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A Brief History of Amsterdam's Red Light District

Picture of Tom Coggins
Updated: 24 August 2017
In Amsterdam’s oldest neighbourhood, de Wallen, there is a high concentration of prostitution windows, brothels and other businesses associated with the sex industry. As such, the area is more commonly known as the Red Light District.

De Wallen developed around an older, independent settlement on the eastern banks of the river Amstel. After a large dam was built on the mouth of the river in the late 13th century, this village merged with other settlements to form Amsterdam. Eventually, several walled canals were built inside this area, and it was christened de Wallen (meaning “the walls” or t”he ramparts”). Although today de Wallen is more or less landlocked, it originally ran adjacent to the city’s dockland and historically attracted large numbers of sex workers due to the consistent influx of sailors and traders passing through the area.

The city’s government has changed its stance towards sex work in de Wallen many times through the years, alternating between acceptance whilst still enforcing certain regulations, to completely outlawing prostitution and therefore forcing the sex industry underground.

Belle by Els Rijerse on Oudekerksplein in the Red Light District | © Romeo Reidl/Wikipedia, Map of Amsterdam from 1544 showing de Wallen's original proximity to the river Amstel | © Cornelis Anthonisz/Flickr, Typical street in the Red Light District | © Karolina/Flickr
Belle by Els Rijerse on Oudekerksplein in the Red Light District | The statue portrays a sex worker standing in front of a window and is inscribed

During the mid-20th century, Dutch law enforcement started lifting restrictions on sex work and only interfered when they believed its practise might disrupt the peace or involve more dangerous criminal elements. In 1988, the Dutch government began to recognise prostitution as a legal profession, meaning that sex workers were granted the same rights as any other professional and were expected to declare their income and pay taxes. In 2000, brothels were legalised and began operating as legitimate businesses.

Although sex work is now regulated in the Red Light District, human trafficking, pimping and gang activity have remained serious issues, and recent research suggests that despite operating legally, many sex workers were coerced into prostitution. Amsterdam’s municipality has attempted to combat these problems via various means during the past decade, including closing around one-third of the area’s sex windows and then leasing the properties to cultural enterprises in an effort to redevelop the area. Currently, there are approximately 300 sex windows in de Wallen, as well as many sex stores, sex theatres and several brothels.