Sex and Drugs in Amsterdam

While we all know that Amsterdam is a beautiful city filled with historic buildings and an abundance of culture, the majority of tourists that flock there go for the sex, drugs and infamous Red Light District.

Prostitution

I always knew that the Dutch were a liberal, easy going nation but I was surprised to see just how laid back they are towards prostitution. I found it quite upsetting to see women standing in their windows in their underwear, trying to catch the eye of any man walking past and beckoning them into their room.

Maybe it was just me (or that fact that it was only 10am) but most of the women looked sad and lonely as they stared out of the window like a porcelain doll.

We had a tour guide who led us past the windows as though we were walking through a market. It felt so strange that there were so many other tourists doing the same, like we were all window shopping for something we would never buy.

The guide sensed my sad disapproval and said: “Many people feel sorry for the poor girls but you shouldn’t. These are clever business women and they make a lot of money.”

He constantly called them ‘the girls’ which made me laugh because he said they range from the age of 16 to 70. Yes 70. Urgh, cue horrified shudder. He seemed to be quite impressed by the 70 year old prostitute but I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic.

While I’m sure that some of the women have chosen to be there thanks to the prospects the money can provide, I can’t help but wonder if it’s because this is their only option to earn that amount of money? I’m no prude but I just can’t imagine anyone choosing to make a living that way.

So how much to prostitutes in Amsterdam earn?

The girls rent the rooms for one shift (usually 8-10 hours) for between €60-€180, depending on the location of the window. They then charge €50 for their, ahem, services. A recent survey by students who live in the area found that the average client would be in the room for 7 minutes, meaning the girls average €50 for 7 minutes work. I’m no mathematician but even I can see that’s not a bad wage.

Facts about prostitution in Amsterdam

Prostitution was first legalised in 1417 and was so popular because of all the sailors passing through. One of the first rules written on paper was that prostitutes could not perform their services in grave yards.

Prostitution is monitored to help protect the women and put a stop to pimps (who take all the money) and sex trafficking.

There are currently 290 windows in Amsterdam where the girls work. There are plans to reduce this back down to 200 to make it easier to monitor and keep it within the Red Light District.

The police are actively involved in protecting the ladies who all have panic buttons. The buttons are most commonly pressed when men refuse to pay which apparently happens most when men have had a few too many bevvies and don’t manage to get their money’s worth…if you know what I mean…

The women start working early but finish at 4am because it’s more effort than it’s worth at this time of night. See the point above.

Left: An old brothel turned into an art space. Right: The first gay bar in Holland and the second gay bar in the world.

According to our guide, this brothel was recently closed down because the owners were found to be involved with money laundering and sex trafficking. The brothel was also next door to a kid’s nursery! When it was closed down it was given to students as a space to display their art.

Prostitute Information Centre

The Prostitute Information Centre, or the PIC for short, was opened in 1994 to give more information about prostitution in Amsterdam and help protect and defend female sex workers. This is a place where women tell their stories and gives people the opportunity to stand in the window and see what it’s like. The PIC was closed when I was there but I really wish I’d had the chance to go in.

Drugs

It seems like no one really knows what the laws are on soft drugs like cannabis and mushrooms in Amsterdam. Our guide told us that mushrooms were banned but were still sold everywhere under the disguise name of ‘truffles’. Genius.

It is legal for coffee shops to sell small amounts of cannabis but it isn’t legal for someone to supply the shops with it in the first place. So criminals still supply them but it was legalised as a way to stop street dealers as they will rip people off and sell to under 18’s. The coffee shops are closely controlled and they are shut down immediately if anything suspicious occurs.

Cannabis is a billion dollar business in Amsterdam and according to our guide, “everyone is growing it. Technically you can only grow three plants but realistically you can grow as much as you like until your neighbour makes a complaint.”

The ban on tobacco was lifted in 2008 because it meant a lot of people were smoking pure cannabis which didn’t end too well for the tourists…

If you want to see more from my time in Amsterdam, check out my Photo Essay: A Day in Amsterdam and my experience of Catching the Ferry to Holland.

So what do you think about drugs and prostitution in Amsterdam?

Do you think that it’s going to happen anyway so it’s best for the police to monitor it or do you think the legalisation encourages more people to get involved with things that are illegal elsewhere?

