Dating back to the 14th century, Amsterdam’s Red Light District is so-called because of the rosy glow from the red lighting around the windows where ladies and a few men display their wares. The area is several blocks square, made up of a network of streets and alleys. About 300 small single room apartments are rented by sex workers, typically at ground level. While one would suppose that the neighborhood is sordid and seamy, it’s more of an upbeat party atmosphere as both travellers and locals enjoy a meal or a vivid walk.
Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, though streetwalking is not, and women in the business have been unionised, registered, regulated, and taxed since 1984. Though these workers are not required to undergo regular health screenings, most do, as health and social services are easily accessed and often required by employers.
Visitors often comment on the apparent lack of interest ladies have in passerby. Those looking in the windows are as likely to see women reading a magazine or filing their nails as they are to receive a come-hither look. While staring is welcome – and even expected – photographs are not. Pulling out a camera can earn you a visit from a bad-tempered body guard, so best to keep them in your pockets, or better yet, back at your hotel room.
Rumours of all manner of sex-related attractions are true, from a museum chronicling the role of sex in cultures throughout history to live shows, toy shops, and more. All manner of odd sights are available to those daring enough to venture in. The surrounding area contains the coffee shops of marijuana fame, and there is a cannabis museum on the main street where tourists are invited to study the history of the drug and its legal ups and downs throughout the 20th century.
Recent years have brought increased debate about the role of the Red Light District in the city. Many express concern that crime and exploitation cast a shadow over the symbol of Amsterdam’s free and relaxed reputation. While lawmakers determine the best way to preserve the best of the region, while reducing opportunity for corruption and abuse, many continue to make their living at the world’s oldest profession.
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