the tightening of restrictions and reductions of the number of brothels and coffee houses make the industry easier to regulate, the steps taken by the city officials may solve their problems.

Of course it seems that by reducing establishments offering prostitution the prices may go up, where prostitutes currently earn between $50 and $75 per client for their services, suddenly a number of clients may not be able to afford the new prices and look for their sex outside of the regulated businesses. The same would seem true for the coffee houses, if the drugs get too expensive there, customers may seek out a cheaper alternative. It appears, regardless of the business, the realities of supply and demand govern.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Amsterdam. In the meantime, although current exchange rates may affect how much sex you can afford when visiting, Sietske Altink of The Red Thread indicates that the prostitutes there are still happy. Happy hookers? It doesn't get any better than that.



1. "Amsterdam aims to curb red-light district," Shelly Emling Cox News Service, Houston Chronicle, Sunday October 14, 2007.

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