Gingerly entering the Red Light District for the first time earlier this year on my brief stay in Amsterdam was a mind-blowing experience. I had always acknowledged its existence, yet seeing the spectacle for myself was quite a different matter. In the sunny glare of daylight, the Red Light District even appears picturesque. Situated in one of the oldest parts of the city with long, winding cobbled streets, the district is quaintly charming. Yet at night the seedy red glow of windows with semi-naked women posing grotesquely, pulsates against a flow of voyeurs. I didn’t know what to make of this hub of sexual activity, which was simultaneously fantastic yet repulsive, natural yet seedy.
It could be argued that the Red Light District is no more than a sleazy, dehumanising zoo, caging women for the benefit of lusty tourists. The feminist cause has been fighting for the integrity of women for decades, only to be confronted by a whole district which undermines that cause. Women are reduced to mere objects in cages, are stripped of personality and are seen in a derogatory light. They serve a purpose; and that purpose is to sexually gratify men. Furthermore the district is seen to congratulate itself on offering every ‘type’ of woman to the paying customer; every size, shape, race or age. This further serves to emphasise the dehumanising nature of the industry – are women now to be viewed as a brand, which comes in all available sizes and colours? Will women soon be ‘made to order’ too? Perhaps more worryingly is the potential spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the Red Light District. It is not a legal requirement in Amsterdam for prostitutes to take a mandatory STD or HIV test and with a regular flow of customers, the spread of infection becomes a serious risk.
However, Amsterdam’s Red Light District grew out of the 13th century, and for an industry which is almost as old as the city itself, appears to be a timeless occupation. Thus, Amsterdam’s open and liberal attitude to sex and prostitution has grown over many centuries – and therefore may not be as shocking as it originally seems. One has to remember that instead of archaically transforming sex into a criminal and disgraceful act, the Red Light District embraces the modern notion that sex is a natural and basic human need. More importantly, it is vital to consider the fate of sex-workers if the district did not exist. Instead of working in a safe and protected environment women would be forced to work on the streets – unprotected. The district offers a number of measures to ensure the safety and protection of the women who work in those infamous red-lit windows. Each door opens only from the inside to prevent unwanted guests while each woman also has an alarm to trigger in the case of trouble, which would call security or police to their aid. Aside from preventing forced prostitution, the honest and upfront nature of the district sees sex-workers forming their own unions, with the promise of police protection, information centres, regular monitoring as well as the maintenance of professional standards.
So what is to be made of the notorious Red Light District? A derogatory and unjust industry which promotes prostitution, or an integral part of Amsterdam’s heritage and an important means of protecting workers? Whatever the ethical implications behind it, the Red Light District is an eye-opener which both shocks and appeals at the same time.