02 February 2020

Time: “How Amsterdam’s Mayor wants to remake the Red Light District”

Named “De Wallen” (The Walls) in Dutch for its position inside the old city walls, the red light district’s medieval buildings have been a hub for sex workers since the 15th century—long before the Netherlands legalized brothels and began regulating and taxing prostitution in October 2000. Today, escort services and sex clubs make up a significant part of Amsterdam’s sex work sector. But De Wallen’s window brothels—popularized in the 1960s as authorities grew more tolerant of women opening their curtains to attract clients—remain iconic: the literal manifestation of the clear-eyed Dutch approach to activities that other countries would rather sweep under the rug.

Relocating or replacing the red light district with a purpose-built prostitution hotel would also mean the end of an international landmark—even if it’s a controversial one. To have the sex industry integrated with so called ‘normal life’, among churches and restaurants and a kindergarten and the Salvation Army shop – that’s pretty special, Majoor says, noting that the red light district developed over centuries. You can’t just create that atmosphere somewhere else. If we get rid of the sex work, Amsterdam’s city center will be like any other old European capital.

Ciara Nugent

I’ve visited Amsterdam last fall on my way to Iceland, but I haven’t made it to the Red Light District in the three days I was there – it was pouring rain for half the time, so there’s half my excuse. I must admit I wasn’t terribly impressed with the city – the center is just an endless collection of canals and houses that looked more or less the same to me – so I have to agree with the last statement. The open attitude towards sex and drugs makes the city unique and therefore attractive to tourists, so forcing prostitution out of the way would damage the city’s personality – like Paris closing down Moulin Rouge. In a sense I regret not having visited the Red Light District, now that it’s possible it may not be there next time.

The Red Light District in Amsterdam
The Red Light District seen from one of the brothel offices in Amsterdam on Sep. 20, 2019. Ilvy Njiokiktjien for TIME

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