Prostitution and sweet Mary Jane

First off, if you’re looking for a sordid exposé of all the dodgy things we got up to in Amsterdam, you better keep looking, cos you won’t find it here. By the time we got to Amsterdam and tracked down our hotel it was 1:30am and we were all ready for some shut eye.

Knowing that it was our only night in the city though, we resisted the sweet nothings floating down the hallways from our pillows and stepped out in subservience to another siren call: the red light district.

Canal next to the Amsterdam Red Light District

At 2am on a Monday morning, the majority of the city was asleep, with only the occasional kebab shop open for business. Despite that, people littered the streets, and the unmistakable aroma of cannabis drifted out from alleyways and side streets as we walked.

Moving towards the red light district, the numbers of people increased, and we found more businesses still open.

As we walked past the windows framed in red lights, women dressed in lingerie looked out. Some stood directly in front of the window, looking out into the night or talking to the men who stopped to enquire about their services. Others faced their mirrors, adjusting makeup or hair; and still others sat on stools away from the windows, playing on their phones and talking to the women in the other windows.

Occasional windows showed men shrugging their jackets back on or stepping into the street, through the glass that separated fantasy from expensive reality.

We stopped into a kebab shop for dinner and then headed home, promising ourselves that we would return in the morning to explore further.

We didn’t.

What we did instead though, was a walking tour of the city that skirted the edges of the Red Light and uncovered the history of cannabis and prostitution in the city (amongst other things, including a sampling of Dutch cheese and an impromptu stop to watch dredgers pulling bicycles out of the city’s canals).

Dredging bicycles from the Amsterdam canals

The heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District is the Oude Kerk – the oldest church (and also the oldest building) in the city. It might seem strange that a church would sit alongside this neighbourhood of brothels and iniquity, but the juxtaposition is no coincidence. Fresh off the boat, and with limited shore leave, sailors would make their way into the Red Light District for a night of pleasure before heading back out to sea. Extramarital encounters being a sin, however, it was expedient for the Church to also be nearby, ready to offer absolution, lest one should be washed overboard without having confessed.

Oude Kerk, Amsterdam

With the advent of plenary indulgences, where it became possible to purchase absolution for sins not yet committed, the priests could have a sleep in in the morning, as the sailors were able to stop by the church on their way out for the night, rather than needing a confessor before high tide.

Surrounding the church, alleys lead out in different directions, each specialising in a different penchant, from Elite Street to Big Momma Alley. The women who work in the District come in all shapes and sizes, although the majority are eastern European. Taking photographs of them, or their windows, is strictly forbidden because, although prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, not all of the workers have told their family and friends about their profession and, well, would you want strangers to have photographs of you dressed only in your underwear?

Elite alley, Amsterdam Red Light District

Anyone over the age of 21 years can work in the sex industry in the Netherlands, and the process of getting set up is relatively straightforward, requiring only a working visa, a bank account, and registration with the municipality in which you intend to work. With those things in hand, the newly-registered sex worker can open a company, and enter into a contract with the owner of the building in which she wishes to work. All of the women who work in the windows of Amsterdam’s Red Light District are self-employed and pay their taxes, and, although some human trafficking still continues, the city works to try to prevent it from happening as much as possible.

There is a sense of pragmatism in the Dutch approach to prostitution, recognising that the industry is as old as time and therefore unlikely to be eradicated. Instead, sensible regulation keeps the workers and their clients safe. Their approach to cannabis is only a little different.

Unlike prostitution, which was fully legalised in 2000, and contrary to what many people believe, cannabis remains an illegal substance in Amsterdam, and in the Netherlands more generally. Lawmakers, however, have opted to turn a blind eye to the industry and possessing up to 5g of marijuana for personal use will not result in prosecution. Smoking on the streets, however, is not allowed. The coffeeshops that litter the city also operate in a legal grey area that allows them to avoid the Court room and turn a significant profit, if the aromas wafting from many a packed shopfront are any indicator.

Grey Area coffee shop

Like Starbucks offers a blend of coffee beans from around the world, cannabis connoisseurs can select their reefer according to the area in which it is grown. From local suppliers to the more exotic (but not necessarily rarer) strains from Morocco and Afghanistan, there is a whole international industry to explore just outside the public eye. We didn’t have time for any of that though, so after picking up a couple of muffins to go, we pointed Pixie in the direction of Germany and hit the road again.

Leave a comment