Amsterdam is famous for many things, beautiful canals, bridges for days and adorable houses that look like they should all be featured on Christmas cards. Let’s be honest, the majority of its reputation in the West has been related to the drug culture and prostitution in the Red Light district. Coffee shops mean dispensaries and windows are referenced as a place for young women to stand in nearly nothing and display themselves for potential customers. In recent years the Red Light district has become more of an anachronism for Amsterdam’s past and only about 20% of their infamous “windows” are still in operation today.
As I walked through the city of Amsterdam, I was enamored with the beauty that I saw around me and I was eager to learn more about it. I walked through Vondelpark and ate space cake with my tea at a “coffee shop” and the people were quite friendly and open. It seemed to be a relaxed environment and I was enjoying my day of beautiful weather and unique culture. I found myself on a narrow street among a large crowd of people and I immediately could see that I had accidentally walked into a touristy part of the city. I could not find my way to the place I was attempting to visit so I decided to follow the crowd until the end of the attraction. I began to notice rows of large, empty windows around me and I assumed that these were closed businesses that were preparing for seasonal stores for the summer tourism. Suddenly I saw a beautiful young woman in lingerie standing in one of the windows…then another…then another. I felt near tears as I saw the tourists taking photos of these women as though the exploitation of their bodies had not been fully exacerbated yet and they needed to exploit them one more time for a few likes on their Instagram feed.
Since the legalization of prostitution in 2000 many in Amsterdam have been creating a propaganda machine to express some type of benefit to the sex worker. Some claimed that legalization made the women safer, but the reality is that pimps still need to be paid and need to make those under their employ feel small and invisible to create an effective money machine. Others claimed that legalization would limit trafficking, but trafficking has been on the rise since the law’s inception. Essentially the legalization of prostitution has simply emboldened those profiting the most to feel that they can continue their practices without any consequences.
When you try to get information about the industry, you are charged a fee and fed incorrect statistics that create the illusion of the industry problems being solved by this policy. If you tour the Red Light district guides will tell you that Amsterdam’s brothel industry is a model for the world to follow. What it really teaches us, however, is that treating human beings like pieces of meat will never bring anything but shame and pain to a society. If you happen to wander into the neighborhood, don’t be fooled by the smiles on their faces. These young women hate their jobs and the more that the world participates in their exploitation the more that they will grow to hate themselves. All in all, the Red Light district seemed to be read by outsiders as a representation of Amsterdam’s free-spirited culture. In reality, it was the antithesis to the kindness and open hearts that I had encountered along the way. I fell in love with the city as a whole and the sex tourism attempted to dilute the things that drew me in.
Luckily, the bar that I found as I came out on the other side of this Red Light section restored my faith in Amsterdam. The owner was Turkish, the bartender was French and patrons were from all corners of the globe. A soccer game was playing on the television and a group of gentlemen from Barcelona bought a round of beers for the entire bar. The game was heated and yet the viewers were having more fun than I had expected given that neither team was represented among the nationalities in the bar, which was the one country that was not represented in the bar. The owner set out trays of falafel and hummus free of charge and we drank, ate and had a fantastic time!