TheTravelHack

Monica is the founder and editor of The Travel Hack. She began the blog in 2009 when she left the UK to travel around Asia and Australia for two years. She's now a professional blogger and has travelled around the world in search of stylish adventure travel. Monica has recently had her second baby and is determined to prove that travelling with a baby is possible!

SHOWHIDE Comments (37)
  1. LOL the fact they immediately outlawed prostitution in graveyards makes me wonder what the churchyards where like lol!! Excellent post, I would have felt sorry for them too – I mean, clever business women or not, if you’ve still got to do it when you’re 70 you can’t have had the happinest life 🙁 x

      1. Perhaps she was retired from another successful career and just did this for a ‘fun’ way of earning some pocket money? Difficult to say as I wasn’t there to see.

          1. In the UK? You’re not wrong! I really feel for our old folks in these difficult times – they just seem to get less and less while the cost of living is always rising. :S

  2. Yeah I guess they get a pretty good wage, like any other prostitute… but I don’t think I would trade my pityful travel bloggers salary for 50 euros per 7 minutes!

    Great post though – very informative!

  3. As they say, prostitution is the world’s oldest profession – it happens everywhere, so I guess the Dutch are smart to regulate and tax it.

    I thought tourists weren’t allowed in coffee shops anymore?

    1. While I was there tourists were allowed (this was only 2 weeks ago) but I’ve heard that they are bringing in a ban. Not really sure how that is going to work. How do you differentiate between a tourist and an expat?

      And, like you say, they’re smart to tax and regulate prostitution so why not keep the same rule for soft drugs?

  4. Aside from the cases of forced prostitution (which I believe isn’t the case in Amsterdam and some other places that have legalized it and strictly regulate it), I’m perfectly fine with prostitution. If it is a freely thought out career choice, I’m not going to feel sorry or condemn women, or men, that want to do that for a living any more than I am going to pity or feel sorry for the person that chooses to work 50 hours a week toiling away at in a windowless room as a grunt lawyer.

    1. Good point. I don’t feel in the least bit sorry for the people who have chosen it as a career. I just find it really hard to get my head around the thought that anyone would do it if they had another option to earn equal amounts of money and it makes me sad to think that a lot of the women there probably don’t have any other options.

  5. No sex in graveyards? Best law ever 🙂 Very interesting and informative post! The prostitution and drug laws in Holland are so unlike everything else! But I’m not sure I can completely understand why some women choose this kind of work… Legal or not, it’s still hopelessly old fashioned and degrading.

    1. I agree, that’s why I can’t get my head around the fact that they actually chose it. I hope for their sake that they’re just much more liberal than I am and see it as a great way to make money, not their only option to make money.

  6. yeah, when i went i couldn’t get my head around the fact the women were actively seeking business. one old fella was pulled in off the street by an extremely toned woman in a leather bikini. you think of them sitting there quietly terrified. also like you say, right next to schools. in eindhoven there’s a sex shop, with graphic window display, next to a kindergarten – but now they’ve banned coffeeshops from within 350m. don’t get the dutch, but glad they exist. great info in piece, now filed away

  7. Great post, I just returned from Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago (end of May 2012). We had not trouble getting into “coffee shops” and could have freely sampled the offerings.
    I have believed for a long time that drug dealers and religious fundamentalists are together and have agreed that drugs should be forbidden. Prohibition in the United States only succeeded in making Al Capone and the Mafia rich. The “war on drugs” cannot be won, ever! Time to legalize it all and put some controls on it so that some dumb junkie won’t unintentionally overdose.
    Sex Workers? When I lived in the States many years ago, I heard a very attractive and divorced woman agonize over a job as a secretary or as a topless dancer which paid nearly 4 times the secretary’s salary. The legalization of prostitution would probably put some serious pressure to stop the slave trade which still goes on to this day. It would also control the “quality of the product” regarding STD’s and enable worker’s rights in a profession where both are sadly lacking in most countries where it is illegal.

    I live in Turkey and prostitution is legal here also, not so “noisy” as in Amsterdam but Istanbul has a famous “red light district” also. Cops pick up street walkers and give them a chance to take a physical and “get legal” or go to jail. Russians are involved in some of the slave trade and pushing street walkers.

    1. So true. We’ll never be able to stop prostitution or drugs so it would be far better to control it. I’m still not 100% sure where I stand on it and while I loved Amsterdam, he prostitution did make me feel really uncomfortable. Sounds like Turkey have got the right balance between trying to make it safer without parading it in your face.

