A Feminist Perspective on Amsterdam’s Red Light District

I should preface this by saying that this is not the post I intended to write about the Red Light District when I ventured head first into it. I should also mention that in any traditional way, I find strip clubs and anything like it equal parts sad and disgusting. That’s not to say I went to Amsterdam’s Red Light District to be judgmental and pissed off. I was actually expecting to be amused and horrified by the depravity.

The Red Light District gets its name from the red lights above clear doors, behind which working girls are waiting for customers. The girls range in shapes and sizes, outfits, and nationalities. So the people passing by can pick their poison, and arrange a price, at which point, they are let into the glass room and the curtains are drawn. So when the red velvet curtain is pulled, one of the girls is working.

That might sound gross or objectifying, but I actually found it quite empowering for them. In Amsterdam, the world’s oldest profession is not treated like a disgraceful, gross endeavor. People want sex and these beautiful women sell it. For a lot more than I make as a “professional” in the United States. Good for them! And this is prostitution in the safest sense of the word. They are protected and working out in the open instead of alleys and strangers’ cars where they can get mistreated or hurt.

Many of them flirt through the door to entice clients, while others sit on their phones, totally disinterested in you and your friends. They can turn you down and if any drunk tourists get gross, disrespectful, or even pretend to take a picture, a large bouncer will take care of them on the girls’ behalf. By the way, photos are a big no-no and an easy way to get your phone smashed or thrown in the canal.

But of course, paying for a prostitute is not the only reason people flock to Amsterdam’s Red Light District. In addition to buying sex, people can also pay to see sex. The first night, we decided to keep it mild and go to a peep show at Amsterdam’s last remaining establishment of its kind, the Sex Palace. This is a great option for people who are a little squeamish about the whole idea of live sex. It’s basically a slot machine. You go into a room and put in a 2 Euro coin which gives you 2 minutes of viewing time of whatever is happening behind the glass. I happened to get live heterosexual sex. I ended up finding that more awkward than the hour-long sex show. The couple is having sex in a rotating circular bed which is surrounded by windows. And yes, you can see the other people behind the glass across from you. What made it even more awkward was the girl having sex kept making eye contact – something I found totally intimidating. And once again, flipping my perception on the whole idea of the sex industry in Amsterdam. Here is this girl who would normally be shamed by society and spectators about what she is doing. And yet, she’s having sex, she’s getting paid for her performance, and she’s making sure to look all the perverts that paid to watch it right in the eye while she does so. She’s not ashamed, and she probably finds us more disgusting than we could ever find her. That’s something I can respect.

The following night, we decided to go full monty and check out a live sex show. In order to get drunk enough for the evening, we stopped at a bar right in the district. Another misconception about the Red Light District is that if you’re a woman, you’re going to get cat-called and harassed by the men in the streets. That does happen, but not anymore than it does in your average American city. In fact, I’ve been harassed a lot worse by the disgusting men of my beautiful hometown, Miami, than I was spending several hours over two days in the Red Light District. The bartender, a hilarious gentleman from Suriname, was also extremely sweet, even giving us a free top-off on our beer. He also pleasantly surprised me by referring to my friend as my girlfriend, which is a safe assumption about two girls going out for drinks in Converse and hoodies. And one that in my heteronormative country is totally rare, even when it’s the correct assumption. It was a nice reminder that some places in the world are not only less sexist, but also extremely progressive about alternative lifestyles.

But let’s get to the main event, shall we. We went to see the live show at the Moulin Rouge, because it’s the cheapest thing (30 Euro) in the Red Light District that isn’t just a strip club. The show has 6 small acts and it runs continuously so you can stay and re-watch them if you please. There are 5 female solo acts and one couple. The girls come on stage to the music of their choosing and work the pole or do their tricks, often with audience participation. If you’ve ever been to a drag show, it’s a lot like that, which I liked about it. The people getting objectified and humiliated are often the poor bros in the audience that got picked out of the audience to get their dick slapped with a whip or to eat a banana out of the girl’s vag.

The experience helped me pinpoint what I dislike about traditional strip clubs, the dollar dollar bills, y’all. At a strip club, women are showered with cash for their performance; they walk around doing personal favors for money; and they’re often laughed at by the women who wandered in there, who don’t want to tip, only stare and giggle with their friends (yeah, girls, you’re guilty, too). At a Red Light sex show, the star of the show is the star of the show, not the money. They’re doing a choreographed performance, and the audience paid up front. When people are laughing, it’s because she wants you to, and they’re probably laughing at the horrified fool on stage who is being wrapped up by ribbon coming out of her kitty kat.

In case you’re wondering, it wasn’t very sexy. Even the couple that came out for the show’s final act was pretty tame and for some reason Matrix-themed. Overall, it was not that impressive. It was an interesting thing to experience, but if you’ve been to a regular strip club, you’ve probably seen more lewd acts because there the girls feel like they have to beg strangers for their paycheck in singles. The sex workers of Amsterdam are begging no one. They don’t need to. The streets are packed, even on a Tuesday night, and where there are people selling sex, there will be people buying. They’re not ashamed, and they shouldn’t be. If you’re gonna do anything, do it proudly, and there’s no prouder way to sell sex than illuminated by red light in full view of the world.

Besides, we live in a society where women get disrespected and objectified all the time for free: on the streets by strangers, in the bedroom by lovers, behind their backs by their boyfriends and husbands, and 24/7 by other women. At least these girls are making a killing off their talents. And I can respect a place that gives women back that kind of power over their own bodies. So strap on those 6-inch heels and get it, ladies!