Sex Work and Illuminations from The Red Light District
The Red Light District in Amsterdam has been described as a ‘kind of theme park, for adult fun’ by (Aalbers & Sabat, 2012, 112). With the Red Light itself seen as an iconic symbol, illuminating the likes of many shopfronts and small businesses, the area evokes a sense of eroticism as well as providing visual and sensory stimulus for onlookers with the hopes to produce consumption (Chapuis, 2016). Arguably the area itself aside from purchasable services and products is consumed every moment by onlookers and passers-by. The exotic and erotic which would, in other contexts be perceived as immoral, is recreated and reformed and in turn reconstructs attitudes of visitors and tourists alike.
I would argue that the nature of the setting imposes the idea of a spectacle and in turn transforms tourists and visitors knowingly or unknowingly into voyeurs, with the atmosphere mirroring that of an exhibition, gallery or even zoo. The Red Light is a place to look at and the moment we look, we reflect our gaze.
The area itself is a vibrant hub for many tourists and visitors and is recognised as a ‘globalised mass-entertainment place for sex consumption’ (Chapuis, 2016: 616). Arguably it is constructed heavily around the basis of eroticism. These constructions arise from the amenities present within the Red Light District. It could be said that these processes are far more complex and also develop from a myriad of factors; including individualised experiences of the location. The differentiation of ways in which the area is consumed contributes to an intertwining of ‘affective and moral geographies’ (Chapuis, 2016:616).
This ethnography has been compiled from a four day visit to Amsterdam which included a guided walking tour of the Red Light District as well as two seminars. One was held at the University of Amsterdam with Marie Louise Jansen and the other was located within the Red Light District in the P.I.C (Prostitute Information Centre).
The Tourist Factor, Consumption and Perceptions
It is noticeable on any visit to the Red Light District that it is place that is bustling with tourists and in turn it has been shaped by such attention. With large crowds of tourists and visitors flocking to the Red Light it may seem natural to assume that the majority of clientele in the Red Light Area would be tourists. It seems as though this is not the case as we were informed in the P.I.C that 60 % of customers were locals and 40% were tourists.
In one interview with a Dutch National named Roodie who lived in Utrecht, Roodie described the Red Light District as a place that has rapidly changed, and said that in the past the Red Light Area was the hub of the underground scene, where anything goes from wild parties to shady deals alongside the usual known activities associated with the Red Light. He seemed disheartened that it has developed into a highly policed area set aside for Tourism. The individual’s comments reflect a well-known process of gentrification that occurs within many popular districts/cities across the globe.
The ways in which people perceive and consume The Red Light District are most definitely variable, drawing on my own experience of wandering around the Red Light it could be argued that although we may experience the area differently, some underlying factors are bound to be shared. It seemed that as a study group we shared a common reason for being where we were but when discussing how we all felt, our emotions were varied with some people admitting to feeling more uncomfortable than others.
It could be argued that space and emotion are complex and contextually embedded in each other. The red light in this way not only represents a kind of bricolage visually, it also highlights an overlapping between the constructions of symbolic and physical geography (Chapuis, 2016).
The Queer Gaze and Mirrored Realities
Although Amsterdam is deemed as a liberal city with many gay bars and clubs and is widely known for many activities aimed at LGBTQ tourists. It seems aside from the few blue lights that mainly target male sex tourists, there are no services that purely offer services in female queer sex tourism. With very little research in these areas that are lacking in ethnography, it is hard to produce information which makes for an interesting point of enquiry.
As a queer British female it seemed that the only presence of female to female sex tourism reinforced the heteronormative nature of the environment as they were seemingly aimed at male audiences or heterosexual couples.
We toured around the district and as usual I felt increasingly uncomfortable. I was unsure where to look and how to look, worrying that I would come across as offensive or judgemental. I believed this to stem from a mixture of things including my sexuality and my personality. I was with two heterosexual female friends who seemed a lot more comfortable wandering around and making comments about the women that they saw in the windows. I on the other hand hardly turned my head and when I looked, I consciously tried to make a point of only looking in the girl’s eyes, feeling it was more respectful. Several questions popped into my mind as I was walking around. Could they tell I was gay? Are they offended when I look in their eyes? What do they think of me? It was in this way that I came to the conclusion that not only do the windows frame a set of ideas and common misconceptions but they also reflect and highlight a level of in secureness within the onlooker.
