6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Red Light District

When I was in Amsterdam, I dragged my friends on a Red Light District tour run by the Prostitution Information Center (PIC) and led by former prostitutes. While it wasn’t exactly the kind of tour the fellas in our group were hoping for, it was a fascinating look at one of the oldest professions in history. Our tour was packed with tourists who, like us, are all from countries where prostitution is illegal and were curious how this controversial trade works in a place where prostitutes solicit out in the open, pay taxes and get health coverage. Turns out it’s a lot like running any self-employed business.

Picking Your Clients

As Julia Roberts so eloquently put it in Pretty Woman, “I decide, okay? I say who; I say when; I say who!” Well, the same goes in Amsterdam. If you think prostitutes have to sleep with anyone who wants to sleep with them, think again. In fact, they’re pretty picky. Wouldn’t you be?! Despite the throngs of male travelers who descend hopefully on the city every year, tourists (especially drunk or high ones) will rarely see behind the red curtain. More often, prostitutes rely on more stable (and less sloppy) regulars.


In most countries where prostitution is illegal, if a prostitute is robbed, denied payment or even attacked, he or she is highly unlikely to report it to the police. If they did, they’d almost certainly end up behind bars, not the offender. In Amsterdam, each room is equipped with a panic button that, when pressed, immediately alerts the police that there’s a problem. Typical police response time? 15-20 SECONDS! In a nod to preparation, professionalism and safety, there are more police stations in the Red Light District than in the rest of Amsterdam combined.

Office Space

To work in the Red Light District, you need a sexy wardrobe, some serious confidence, and, of course, a room with red curtains. Prostitutes rent these store front rooms like any businesswoman in need of professional space with one caveat: they can only rent them for one day at a time. The reasoning is that a prostitute should be able to quit any old time she chooses, whether it’s two hours into her first shift or two years after she started. If she owes rent for a week or a month, it makes walking away much harder. By the way, the average working span of a prostitute in Amsterdam is 1½ – 2 years.

Know Your Niche

Wander the Red Light District and you’ll begin notice it’s divided into ethnic sections. You have your Dutch neighborhood, your African neighborhood and your Asia neighborhood. This division isn’t written in stone and it’s certainly not regulated by the government, it’s more of an understanding between the women and a blueprint of convenience for clients. Looking for a certain type? No need to canvas the whole district if you know where to look.

Testing, Testing

With all the legalization, taxation and regulation, you might think that prostitutes are subject to mandatory STD testing but you’d be wrong. They no more have to submit to an HIV test than any of the customers who walk through their door. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It’s not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.” In clinical reality, prostitutes would have to be tested after each and every exchange to ensure 100% safety. So don’t look around for a framed health certificate on the wall, just be smart and wear a condom.

Workplace Etiquette

A couple of house rules. First, don’t stand in front of a window gawking like a teenager. It’s embarrassing for the rest of us tourists who are trying hard to play it cool. You’re also blocking the view of prospective customers which is bad for business. Second, don’t take pictures. How would you like it if I showed up uninvited at your workplace and started snapping photos to post online? Just because they’re legal prostitutes, doesn’t mean they want to advertise it to the world via your Instagram feed or travel blog. Also, clients are unlikely to solicit services if they think they’re being photographed so take a mental snapshot and move on.

The Takeaway: No judgment. Register for a tour with PIC. The staff are friendly, knowledgeable and eager for your (most shocking) questions. Trust me, they’ve heard it all.

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