De Wallen is without a doubt the best known red light district in Amsterdam and probably even the world. When people talk about legalized prostitution in the Netherlands they are often referring to the numerous glass window rooms located in De Wallen that have become ingrained in the public consciousness. Many don’t even know that much more exists in the country in the way of sex work and services. I have been meaning to report on De Wallen for some time but the rest of the world got in the way. Better late than never.
Although the red light district is right out in the open in the heart of Holland’s capital city, De Wallen is probably not the easiest place for a person unfamiliar with the area to find. The area that makes up the De Wallen red light district surrounds the famous De Oude Kerk (the old church) and is bordered by Warmoestraat to the West and Geldersekade and Klobeniersburgwal to the East. This area is located inside of a ring of canals and isn’t really marked off in any way. Unlike well known go go bar areas like Walking Street in Pattaya or Fields Avenue in Angeles City, there is no large gate welcoming visitors to De Wallen. This makes sense since the district isn’t an isolated area. Sex workers work out of rooms that are intertwined with all sorts of other businesses as well as family homes. Things can be so tightly grouped together than some private residences have taken to putting up signs outside that say things like “private home” and “please don’t vomit or urinate here.” Some of those signs are professionally made which always makes me wonder where such things can be purchased but that’s something to be researched another time. This interactive map of De Wallen red light district is probably the best available.
Through word of mouth and local and international tourist campaigns De Wallen has become a major tourist attraction in Amsterdam. In fact it may be the largest in the city if the throngs of people walking around every day are any indication. Couples stroll hand in hand down alleys lined with illuminated windows filled with half naked women offering sex for money. Somehow this feels natural in Amsterdam even though organized tours of Chinese and Korean people gawking at scantly clad dancers on Pattaya’s Walking Street does not. Perhaps the level of public acceptance and mix houses, sex museums and marijuana selling “coffee shops” in De Wallen has something to do with that. Perhaps the rules against people taking pictures of the women in De Wallen windows does too. In any events crowds are never really alluring when one is shopping for sex even if they do seem like they belong there.
Large numbers of tourists often attract unscrupulous people. That is true in De Wallen as much as it is anywhere else in the world. While the streets that make up the area aren’t nearly as off the wall as New York’s Times Square in the 1970’s there are some people around trying to rip off unsuspecting people who don’t know to avoid them. Those who are aware enough to avoid those kinds of creeps generally have no problems but even they have to deal with unruly groups of drunken people from time to time.
Tourism also brings changes. Although the red light district is the area’s claim to fame moves have been made to dismantle or at least limit it. A few years ago over fifty windows were closed. The city purchased them and many ended up being transformed into high fashion clothing shops and things of that nature. “Come for the hookers stay for the hot trends” may pop up tourist brochures at some point but for now there are still close to 300 windows in operation.
The history of the area is quite interesting. In the past things worked as they do today in some parts of Asia with sex workers plying their trade out of hair salons, massage parlors and gambling centers. Brothels and pimps were outlawed at one point but the sale of sex was not. At some point a health check system was enacted that required working women to produce a card showing they were free of disease. Eventually it all led to the current situation in which women work individually out of small rooms with large windows facing the street where they can advertise.
The Museum of Prostitution in De Wallen does a good job of telling the story. Because of that it is nice for a single visit but it doesn’t have much repeat value. The numerous clubs advertising sex shows and the like aren’t even worth a first look. Prices tend toward the outrageous and the shows are never what they are cracked up to be. Adventurous people will probably always continue to enter these places though and that will keep them in business. The clubs have so much new blood to feed on every day that don’t need to worry about forming a regular customer base and that is reflected in the quality of their offerings.
Although there is so much around the women in the windows are still the center of attraction. Some ladies start working in the afternoon but the area really comes alive at night. EU citizenship or residency is required to work in De Wallen but women from all over the world ply their trade there. The last estimate I read said that at least sixty percent of the women working the window came from outside of the Netherlands. That seems to be true. Most of the women working in De Wallen hail from Eastern Europe. Ladies from other parts of Europe along with Asia, Africa and Latin America are also represented along with a fairly large number of transsexual women.
Customers who see a woman they like approach the window she works in. The woman will then open the door to allow for negotiations. Sex in De Wallen is purely a business transaction and most of the women who work there want to get the most money they can for the least amount of effort. If a customer negotiates twenty minutes of sex for 50 Euros ($55 USD) he will most likely get exactly what they said which is quick sex in one position and nothing more. Customers who want to change positions or receive oral sex normally need to say it up front. If they ask for it when in the room they may be asked for more money. Things like kissing are considered extras and usually require more money as well. Every activity is covered. Condoms are used for intercourse and oral sex as one might expect but they are also used in ways which could surprise unwitting customers. An example of that would be a sex worker rolling a condom over a customer’s finger if he shells out money for the privilege of manipulating her vagina by hand.
Sexual services are provided in small rooms attached to the window displays. Curtains are drawn so that no one on the street can see what is going on inside. The rooms are usually comfortable enough considering the environment though they are certainly nothing like a five or even three star hotel.
In any place with independent working women prices can vary. Each lady is free to set her prices as she sees fit and depending on looks, negotiation skills or anything else one guy can be charged more or less than another guy even by the same woman. The average price for a quick sex session with oral in De Wallen is around 50 Euros but anything is possible. For whatever reason black workers often charge less than their counterparts.
More than a few punters have complained that the women that work in De Wallen windows are hardened. I don’t see how it could be otherwise in the conditions. While I am obviously for the decriminalization of prostitution I think there are much better models than window districts that double as tourist attractions and drug selling districts. At least people in the Netherlands have the ability to argue for different arrangements if they so please. In much of the world the sale of sex is unfortunately still illegal which creates some truly disastrous results.