  8. Interesting to hear a female’s point of you as prostitution in Amsterdam is more for male tourists than female ones of course! 🙂 Men can have a quick free perve and if a bit “gung-ho” pop in for a few minutes! Are there women who wish there was something for them to partake in?!

    1. I was just wondering that, Steve. I will be in Amsterdam this summer and was wondering if there were any prostitutes for me (a woman)! I guess you have answered my question. Only girls in the windows….guess I’ll not be visiting the RLD.

  9. I think 90% of the women don’t do it because they like it. What is to like about it? Disgusting guys with foul breath (for starters), that gives me more shivers then the fact some women somehow manage to live that way at the age of 70.

    Recently I read that a lot of the sex workers quit business. Economic times make it even harder to make “ends meet”. The competition asks less and less. So the legal workers go back to a regular job at minimum wage.

    The people who make living of the red light district (like tour guides) hide the ugly truth from visitors (they might package it so it sounds not as such a big problem)

    For a fact a lot of the sex workers are forced to do so by pimps, sex trafficers a.k.a. low life scum bags.
    They take the passport and make them work round the clock to reach a “target” like say 50 ‘customers’ a day.
    And if they are legal, nine out ten they are forced by a “lover boy” or other subject without a soul.
    A lot of the workers have a background of sexual abuse. So they are more prone to make a living out of it.

    About it being legal? It happens anyway. But to make a statement I think it should not be legal. Because no matter what, it is just not the right thing to do for a human being.

    To reply to Steve Biggs: I was very shocked to see a couple go in.
    Therapy maybe…?! That really freaked me out. As a woman.

    1. I’d really like to speak to a woman who works in the sex trade but getting a genuine woman with an honest opinion isn’t so easy to find. We’re all speculating but it would be interesting to hear what the women have to say.

      1. I think you are right. Not many women will speak out about how it really is to be a working in prostitution on a daily basis. The women who do speak about it are the ones who did choose to do this type of work. The others don’t have a voice and we only hear about them when things go wrong.
        The sex workers in NL do have a ‘union’, De Rode Draad http://www.rodedraad.nl (dutch).

        I do not judge sex work, I just think in the end it is wrong because I would not want anybody close to me doing it. If they do, I would still love them as much, but it will hurt to know. They are not just a body to me. But then, everybody is free to choose what they want. As long as it is a free choice.

  10. Thanks for this article. I see things haven’t changed much since I visited Amsterdam in the mid 80s.

    Yes, the women did mostly seem bored (though I didn’t see any who looked lonely, most had a friend hanging out with them) and it noticeably detracted from their appeal.

    On the other hand, they contrasted greatly from the prostitutes one sees in the New York area in that they all looked perfectly healthy, rather than harassed and drug addicted.

    I don’t imagine it’s all that wonderful a job. Of course, neither are most of the jobs for unskilled laborers of all types. I’ve seen sadder women working at McDonald’s.

    I’m not sure what the answer is. On the one hand, cultural attitudes (even in Amsterdam) mean that sex work is viewed as demeaning. Some workers avoid internalizing that view, but do most?

    On the other, women can make so much more doing sex work than in just about any other job compatible with their skill & education level (what I mean is, an uneducated woman makes more than she would at McD’s, but an educated one, whose sex services are more expensive, makes more than she could being an admin).

    As long as society pays more for sex work than other work, there will always be women who want to do it.

  11. Just have my son returning from Holland (Den Hague & Den Bosch) from ASOT 600, and didn’t find any changes in his behaviour. His sister works there since 2001 and she’s also “opened mind”. If you want you can find good or evil in everything.

  12. I like this piece Monica, it certainly addresses such a central aspect of Amsterdam. It’s been quite a few years since I was in Amsterdam and I do remember walking around the red light district, as it seems like people expect you to go there, just cos you’re in Amsterdam. As a woman, I also have mixed feelings on this. I live in Spain, where there are lots of girls of different ages, these days many of them quite young, and some are very pretty – who sit on the side of the motorway. As far as I know they don’t have any “official” protection. In Amsterdam, at least when I was there, I felt that the women that I saw were either, kind of out of body as they looked out their window (who could blame them) and some seemed like they enjoyed the sort of stage performance aspect of it. It is a very complex subject, indeed! Great post though.

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