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History of the Red Light District

The Red Light District of Amsterdam is the oldest part of the city of Amsterdam and is located around the oldest building of Amsterdam: the Old Church. The city dates back to the 13th century and was granted city rights already in the beginning of the 14th century.

Amsterdam became an important harbour city due to the success of Dutch trading companies such as the East India Company, which would trade spices from all over the world. The success of these companies would later result in the world’s first stock exchange market, the Amsterdam Exchange (AEX), located on the border of the Red Light District.

Prostitution dates back already to the 15th century of Amsterdam, when many sailors would make port in Amsterdam, and would be looking for entertainment near the harbour, in what is now called the Red Light District. At the time many wives that had husbands at sea would become a widow, since only about one third of the sailors would return home safely. To support their family, these widows would often start offering companionship to other sailors that would make port, in order to provide an income, since the church did not allow them to get remarried.

Ever since the 15th century there has always been prostitution in the Red Light District. The first brothel in Amsterdam was recorded back in 1675, and together with the many bars and pubs in the Red Light District and the prostitutes that offered their services there, the Red Light District became both famed and notorious all over the world.

In 1570 prostitution became illegal in The Netherlands, although not much was done to uphold this law. Every now and then the police would have raids in brothels, and women that would be arrested would be banned from the city for a while or placed in the 'Spinhuis', where women would have to spin wool or sow to 'rehabilitate' them.

In 1795 the French invaded The Netherlands and replaced the prostitution policy by legalizing prostitution and strictly regulate the brothels. When the French left The Netherlands in 1813 many cities had a disagreement with each other on how to continue with the prostitution policy. Over time more and more cities banned brothels from their cities, while other cities such as Amsterdam where more openminded.

At the end of the 19th century and around 1920 the Red Light District of Amsterdam had become completely run down. In 1911 brothels became illegal, forcing prostitutes to start working on the streets. Around 1930 the police did not allow prostitutes anymore to offer the services on the streets or in the doorpost. However, they did allow prostitutes to sit behind the window with the curtains pulled open just a little bit to lure in customers.

Over time the curtains of the prostitutes behind the windows began to open up more and more. And around the 1950’s and 1960’s prostitution in the area increased again. More women would start to offer sex from behind windows, and would use red lighting to attract customers. During the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s the clothing of the prostitutes behind the windows became less and less, resulting in women wearing very little lingerie to offer sex from behind the red lid windows.

In 2000 the Dutch government finally lifted the brothel ban, making brothels a legal business. All the window brothels in the Red Light District are therefore licenses by the city, who regulates the industry. The prostitutes are registered at the Dutch Chambers of Commerce as independent contractors and rent their 'window' from these licensed brothel owners.

In 2007 the city of Amsterdam started a gentrification project in the Red Light District called Project 1012. To 'upgrade' the Red Light District many of it's famous prostitution windows had to close down, in total almost 100 windows have been shut down due to this project. At the same time the city is also targetting coffeeshops, smartshops and growshops to close down, and to be replaced with what they consider to be 'valuable businesses'.

In 2015 prostitutes from the Red Light District of Amsterdam organized the country's largest demonstration of prostitutes ever in The Netherlands. Together with over 250 prostitutes they marched to city hall, demanding the city of Amsterdam stops closing down window brothels, as it forces prostitutes to start working illegal and therefore more unsafe.

The city still continues to close down 37 more window brothels in the Red Light District under Project 1012. At the same time the city has re-opened 14 previously closed down window brothels to supposedly be run by sex workers themselves, under the name My Red Light. The 14 new brothels opened in May of 2017, while the 37 window brothels that are still to close down are scheduled for closure before the end of 2018.

Today the Red Light District of Amsterdam has 292 window brothels and is one of the most famous prostitution areas in the world. Prostitution is legal and the brothels are regulated.
The police patrols the street frequently, and many streets have camera protection, resulting in one of the safest prostitution areas in the world.

Besides the many window brothels there are also sex shops, erotic live shows and strip clubs offering erotic entertainment. Furthermore the area is filled with plenty of bars and of course some coffeeshops where you can legally buy cannabis, along with several smart- and headshops for your 'natural highs' and soft drug accessories.

Besides being an area for adult entertainment, the Red Light District is also a neighborhood where people live, study and work. Combined with the traditional houses and it's long history, the Red Light District of Amsterdam is a unique place you should visit at least once in your lifetime!

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The Old Church around 1670

A prostitute's bed in the Sint Antoniesbreestraat in 1919

Prostitutes in the Trompettersteeg in 1968

Police passing by prostitutes around 1993-1996

Prostitutes protesting the closure of window brothels in 2015

The Red Light District of Amsterdam today