Sex Sells

By Elif Doganyigit and Thomas van den Berg

Photo credit: Thomas Linkel, LAIF REDUX

It is commonly known that prostitution is one of the oldest profession in the world. And although Amsterdam was reasonably late with providing paid sex, it can still be considered an early adapter. The first brothels started around 1400, and have been around ever since. How a dubious industry became an indispensable cash cow for the city.

In the beginning

It all started just after 1400 and slowly grew to be an internationally known industry. The original brothels started out as ‘bathhouses.’ But the nudity there quickly led to the erotic sinner. A very risky undertaking because the church strictly forbade it. People who were caught could have cut their ears of for their adulterate escapades. It took another two centuries to become more accepted.

From the seventeenth century, the area we know as ‘De Wallen’ started to take shape. The Amsterdam harbour was thriving, and the sailors sought for entertainment. And after all those months at sea, there was usually one specific desire on the top of to-do-list.

Prostitution became commonly accepted and was officially legalized by the government in 1811. In the time after that, the area expanded and became more diverse. Luring more and more foreigners to the city. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Amsterdam was known as ‘The Capital of Sins.’ And that image attracted a certain type of people.

Dirty money

In the early fifties, the area gradually got taken over by the underworld. Human traffickers, drug dealers, and violent pimps were getting a firm grip over the neighbourhood; resulting in a shocking rise of criminality and drug abuse, mainly heroin. And with that, the pressure on the authorities got higher. The problems did not disappear since then. The only thing that has not changed is the enormous revenue the neighbourhood generates.

The shady hen with the golden eggs

Since the very beginning, local authorities have been torn between two ideas. Criminal activity on the one hand, and substantial economic benefits on the other. City hall struggles to find the golden mean. That is mainly because the sex industry is one of the biggest attractions of the city. De Wallen welcome over two and a half million tourists annually. The Red Light District is, therefore, a worldwide phenomenon.

Over time city hall took some devious measures to tackle some of the issues, without the hoped-for results. It was quite evident that they lacked an overview. Nobody seemed to know how many prostitutes were actually active, how many brothels were open or that even basic regulation was obeyed.


In 2010 a report about the industry, instructed by city hall, was published. The report by the name ‘Kwetsbaar Beroep’ (Vulnerable Profession) was clear and vague at the same time. Even professional researchers could not exactly figure out what is going on. The number of legal prostitutes varies from 2500 and 4000 a year.  The overall number of illegal sex workers is estimated at around 2800.

Other findings from the research were more clarifying, not to say shocking. The committee estimates that over two-thirds of the women are forced into prostitution. On top of that, there were over one hundred twenty cases of human trafficking. Furthermore, there is still the issue of unsafe sex; resulting in serious physical problems. The majority of the prostitutes are forced to offer unsafe sex; others do it for the financial benefit.

The vast majority of the prostitutes are foreign. Mostly from Eastern Europe, (62%). Many of them struggle with the language barrier, and that sometimes results in unsafe working conditions. These women are also very vulnerable to shady landlords, who provide them with overpriced and filthy homes.

The report made it very clear that criminal activity and prostitution are still very intertwined.

The future

After the report, the city has taken action. A lot of windows were shut down, and many brothels lost their license. But now, eight years later, the problems are far from solved. With Amsterdam busier than ever, the sex industry is once again thriving. The original plan called ‘Cleaning De Wallen’ has still not been completed. And therefore, inhumane criminal activities are still taking place for a lot of money.