Amsterdam’s red light district is a curious place. After just a few minutes of wandering its network of streets and alleyways, you’ll find your expectations have been thoroughly met and yet, at the same time, utterly challenged.
Amsterdam’s Red Light District: Expectations Met
This is undeniably a red light district. Literally. There is a profusion of bright, and yet somehow dark and heavy, red lighting that saturates the air with a ruby glow. Elaborate neon signs, fluorescent tubes and soon-to-be-obsolete incandescent light bulbs all contribute to the district-wide blush.
Ambient lighting aside, there is, of course, a swathe of additional visual evidence to loudly announce the purpose of Amsterdam’s Rossebuurt. Women in insubstantial lingerie sit or stand in what are essentially small shop windows, displaying their ‘goods’, smiling enticingly at the passing men. And when enticing smiles don’t appear to be doing the trick: the swift rap of knuckle on glass. Everywhere, unambiguous signs advertise a host of wicked activities, from intimate peepshows and the extravagant live sex shows of the Casa Rosa and Moulin Rouge to more... interactive pastimes. Adult cinemas and comprehensively stocked sex shops are everywhere. To the uninitiated the products displayed in the windows of Amsterdam’s sex shops can seem like an exhibition of sculptural art so abstract as to appear almost extraterrestrial in origin.
Even a casual tourist will be left with little or no doubt that almost everything and anything in which two consenting adults can engage is available here from as little as a few Euros.
As well as the all-pervasive red light, there is, despite the fact that the Rossebuurt is legal, well-policed and well-governed, an equally pervasive seediness. After all, this is a red light district; as well as catering for the simply curious and those broadminded individuals who perceive the purchasing of sex as no different than the purchasing of a haircut or shoeshine, Amsterdam’s sex workers are selling their bodies to the lonely and the desperate. It isn’t, for all the permits and official legislation, the same as walking through a market district selling fresh vegetable produce or local arts and crafts.
At night time, in the midst of all the hurly-burly (and after a few glasses of fortifying alcohol) it’s easy to overlook the shabbier details and ramifications of the parade of flesh and the almost-aggressive marketing of temptation and desire. In the daytime, however, Amsterdam’s red light district can be an almost depressing experience, like seeing a famous silver-screen beauty sans make-up.
Amsterdam’s Red Light District: Expectations Challenged
Whilst Amsterdam’s red light district is evidently just that, a red light district, it is also so much more, a red light district like no other.
For one thing, there’s the architecture. As much as the scantily-clad working women behind their panes of glass, the Oude Kerk alone will draw the eye of the aesthetically-sensitive. Elsewhere, Dutch renaissance and baroque architecture abound, creating an intricate cityscape that is unmistakably Amsterdam.
Then, there’s the people. If you’ve been adventurous enough to explore the red light districts of other cities, you’ll no doubt have found yourself in a weird and frightening world of drunks, belligerent pimps, insistent drug dealers and a whole host of social pariahs, shambling about, heads down, ashamed. Other red light districts feel like the sorts of places where lives come to an end, spiritually and literally, the sorts of places where hope is thwarted and dreams wither and die. Not so, Amsterdam’s red light district. Take away the wash of scarlet light, the beckoning women and the clamour of saucy advertising, look at the people milling about, and you’ll see a busy thoroughfare, filled with tourists, couples, families, office workers. People just going about their lives, with little or no interest in the banquet of flesh laid out before them.
The reason for the sheer ordinariness of the vast majority of the people you’ll see walking through Amsterdam’s red light district is largely down to three key factors.
Firstly, the red light district isn’t tucked away somewhere discrete and easily avoided; it’s right in the middle of everything. So, if you’re trying to get from A to B, it’s usually easier to cut through the RLD.
Secondly, thanks to sensible policing and good general maintenance, the prospect of cutting through the red light district isn’t a daunting one; to local residents, it’s just a network of streets and alleyways, useful and long-since taken for granted.
The third factor is, perhaps, the most significant. Amsterdam’s red light district isn’t just a red light district. There are a wide range of conventional shops, pubs, restaurants and coffee shops. And not just coffee shops catering for those with a penchant for funny cigarettes, but normal coffee shops, where you can buy coffee, tea, fruit juice for yourself and your family. There are tattoo and piercing parlours, like Mr B’s and No Hope No Fear, which, whilst countercultural at heart, are utterly separate from the brothels and flesh booths and sex shops. There are even museums and information centres.
So, whilst being a place that’s likely to provide more than one or two eye-opening experiences, it’s also just an ordinary district of Amsterdam, filled with ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives. It is this juxtaposition of the sinful and the commonplace that makes Amsterdam’s red light district utterly unique. It is, fundamentally, a non-judgemental place. Normally, the very existence of a red light district implies that the flesh trade needs to be cordoned off in some way, kept separate from decent, God-fearing folk, but in Amsterdam, despite there being a recognisable red light district, it interweaves seamlessly with the city’s everyday life of work, play and family.
Other than curious and excitable tourists, the people you meet making their way through Amsterdam’s red light district are as likely to be seeking out a good cup of coffee and a decent sandwich as they are the pleasures of the flesh. If you stay there for even a couple of weeks, you’re curiosity and excitement will dwindle and you’ll begin to see the place as an extraordinary bastion of tolerance and wisdom.
Where else would you find a bronze statue of a prostitute bearing the inscription “Respect Sex Workers All Over the World” outside a church that was consecrated at the beginning of the twelfth century?