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The Prostitutes of the Red Light District: Amsterdam

February 11, 2013

This is third article in a series exploring the realities, motivations and morals associated with the sex trade: the first post was an interview of a male, gay stripper in Chicago, the second post was an interview of a female, straight stripper in Washington DC, and this post regards prostitutes in the Red Light District of Amsterdam.  NSFW.

Out of respect for the prostitutes, I didn’t want to take any close ups, but here you can see the booths, outlines of women, and get a feel for the general scene.

The Prostitutes

It was the ultimate form of window shopping.

They splayed on their individual chairs and stools, projecting indolent welcome with their bare waists and bared breasts, with their shiny, shaved legs ending in shoes with complicated buckles, rhinestones and high heels.  Standard uniform seemed to be lingerie or bikinis or corsets in various colors and metallics; one was daring enough to cover up in a jean miniskirt and a cropped sweater. Another wore suspenders that coyly covered the nipples of her breasts, and not much else.Most wore their hair long and down and natural looking.  Some however had their locks up in intricate ponytails with jeweled clips, or shaved on one side, with a platinum white spiky mohawk on the other.  Navel rings, furry boots, fish nets, one thigh-high stocking with pink bow….

Many were in their twenties, fit and lean, with large and/or fake breasts and smooth, hairless skin all the way down to their thong coverings.  Still, there were many who didn’t fit the stereotypical mold: they were older, wrinkles covered up in caked makeup; or fat, with rolls of flesh protruding from corsets and tiny thongs;or short, with curvy thighs; or tall,with tiny breasts; or, frankly, simply unattractive of body or of face.  Most of the women were Caucasian, but Chinese and Hispanic looking women dotted the alleyways.  Black women were rarer but present as well, except for one area near the Old Church, where there was a block that housed only dark women in shiny silver two pieces.  Apparently, a majority of the prostitutes in Amsterdam come from Eastern Europe.  The bell of Oud Kierk tolled 10pm, and tourists feed the geese in the canal.  A prostitute is there, in her red lit window, but the swans eating bread receive more attention from these passerby.

Make-up was a given, with fake eyelashes and plumped lips and dramatic eyes; some paint jobs were unmistakably reminiscent of clowns or mimes.  More disconcerting were the occasional glasses perched on pert noses.  It was hard for me to think of these women as being the girl next door, complete with an unsettling sense of academic innocence. In one case, a girl sat wearing jeans and black bra, a hardback book on her lap, which she read, waiting for a customer but in no way engaging with the outside world.   A woman usually needs to be thin and beautiful to make it as a movie star or model.  Apparently any woman, with any body type, can become a prostitute.

Oud Kierk Amsterdam Red Light District

Oud Kierk (Old Church) next to the Red Light District. An odd juxtaposition, religion and sex mingling.

The Scene

In the winding alleyways near the Chinatowndistrict in Amsterdam, along and around a canal, there were hundreds of small, five feet by five feet windows lined by red curtains.  If you looked into these windows, you would see homogenous rooms with a thin bed, side mirror and a washbasin.  These rooms were lit by blacklights and red-lights, illuminating the women inside, and transforming white lingerie into twin glowing beacons in the night.  Red is flattering, they say.  Women look better in that sort of light.

The prostitutes all had different ways of engaging with their potential clients.  Some made verbal entreaties or coyly waved their fingers in a ‘come hither’ way or twitched to attract attention, aware of men’s primitive urge to follow movement with their eyes.  Some licked their lips, or waggled their asses, or threw out their breasts.  Others simply sat and stared.  Many, so many, played games on their smart phones or talked to someone, barely paying attention to the gazes outside of the windows.  That prostitutes have smart phones and I only have my pay-as-you-go brick perversely amused me.

With the prostitutes, there was no division of the public or private sphere: I could watch prostitutes put on makeup, or adjust clothing, or brush their teeth, or talk to (clothed) female friends or other prostitutes.  This was a huge difference from strippers: as I mentioned in my post about Audrey, strippers maintain the illusion of effortless, un-human female perfection as part of their gig.  There was no such sleight of hand with prostitutes; the phrase ‘working girl’ applies more aptly than I knew.  These women had the air of someone killing time on a job.  They held my eyes with theirs as I wandered.  I always looked away first.  I couldn’t tell whether they viewed me as a potential customer or not.  Who was watching whom through the clear glass?

‘Erotic massage!’ read one sign. A small Thai looking woman resided within.  ‘Kink welcome!’ proclaimed another.  There was a shop next door to this window, selling whips and chains.  The prostitute in that window wore goth makeup and a corset.  Her teeth gleamed white against her black lipstick as she smiled at the world.

