The average Amsterdam ‘window girl’ works 8-11 hour shifts, renting out her ‘window’ for €150 Euro’s per half-day and charging an average of €fifty Euro’s per twenty minute session. Strolling through Amsterdam’s De Wallen Rossebuurt, just ten minutes south of the city’s central railway station and a world away from the country’s more understated charms, the prostitutes plying their trade from the window-fronts of the quaint, Medieval-style houses are illuminated by that famous rosy glow. Policemen stroll past, and white underwear glares under the blacklight – while the occasional harsh, blue light, shining out incongruously amongst the streets full of red, indicates the presence of male and transgender sex workers.
It’s certainly a striking sight – and to many Britons, a rather unnerving one. But how does Amsterdam’s system of legalized prostitution actually work? And what are the benefits, other than the obvious?
Legalised prostitution is a relatively recent phenomenon in Amsterdam. A ban on brothels in place since the 19th century was only lifted in 2000, and since then the industry has been regulated via a licensing system. Window prostitution, brothels, ‘private houses’ and escort services through agencies are all legal – if they have a licence. Owners and operators of prostitution businesses also require a licence and the police carry out regular checks to ensure they comply with the regulations. The most important rules are that women may not be forced to work as prostitutes; that they must be of legal age; and a legal resident of the European Union.
The licensing system has increased the girls’ safety and brought about a sharp reduction in illegal practices and the exploitation of children. Prostitutes now work in secured surroundings with cameras angled in front of every window, and police patrol the area. In these brothels, there is a ‘panic alarm’ available at the press of a button. Clean linen and towels are provided, and legal prostitutes have access to unlimited free STD checks, as well as social services and assistance.
Legalisation, however, has proven insufficient to bring a complete halt to all abuses in the sex trade. Women continue to be exploited through forced prostitution and human trafficking, with many of the worst offenders simply moving their operation underground into unlicensed brothels. Organised crime is also a problem – one 2005 report concluded that a large number of legal prostitutes in Amsterdam were being abused and forced to work by pimps and criminal gangs, and that the goals of legalization were failing.
Amsterdam, however, has recently introduced measures to combat these failings. In July 2013, the minimum legal age for prostitutes was raised to 21, brothel windows were required to close between 06:00am and 08:00am, and window operators were required to draft a business plan setting out how they ensure good working conditions for the prostitutes. Healthcare services have also been expanded to include escorts and prostitutes who visit private homes – a further step to protect those behind the ‘red curtain’.
Those curious to visit the district and see exactly how Amsterdam’s sex trade works, without hiring a prostitute, are also in luck. A new, educational prostitution museum named “Red Light Secrets” has opened on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, aiming to provide a literal window into the world of Red Light prostitution. The Amsterdam tourist board also itself provides an English-language guide for how to behave in the district – photographs are especially verboten.
Meanwhile, ‘Condomerie’ provides the largest range of condoms in Amsterdam. And be sure to check out the statue dedicated to “the unknown sex worker” in the Old Church Square. The plaque on the statue reads simply; “Respect sex workers all over the world”.