Amsterdam’s Red Light District, Sin is negotiable

Sex sells, everything and everywhere. It may be used in an hilarious way like these car advertisements (Fiat, Italian brand, stereotypes seriously…),

or more suggestively in pop songs such as this Kpop songs. I belong to the school that thinks that the primary appeal of Kpop groups is first in their different forms of sex appeal, not that I’m objecting to it.

Scandalous suggstions of sex was also used to sell books, such as Matthew Lewis’ 18th century Gothic novel The Monk which was turned into a movie in 2013. The scandal then was of the suggestion of sexual temptation in a religious setting.

Some people lament it, I think its purely humans using biology, a fundamental amoral act that is given moral meaning, but that’s an overly philosophical discussion. Now, all these examples above use the suggestion and power of sex to sell something – a song, a book, a car… But there is the more direct version, the sale of sex itself. Whether via pornography or prostitution, the sale of sex cuts through the appeal to basal instincts and directly serve those baser instincts. It is base, not because it is morally wrong – I don’t buy that argument at all, but because it is a powerful natural process that drives the survival of the species. This profession, the direct exchange of sexual favours for money, is as old as human history itself (perhaps even older) and is surprisingly very economically efficient.

In case you wonder about the impact of prostitution, do not forget that American west was built up on the backs of prostitution and settlement of a trade.

While it obviously exist throughout the world, the legal status of prostitution varies. There is a map on wikipedia that shows the different levels of legality of prostitution around the world. Most societies treat prostitution and the people who visit them as lower on the moral plan. I don’t use such services, so I don’t have skin in this moral argument, but I have and will continue to say say that this is perhaps the most honest expression of human sexuality and the people who engage in such transactions are no less human as anyone else. They too are seeking a connection.

Which brings me to the Amsterdam Red Light district. Yah yah, I know I took a damn long detour to get to the point (damn, Amsterdam geddit geddit heh)…Why? Because the concept behind this red-light district was more human-centric than most. I had heard so much about the infamous red light district and so the first thing I did on arriving in Amsterdam was to join a walking tour of the city (organised by Free Dam tours, I wanna give a shout out because they were hella-awesome).

Our meeting spot was at the old church, located deep in the heart of the old town and the red light district. The sense of curiosity increased as I made my way to look for the church as each alleyway proudly displayed sex toys and sex shops but no sign of the well-known red light and prostitutes. Was I walking in the right direction?

I took my phone out and tapped on Google maps again, I was in the right direction it said. So I walked until I saw a tall spire. That must be the church.

The tour began and we walked around the church, most of our attention was taken however by the fact that surrounding the paramenter of the church were a few red light windows, that’s sinning a little too close to God isn’t it?

“Not if the church supported prostitution,” was the answer from our guide.

The history of prostitution in Amsterdam’s old town, the De Wallen district goes back centuries and came with the rise of city as a trading centre from the 1400s. Being the central trading port of the Dutch East India Company, many sailors who had been out to see for months on end. As is biological, months on end with no sexual release leads to a sexually-frustrated man, couple that with the flow of alcohol and an obvious lad culture and the threat of wanton rape of the young virgins of the city was real. Fearful that the young girls and virgins in the then extremely pious city, the religious and political authorities decided to tolerate the existence of prostitutes. These prostitutes would then be able to service the men, the virgins would be spared potential sexual abuse and the money that flowed… well, some vice money would go to the city’s coffers. It’s was practical.

But where to put these brothels?

Even though the sailors had a reputation for saltiness, they too were god-fearing, and few dared to leave the city to an uncertain naval voyage after committing a mortal sin. So it was highly convenient for the brothels to be around a church. And since the ships set sail at odd times, it was then even more helpful to be able to confess their sins outside of church opening hours. Apart from allowing brothels to be centred around the church, the church also set up a special confessional with a red door that forgave both committed sins and future sins, for a fee of course.


The history of the red light district went through periods of relaxed and tightened attitudes. A period of relaxation was followed by a way that would tighten and attempt to outlaw such activities and after a while revert back to the relaxed situation. The Amsterdam of today returned to its more tolerating views on such an industry in 1988 when it recognised prostitution as a legal profession, legalised prostitution in 2000 (I don’t understand the difference).

The aims were to ensure that the individuals in the profession were able to be taken care of by the system and serve as contributing members to the society (they pay tax too). The idea was also that entering such a profession was free willing and not due to human trafficking and coercion. The ideal, was to be like this VICE video.

The red light district has however recently seen a downturn in its fortunes. The district has turned from a pleasure heaven into a tourist sight – leading to more people but no real increase in customers. The gentrification of the old town is seeing the district die a natural death. The tourists have also taken to looking at the window brothels and the prostitutes inside as if they were zoo animals, a very disrespectful attitude. Because a voluntary code of conduct (live and let live basically) was not effective, new laws have been recently put in place. In fact, while researching for this article I found some videos on youtube that were taken by tourists that peering into the windows and recorded the transaction discussions, I refuse to link any of these videos, because these people aren’t animals.

Signs of large crime syndicates that traffic young girls from poor countries are showing (here and here) – suggesting that the laws used (of legalising prostitution to prevent human trafficking) have failed. This has led to the discussion on whether the Dutch model of progressive prostitution has failed and whether other means like the Swedish model which allows the sale of sex but makes the purchase of sex illegal (once again, I don’t know how that works, there are both proponents and opponents of this model too).

Sin is negotiable, the practical dutch clergymen of many centuries ago saw to that, creating one of the most fascinating tourist attractions in the world. Has the Dutch model of legalised, regulated prostitution worked? Are the recent problems with human trafficking systemic or temporary? Will the Dutch tolerance continue or are we due for the cyclical reversal as this district has done in its long history?

I don’t know the answers to those.

What I do know, is that humans will not be done with sex.

Not for a long, long time.



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