The De Wallen is quite possibly the best known and most publicized red light district in the world today. Located in the oldest part of Amsterdam the De Wallen covers several blocks and is crossed by several canals and is composed of several alleyways that feature hundreds of one bedroom apartments where women and some men advertise themselves through the window, usually under, surprise, surprise, red lights.
Amsterdam’s red light district composes over 6500 square meters of pure debauchery. Besides prostitutes and sex workers, Amsterdam’s red light district comprises of sex shops/theaters, a sex museum, a cannabis a/k/a weed museum, and a handful of coffee shops that sell coffee and various types of cannabis.
The red light district here in Amsterdam has been in existence since the 1300’s where the coffee shops were occupied by distilleries and catered mostly to sailors of various nationalities. Also, the name Wallen, meaning walls, and refers to the retaining dam walls in the older center of Amsterdam built during the medieval era.
Near the end of the 17th century Amsterdam became widely known in Europe for it’s many “houses of pleasure”. In these luxury brothels (tolerated in the red light district) one could enjoy music, dance and the company of common prostitutes.
Through out the Middle Ages, prostitutes had a dress code and were not allowed to be married. It was prohibited for married men to visit prostitutes and prostitution was confined to certain spots in the city which would later become known as the Red Light District.
Prostitution remained a small time business and prostitutes worked for madams, frequently who were former prostitutes, for room and board and to pay off clothing costs, make-up, etc. If they stayed out of trouble, madams would not be bothered by the town governing authorities which, at times, could be harsh.
In 1911, the brothels became illegal. This ban would become more lax during the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s and in 2000, prostitution became legal. Officially, this new law was to prevent forced prostitution and exploitation but everyone knows it comes down to the ability to tax an industry that simply could not be banned.
With legalization though it does not mean it’s 100% safe. Health screening is not required and neither are preventive measures, such as condoms, and as a result it is estimated that 7% of sex workers in Amsterdam have HIV/AIDS.
Today, millions visit Amsterdam and the Red Light District is promptly highlighted as a main attraction…for tourist and local alike.