While PJ and I were in Amsterdam last month, we walked around the Red Light District, mostly following the walking tour suggested by Rick Steves guide to Amsterdam. This walk was one of three aspects of Amsterdam that really reinforced that it is unlike any where else I’ve ever been: the legalized prostitution, the pot, and the canals definitely make this city unique!

This statue of a prostitute stands outside the Oude Kerk, which is surrounded by the Red Light District. It’s really bizarre to see bars, sex shops, and prostitutes standing in glass doorways in the buildings surrounding the church! Nothing like this exists anywhere in the U.S.

Two things impress me about this statue. First, it seems to try to capture a kind of dignity in its subject. This woman is standing tall with an almost haughty demeanor. She’s not a victim.

Second, and in contradiction to the first aspect, the dark material and the doorway framing the prostitute conveys a sense of imprisonment to me. There is a darker side to prostitution, this statue seems to say. [PJ notes the fact that she’s not bound by the frame and is emerging from it might also complicate this reading.]

While PJ and I didn’t hire anyone’s services while we were in the Red Light District, we did keenly observe how things seem to work there. Each woman stand inside a glass door or window. She generally wears a bra and panties, though some of the women wore nighties of one sort or another. As she stands in the doorway, the woman tries to attract costumers, usually by gesturing to the men passing by. Some of the women would also open their doors and call out to potential customers. Mostly, the key to starting the transaction seems to be making eye contact.

We visited the area in the early evening around 8 PM. As it got a little later, the streets became more crowded with tourists, passers-by, and men looking for some action. Basically, the men who were interested would walk around and do some window shopping. Once they found a woman who interested them, they would hover around her window, eventually approaching her to negotiate prices and activities. We saw a few guys who were happy with the conversation and followed the woman inside her room. Others decided to go elsewhere.

The women’s doors and windows are lit by red lights, as in this picture:

This picture is the back side of the Old Church. The red lights on the right side indicate that the women there are for hire. One of the things this picture illustrates is how out in the open everything is. The women aren’t just in back alleys. They’re certainly not hidden away. To the contrary, you can’t walk anywhere in this neighborhood without seeing these women. Additionally, there are similar women sprinkled throughout the main part of Amsterdam — we were routinely surprised by turning a corner and finding a lone prostitute in a window or doorway just about anywhere we were walking.

The lights are important in part because they indicate that a woman is available — if the light isn’t on, then she’s either busy or off duty. But they also indicate that the prostitute is, in fact, a woman. Some of the lights are blue, which means that the prostitute is a tranny. As we walked by one such series of doors, one of the “women” whipped out her junk and showed it to a man she was trying to lure into her room.

Despite this one instance, mostly the women who work here don’t do anything overtly sexual in the doorways. I assume this is because they want you to come inside and pay for it rather than get your kicks walking by. The one other exception we saw was a woman with her customer in a second-floor room. She had her window open, and the bed was close to it. As we walked across a bridge, we could see into the room just enough to see what kind of job she was employed in at the moment.

According to Rick Steves, the women choose their customers as much as they are chosen. In other words, no one compels them to accept a client they don’t want. And there are bouncers who can take care of any trouble if it arises. The women are self-employed, have to rent their spaces, and are required by law to keep the premises clean, to use condoms, and to pay taxes.

Despite the regulations and sense of these women’s choices, one can’t help but worry about whether these women are victims rather than dignified workers. Can they really refuse customers or do they need the money? Although they’re technically self-employed, are they really working for the property owners? And is there something inherently undignified about letting several strangers penetrate your body each and every night in exchange for money (or, indeed, for any other reason)?

And while I acknowledge that sex is about different things at different times — sometimes it’s about love, but sometimes its about getting off or experiencing something new or pushing one’s boundaries or expressing sympathy or exacting revenge — it seems kind of sad to reduce sex exclusively to economic exchange. We though that the men we saw had different reasons for wanting to hire these women. Some seemed young, wanting experience. Some of these were in groups of guys who looked like they were on vacation and were each going to try it since it was legal. Others seemed older and lonely. Some looked like business men. Others looked creepy.

But it’s difficult for me to imagine wanting to hire a prostitute. Of course as a gay man it’s difficult for me to imagine having sex with a woman at all. But even if we adjust the sex of the prostitute, it just seems unsexy to me. I suppose I can imagine some circumstances in which hiring a prostitute might be sexy, but shopping for one in a window isn’t really one of them.

The Red Light District was definitely interesting. I don’t pretend to understand the whole thing, but it’s definitely worth observing.