One of the many sex shop manikins. She terrifies me a bit, but I think it is supposed to be sexy.

The Clients

The standard script goes as such: a John would approach a window and rap on the window.  The prostitute would open her door and then a brief negotiation would start.  The usual transaction includes a ‘fuck and suck’ for 50 Euros, which could last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.  He would then enter through a side door, and the prostitute would close the red curtains.  I began to be uncomfortably aware what closed curtains meant, what they signalled; it was hard for me to imagine a prostitute and a client were behind those curtains, transaction in medias res.  The clients I saw entering or leaving a prostitute’s den didn’t seem embarrassed or ashamed, but strode out confidently into the room or into the night.

As I wandered the alleyways, I began to identity certain types of men loitering in those sexually charged streets. These men were of all ages, all races, from many countries.   Some were furtive, like alley cats, prowling at the peripheries, not wanting to be engaged but wanting to watch.  Others were touristic; fingers pointed and laughter rang; eight Japanese businessmen openly marvelled.  Sometimes they started to take photographs, but this was not allowed.  I didn’t see any cameras taken away, but apparently that can happen.  Some men were evaluative, others joked with the prostitutes, playful and clearly not intent on purchasing any services.  A few were with girlfriends or wives, but these were of a minority.  Police officers patrol the area, men and women, on foot and on horseback, watching the Johns, much as I was.

There was an old woman walking her dog in the Red Light district.  She deliberately stayed in this area, and was clearly a local.  I wondered what her story was.  Two boys leaned against a wall and smoked cigarettes.  They couldn’t be more than twelve years of age.  One pissed against the wall, his eyes slitted as he unzipped his fly, looking around to see if anyone noticed him.  His friend flicked a cigarette against a prostitute’s window as he waited for his mate to finish, and she glared at him.

A potential client racing past graffiti depictions of the prostitutes. The graffiti in Amsterdam was intense in a lot of the city.

The Observer

I was the one of the only women walking around by myself.

The men and prostitutes alike looked at me, with steely eyes.  ‘What are you doing here, love? Are you interested in women too?  Can I watch?’  The men around me were covered in thick overcoats and rain hats.  It was drizzling that night, and cold to boot- January in the Netherlands.  The prostitutes wore almost nothing, and were inside, warm.   The rain heightened my feeling of disconnect to my surroundings, the juxtaposition was ludicrous. What type of world do we live in with space so strongly demarcated, the outside and the in, the cold and the warm, the masculine and the feminine, the hidden and the bare?  What did it say that I was straddling this border, in the liminal state between?

I felt like I was complicit in a collective crime.  I was a member of this society that casually accepted, not just sexuality (which is healthy) or commerce (which is inevitable) but an ugly amalgamation of the two.  The buying and selling of women’s flesh is ancient, I know, but my looking at them, being part of the scene, gave my implicit consent and support to the type of society that put them there, through economic incentives or otherwise.

I also had to confront my own mental sexual discrimination.  As I walked in the rain, sometimes going down the same alley multiple times, searching for some unknown answer in the wet pavement, I realized that I couldn’t imagine these girls being like me.  Prostitutes are creatures fundamentally different than me; I see them an ethnographic opportunity, nothing more.  It was hard for me to imagine them as people instead of cookie cutter girls: imagine them at home, making breakfast, studying biology, going fishing, going to museums in sweatpants and a baggy T. Some part of me needed to pretend that they were different, not like me at all, to create that space between them and me.    I also thought of them as strippers in my head, not as prostitutes.  Strippers I knew, I have been friends with girls who stripped.  Strippers were like me.  Strippers like burritos and talking about boys and watching Doctor Who too.  Prostitutes were different, somehow.  I can’t imagine them having sex in those tiny rooms, me seeing them mere minutes before or after they had sex with a man for money.  Cleaning themselves up, and doing it again, and again.  A prostitute has the rent the window from which she sells herself and those cost about 120 Euros at night for an eight hour shift.  On average, a prostitute in Amsterdam has sex anywhere between 3 and 11 times per shift.

Swans and prostitutes in Amsterdam

The lucky fed swans and the ignored prostitutes in their windows.

Sex is part of life; sex engenders life.  Almost every adult has sex: the acts that these women performed for cash have been performed by almost every adult woman in the world.  But sex is also quietly obscene.  Pregnant women are smug and slightly terrifying: it is like they are screaming to the world that they had sex recently- you can roughly calculate based on their size when that sexual encounter occurred.  It is a visible uncomfortable reminder of what is usually kept locked in the bedroom.   The prostitutes were a bit like pregnant women, in terms that they too were obvious about being sexual beings.  But pregnancy is seen as socially acceptable, and prostitution is not.  Even when prostitution is legal, like in the Netherlands, the women don’t tell their families or friends what they do. There is stigma, and where society has stigma, it produces shame and secrecy.

