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The red light district, one of Amsterdam’s most famous and frequently visited places, not exactly because of its architectural interest, is in the heart of the historical centre, which surrounds the capital’s Old Church.
The monuments in these narrow streets are the bodies of the prostitutes who display themselves, day and night, in the shop windows, calling out to visitors, smiling, or if they are bored, talking on their mobile telephones or carefully painting their nails.
The image is so striking that the district fills up, particularly at night, with tourists attracted by curiosity or by morbid interest. Sometimes, the scene is like a fair as the streets fill up with dozens of people pointing at one window or another, either laughing or surprised, and other groups of teenagers on their end-of-year trips, who shyly lower their gazes when the prostitutes smile at them. And that is just a smile!
Not all stories in this district are innocent and entertaining. Because of the large numbers of inattentive tourists, pickpockets do what they can to make a killing every night, so be careful!
Sex is not restricted to prostitution, as the red light district is also full of sites that stage sex shows, and sex shops that sell a range of items from coloured condoms and lubricants to the most bizarre objects, the uses of which, once you have guessed them, are enough to make anyone blush.
Amsterdam has an open, tolerant and honest attitude to matters such as prostitution and pornography. Like all ports, it has experience of it in the flesh, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say on its streets.
With the arrival en masse of sailors and traders who disembarked in the city in the fifteenth century, Amsterdam tried to move the prostitutes away from the centre. Later, with the Reformation, a full-scale attempt was made to prohibit prostitution. It was Napoleon, however, who first tackled the matter from a different perspective. When his troops occupied Holland, an attempt was made to regularise prostitution and ensure health controls for the women who worked in it.
The development almost prompted a regression because of an extremely odd theory that appeared in the nineteenth century by which sexual abstinence, only among men, was said to be detrimental to health. Women, from a low class only, were therefore needed to prostitute themselves as social function.
With the prostitutes came pimps and madams who exploited them and lived at their expense. To prevent this, 1911 saw the approval of a law that banned the establishment of brothels and third parties from making money from the prostitution.
Contrary to what is believed, it was not until October in the year 2000 that prostitution was fully legalised, with full pubic support. Previously, in the nineteen-sixties, -seventies and –eighties, it was accepted by the forces of order and government, although the prohibition on the establishment of brothels, which very much hindered regulation and control, remained.
Prostitutes are currently registered, just like any other worker, pay taxes and are attended by the Social Security system. Yet, like everywhere else it still cannot be described as being totally socially accepted.
Why this area is called the red light district still needs to be explained, although if you visit at night when the atmosphere really builds up then you will quickly realise the reason. In the area around the church, in the squares and narrow streets, many windows are bathed in red neon light. This suggestive code indicates that a prostitute’s services are offered on the site.
If you stand at the end of a street and look, a trail of red lights appears, window after window, and vanishes into the distance. You will therefore understand why there is so much fascination for this district. There certainly should be.
However, do not even think about getting a camera out if you do not want trouble. It is a shame not to have a photo but you will have to save the impression in your memory.
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