I recently found myself in the strange land of De Wallen- otherwise known as a Red Light District of Amsterdam. This was not a social call, you understand. I found myself with a group of my buddies in Amsterdam for a few hours on the way back home, and well … what else is there to do in Amsterdam, right?
In fact there’s loads of other stuff to do in Amsterdam; the buildings are so crooked that it’s entertaining. The city is like a whole other world, and the small streets and cobbles allow for a large amount of exploring. But the fact remains that the hash cafes and red lights of Amsterdam are the best documented, so that was where we headed- after asking directions of a number of locals, somewhat without shame, it must be said.
You get desensitised to it pretty quickly. We passed many women in windows, one or two sitting on stools bored shitless with a phone in hand, probably texting a friend to say “work’s a drag” like you or I would. The windows lit up the lonely streets with crass neon intention; the girls inside them were just settling in to work.
The women (and odd few men) in the windows become less like people and more like objects the farther down the streets you walk, and – there are moments when you see the real underworld- take a picture of anything and a pimp might cut your hand off. There are tiny streets where the lights remind you that this is a business; this is a commercial buy and sell.
Nonetheless, the knocks on the windows and the tiny rooms with beds visible and shady characters milling around ought to remind you that it’s a business you don’t want to be in. Attempts to glamorize it fall by the wayside, and there are a set of stark facts regarding the
safety of the women involved. A 2006 survey points out that 7% of the women in the Amsterdam sex industry have HlV or AIDS. All EU workers can legally go to De Wallen and work the sex trade.
My (better) advice would be not to get into that industry at all. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime lists the Netherlands as a primary destination for human trafficking. 75% of prostitutes in Amsterdam are Eastern European, African or Asian~ In 2004, a police report from Amsterdam indicated a list of 76 pimps with violent criminal backgrounds, of whom only three were Dutch natives. These are indications that the tourist attraction is funding criminality; that those who purchase the services available or enter the shops and museums all around, are finding an underworld that has been legalised, but not legitimised.
In similar situations worldwide, notably the diamond mines of Sierra Leone and the subsequent Kimberly Accords, we as a human race have acted to prevent our delights leading to such depravity. De Wallen, and the other red light areas of Amsterdam seem to be immune
to this type of action. Most action seems to be symbolic, rather than substantive. A statue was placed in De Wallen in 2007. Inscribed on it are the words “Respect sex workers all over the world”. Which is fine for a tourist to see and feel better about, but it damn sure doesn’t help the workers.
Karena Schaapman, former prostitute and member of Amsterdam’s local council, stated in an interview with Netherlands Radio that “There are people who are really proud of the red light district as a tourist attraction. It’s supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it’s a cesspit. There’s a lot of serious criminality. There’s a lot of exploitation of women, and a lot of social distress. That’s nothing to be proud of.”
And having been there, I can with safety say that it wasn’t all that pleasant at all. I felt mean for even walking those streets, even with the giggles we did have. With the gift of hindsight, I maybe might have felt better about seeing the city- and not Roxanne.