So that is the problem, then, laid bare: we belong to a society that legitimizes the sex trade legally, but not socially.  Going into or purchasing something from a sex store?  Empowering, taking control of ones sexual destiny.  Doing a few pole dancing classes?  Slightly salacious, but considered a sure fire way to reignite passion in the bedroom, not to mention it is a great workout.  Strippers?  Okay, a girl’s got to pay the bill, and she’s basically a dancer right?  And then there is prostitution.  Red light shines seductively by night, but by the light of day, where does that leave us as a society?  Ashamed of our desires, we punish those who fulfill them.  And I am a part of this; I too judge these women without meaning to.

The red light district of Amsterdam is quiet in morning; people walk their dogs, jog in sweats, get breakfast at the little cafes, or go to the church with cameras and guidebooks.  The district is once again assimilated into the cityscape; a couple of women dot the curtained landscape, but far fewer.  They wave goodbye to their boyfriends with hot Starbucks juggled in their hands, climb the stairs to their little door, and open it, fumbling with the keys.  They put down their coffee on the cheap washbasin and vanity, slip their bag down on the floor, and look around at the room.  They pull the curtain shut.

Twilight falls on the canal, the birds circle the sky.

In my short time in Amsterdam, I did not interview any prostitutes working there.  If you want to know more about them, the first two links (here and here) have some general information about the red light district.  The second two links (here and here) are personal interviews with prostitutes, conducted by male interviewers.  Very interesting and slightly heartbreaking reads.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason permalink
    April 22, 2013 7:23 PM

    I’m glad you wrote-up something on this. After visiting for the first time I kept wondering what perspective a ‘typical’ female would have on that environment and all it entails. I see we experienced the same place, but had slightly different experiences. Although, I too was surprised by the very human, lack-of-disconnect feeling I had. Walking around the next day, you think to yourself “anyone of these girls passing me could be a RLD girl, yet they seem so ‘normal”, lol. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

  2. April 22, 2013 7:24 PM

    I’m glad you wrote-up something on this. After visiting for the first time I kept wondering what perspective a ‘typical’ female would have on that environment and all it entails. I see we experienced the same place, but had slightly different experiences. Although, I too was surprised by the very human, lack-of-disconnect feeling I had. Walking around the next day, you think to yourself “anyone of these girls passing me could be a RLD girl, yet they seem so ‘normal”, lol. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  3. June 30, 2013 2:36 PM

    I think your writing has literary promise however, I also think your point of view is a bit enclosed and judgemental. Might I say that there is a good number if these women who are victims of human trafficking, mental & emotional abuse. I would suggest that next time you go back, spend some time with them rather than just gawking at them as individuals or people less than you. At the heart if even the most notorious prostitute is still a human being equal to you and me. I am quite offended by your reduction of the red light prostitutes.

    • July 9, 2013 12:23 PM

      I completely agree with you- prostitutes are people like you and me. I did not mean to (nor do I feel that I did) ‘reduce’ them. I tried to engage with my own prejudices carefully, as well as comment on the type of culture in which we live where prostitution is expected, but not respected. For interviews with two different prostitutes (interviewers who ‘spent some time’ as you put it) please see the links at the end of the article.

  4. November 13, 2013 2:50 AM

    [də ˈʋɑləcəs] ) is the largest and best known red-light district in Amsterdam and a maallen consists of a network of alleys containing approximately three hundred one-room cabins rented by prostitutes who offer their sexual services from behind a window or glass door, typically illuminated with red lights. There “kamers” are the most visible and typical kind of red light district sex work in Amsterdam and are a large tourist attraction.

  5. Haley permalink
    November 17, 2013 9:17 PM

    Marie Claire Enquiry

    Dear Luca Winer,
    I’m Haley, an intern with Marie Claire magazine in Malaysia. We are interested in having your article featured in our magazine and would love for you to contact us.
    If it is alright with you, kindly contact us at amyliahilda@bluinc.com.my.
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  6. Rob Greener permalink
    January 29, 2014 10:42 AM

    I was in Amsterdam visiting a friend and we walked through the Red Light District. I found the whole place fascinating. Must admit to finding some of the girls a Huge turn on but something stops me from wanting to pay them for Sex. I think I would just find it too “Business like” and not erotic at all.

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