On enquiry it seemed there were little or no services offered for queer females who may be in search of paying for sex work in Amsterdam.
At the end of the seminar at the P.I.C I asked the lady who had conducted the talk whether or not it was common to see queer female clients, she replied that it was very uncommon but knew of one sex worker who had female clients but she also made an important point of noting that she did not exclusively work with female clients and that the majority of her clientele were male.
This reinforces the heteronormative attitudes surrounding the consumption of sex in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Although this may be the case we were informed at the P.I.C that interestingly women were perceived to be ruder visitors and less respectful. We spoke largely about objectification of women and it seemed to be an ever running vein through all the discussions we had. It seemed as though there is a ‘Lad’ dominated atmosphere within the Red Light District, with many all-male groups and stag groups frequenting the area.
A member of our study group reported being cat called. She noted that she felt as though male individuals touring the area felt more comfortable being overtly vocal and ‘flirtatious’ to females in the area. I would suggest that the nature of the environment not only influences people’s attitudes and actions but in fact creates a level of acceptance for actions like these and throws the individual whether they be male/female/gay/straight or transsexual into a mode of voyeurism.
Stigma and Sex Work
There are many laws and legislations present within Amsterdam that are in place to protect individuals within the industry, it is often unknown that sex workers pay taxes. There are many complex procedures that need to be followed in order to be registered as a sex worker. All of these processes need to be completed before agreeing to rent a room or a window.
There is a high level of stigma attached to Prostitution and sex work. This may be the case as it is often associated with a darker side to the industry, while abuse and trafficking are still large problems that occur in Amsterdam and across the globe. These factors often contribute to common misconceptions and reinforce stigma that is attached to sex work and in turn paints the picture of the Red Light District as an immoral landscape.
Often portrayed as victims that are forcibly made to take part in sex work, Migrant sex workers are more often than not looked down upon, by Dutch locals and tourists alike. A large reason for migration across the globe is for work opportunities. “The prostitute exists in the social imagination as a figure that is simultaneously demonized and eroticized, she is the Other who holds a contradictory image of desire and disgust” (Aalbers & Sabat, 2012, 115-6).
Many individuals moving to Amsterdam to work in the industry are doing so because of the laws and legislations that are in place to protect sex workers as well as the fact that sex work is legal in Amsterdam. (Day, 2007) Highlights that many sex workers find it difficult to buy property and declare sums of money due to the illegal status of the occupation. This is a large factor when considering why people migrate to Amsterdam for work opportunities within the industry.
We were informed at the P.I.C that there seems to be a ‘Dutch double standard’ and that although sex work is highly stigmatised and in many households across the nation still regarded as taboo. The Red Light District itself seems to counteract these notions and serves to promote exactly the opposite, arguing that prostitutes are empowered. In the P.I.C there were many posters and leaflets that promoted this. Interestingly when observing the attitudes of visitors and tourists this did not seem to be mirrored and as mentioned earlier the reactions seemed to reflect the nature of the area as something of a spectacle.
In conclusion it seems there is a rather large grey area or blurring of the lines in regards to Amsterdam’s Red Light District, on one hand it advocates empowerment and promotes the rights of sex workers and practices, with the hopes asserting liberal views and values. On the other and in light of the findings regarding the heteronormative nature of the environment, the Red Light district continues to serve the ever so powerful hegemonic processes in play.
Aalbers, M. and Sabat, M. (2012). Re-making a Landscape of Prostitution: the Amsterdam Red Light District. City, 16(1-2), pp.112-128.
Chapuis, A. (2016). Touring the immoral. Affective geographies of visitors to the Amsterdam Red-Light district. Urban Studies, 54(3), pp.616-632.
Day, S.E. (2007). On the game: Women and sex work. Pluto Press.
Hubbard, P. and Whowell, M. (2008). Revisiting the red light district: Still neglected, immoral and marginal?. Geoforum, 39(5), pp.1743-1755.