I recently completed a walking tour of Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. I had done a tour in Singapore of their Geylang / Red Light District over five years ago, and it was very interesting to compare these two completely different approaches to legalized prostitution.

First, the commonalities. Both countries want to keep sex workers safe through legalization. Both countries want to regulate how prostitution happens rather than allowing it to be a complete free-for-all (that often results in danger and exploitation for the workers). And perhaps most importantly, both countries want tax revenues from this enterprise.

Here are the ten things I learned about Amsterdam’s approach from our tour guide:

  1. The biggest difference between the two countries’ approaches is that Singapore is protectionist whereas in Amsterdam, the worker’s autonomy and rights are tantamount. In Singapore, they are employees. In Amsterdam, they are freelancers, small business people. A worker isn’t required to accept any customers she doesn’t want. She doesn’t have to get tested if she doesn’t want. (That is not the case in Singapore where testing for disease is regular and mandatory). In Amsterdam, while prostitution is legal, being a pimp is against the law. Instead, the law acts to protect the workers and put choice into their hands.
  2. Workers rent the window-fronted rooms for between 80 euros and 150 euros per 11 hour shift (prices vary based on location and season). The landlord provides on premise security (at the touch of a button). Rooms are cleaned between shifts. Thankfully.
  3. Workers refuse 3 of every 5 potential customers on average, and they have the right to refuse them for any reason or no reason at all. Men who ask how much to go without a condom are usually refused even if they try to pretend they were joking about it. Just asking the question is a red flag, and the workers don’t want to deal with someone they see as dangerous and disrespectful.
  4. Pricing starts at 50 euros for 15 minutes and goes up from there. That price doesn’t include anything but actual sex acts. Touching costs extra. The most expensive price is for GFE or Girlfriend Experience (starting at 150 euros for 30 mins) in which the worker pretends she likes you, laughing at your jokes and acting enthusiastic about the act. Otherwise, expect bored but workmanlike performance between checking her cell phone. Like most workers, the women aren’t going to do a lot of extra work if they can avoid it. They will go to great lengths to get out of actually having sex if they can, which is fairly easy to do as they require all patrons to be washed prior to their services (this was the case in medieval Bruges’ brothels as well, a fact we learned in that Belgian city). Drunk customers can be fairly easy to fool. Obviously.
  5. A workers averages 7 clients for one 11 hour shift. That could mean there’s a lot of downtime, but it all depends on what those 7 clients pay for. Even if all 7 clients were just 50 euro basic customers and the worker was renting at the highest rate, she’d still net 200 euros for the 11 hour shift, but only 1 hr and 45 minutes actually spent with clients. That’s at the low end. Given the upward potential in profit for a low investment, it’s easy to see why some of these women enter the profession, even knowing that their youth will fade and that it’s a tough life. Two retired workers in their 70s had serviced over 350K patrons between them. Another worker in her 60s had moved on to specializing in servicing people with disabilities. Many of the workers give tours of the Red Light District during the week as a supplement to their flagging income.
  6. In Amsterdam, there are two groups organized by the workers to protect themselves and educate the public: PIC (Prostitution Information Center) provides accurate information for the workers to the press, and PROUD is a union of sorts where workers meet to discuss the laws and issues they face and to ensure they have support.
  7. A press article was trying to ascertain if workers were coerced to go into prostitution or had entered it of their own free will (even if it wasn’t their first choice of work). According to the police they interviewed, those police who responded felt that 50-90% of the women were coerced; however, 2/3 of the police declined to speculate. When workers themselves were polled, they said only 6-10% of workers were coerced into this line of work.
  8. Workers tend to cluster together by specialty: transsexuals, large body type, etc. This gives the customers a few options in their desired category. The most unexpected thing I saw was a woman wearing a pants suit with a blazer buttoned up. She definitely stood out!
  9. Kissing is 100% out of the question at any price. The workers consider it far too intimate. Pretty Woman was right.
  10. Sex shows involving a man and woman having sex only hire actual couples to perform. They don’t ask workers to pair up with someone they aren’t already in a relationship with for these shows.

That’s probably far more information than you ever thought you needed to know about prostitution, but there’s a reason they call it the world’s oldest profession. As long as there are women who don’t have other options through education or family support, there will be sex workers. And of course, some women prefer doing this type of work to other options they might have, so it’s best that they can be safe and have some choice.

There was an experiment with male prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, but it was a failure and shut down after two hours due to the media circus and that it was driving away customers for the women. Plus, in general, women are not as likely to hire a male prostitute because as our tour guide pointed out, most women don’t have to pay for sex. All they have to do is look around and there are plenty of men willing to give them mediocre, indifferent sex for free. Well, he was being a little bit tongue in cheek, but he had a point.

There’s a lot of discussion now in Amsterdam about them trying to do away with the prostitution windows in the Red Light District. It is a residential area with families pushing strollers, restaurants, a Kindergarten, and so on. The Dutch don’t mind that in general as they see sex as an integral part of life, nothing to be ashamed about, but they don’t like all the tourists crowding the streets, especially when there are football matches and people are drinking. I’m going to guess it’s the Brits.

Let’s see what you think:

  • Is Amsterdam’s model for prostitution better than Singapore’s or do you think the government should require testing for disease and allow girls to be employees rather than freelance?
  • Did you find any of these facts surprising?
  • Do you see prostitution as a necessary evil in society or do you think it can be eliminated? If so, how?
  • Would you criminalize prostitution or make it legal so it can be safer and more regulated? (Personally, I like the idea of making prostitution legal but making it illegal to hire one–the johns are the problem, not the workers).

Discuss.