Legal prostitution in Amsterdam is one of the city's biggest draws, not in the least for tourists who just want to wander the Red Light District to be amazed about Dutch liberal attitudes, or to take in the atmosphere of titillation.
But the rosy-red colors and the girls' seductive smiles only tell part of the story. This age old profession, which was legalized in the Netherlands centuries ago, has a darker side too. Even when the situation in Amsterdam is generally a lot better than elsewhere in the world, prostitution in Amsterdam remains a cold and cynical thing.
To start with, most of the girls involved in prostitution in Amsterdam come from poorer countries. A decade ago, many girls would be South American while these days the Red Light District is dominated by women from Eastern Europe. Not many Dutch choose this career since they apparently have better options.
Most women in the Amsterdam red light district are between 20 and 30, as there's little demand for older women. When their career comes to an end, they often find themselves in a dead end. The fast money has typically been spent equally fast, or given to their boyfriends or families back home, they have nothing to show for the last 10 years of their lives - no money, no education and no career build-up.
Many would argue that the imbalance of power between 'buyer' and 'seller' is less of a problem in Amsterdam. Here, working girls have the chance to be their own bosses and earn for themselves, often free of the pimps that are the dominant feature of prostitution in many other parts of the world.
Pimps aren't always absent in Amsterdam, however. The legal status of prostitution in Amsterdam can be said to create a demand which some people will seek to fill, regardless of the moral consequences. Legal or not, it seems, where you have prostitution, organized crime is not far behind.
The Prostitution Information Centre, in Amsterdam's Red Light District, says that illegal organizations in countries such as Russia make a profit by trafficking women to the Netherlands under false pretences or coercion to work as prostitutes. Many of these girls are too afraid to go to the police or support organizations for fear of what their oppressors will do to them or their families if they do.
In recent years there have been several reports of forced prostitution in Amsterdam by organized gangs of criminals. These 'lover boys' make insecure girls fall in love with them, then manipulate or bribe them into prostitution.
A more recent study carried out by University of Amsterdam sociologist Laurens Buijs has indicated that cases of coercion, or at least those being reported, are at a lower level currently than most would think. According to Mr. Buijs, many of the horror stories portrayed in the media are nothing more than that - stories with little to no basis in fact. Still, it happens - the red light district is simply a perfect biotope for those who'd like make quick bucks in less than decent ways.
Then Mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, has previously claimed in an editorial for Het Parool in 2003 that "it appeared impossible to create a safe and controllable zone for women that was not open to abuse by organised crime."
The last few years, several owners of window brothel chains and sex theaters have been threatened with the loss of their government permits, as they were suspected of having ties to organized crime. It is thought that criminals use the red light district for large-scale money laundering - there's lots and lots of cash money going around, with no receipts and lots of ways to fool the tax man.
Aside from the dangers of organized crime, prostitution in Amsterdam can be a dangerous profession due to clients alone. On February 20, 2009 a 19 year-old prostitute was stabbed to death in her work room in the Red Light District. The incident marked the 13th murder of a prostitute in Amsterdam since 1990.
Most complexes of working rooms have a security presence, and the girls can push 'panic buttons' when they get in a different situation. Police is always present and staff do everything they can to prevent violence. But in an environment such as this there is always a chance that the worst will happen.
The Amsterdam red light district has the reputation of being a safe place to visit for anyone. The owners and bosses of the area ensure this remains that way - they want their cash machines (prostitutes rent their window brothels at hundreds of euros a day) to keep running smoothly.
However, there are still some things you should be aware of. Pickpockets abound in the area and anyone visiting should keep a close eye on their valuables. Wallets in back pockets, cameras hung loosely over the shoulder and other signs of an unwary traveler can serve to bring the attentions of people willing to take full advantage of the fact that the girls in the window have occupied your attention.
During the evenings in the Red Light District men whispering offers of illegal drugs are a common sight. Aside from the dangers posed by illicit narcotics themselves, these men rarely intend to make a fair deal and many incidents of unwitting tourists being scammed out of their money occur every year.
In an industry as shadowy as prostitution, it seems that there are many aspects it is hard to know the full truth of from the outside. Scientific research often contradicts each other, and seems to say as much about the people who wrote it, than about their subjects. One organization to turn to, however, is the Prostitute Information Center (PIC) at Enge Kerksteeg 3, close to the Oude Kerk in the heart of the Red Light District. Founded in 1994 by former prostitute Mariska Majoor, the PIC knows the industry inside and out, and aims to be a freely accessible source of information.
The double attitude towards prostitution in Amsterdam can be seen even here. The former sex workers at PIC will tell people not to view prostitutes as victims: "It's their choice." But at the same time, PIC founder Mariska Majoor has said she would never want her daughter to follow in her footsteps.
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