The Red Light District: ‘This is not a shopping mall’

Behind the many red-lit windows, sex shops, brown cafes or in a theatre hidden behind an illuminated façade, a world that has attracted many people to the city over the years awaits to be explored. A quick visit to the Red Light District is now on the bucket list of both young and old tourists, but according to the locals and employees who have been working here for years, a lot has changed.

Text and photos Mila Emmer & Julia van den Muijsenberg

And that’s not a stupid feeling, because a lot did indeed change over the years. Not only can the atmosphere no longer be compared to that of the time of the heroin epidemic in the 80’s, also government policy is becoming more and more strict. Nowadays sex shops have to close their doors at ten o’clock to prevent them from being flooded by a stream of drunken tourists, while not too long ago this only happened in the nightly hours.

“It used to be different”, says Leroy, who has been working in the sex shop on the Warmoestraat for 19 years. “I’ve been working in the district for way longer though. A friend of mine worked as a supervisor at the jerk booths and when I noticed that there was a lot of money to get there, I started there too”, he says while laughing.

You want it to be a little shady, a bit exciting and rough when you walk here.

He doesn’t like to say that everything used to be better, “but it’s really going downhill.” “This alley, right next to the store for instance, was known for its junks and dealers. Shady people used to lay around all over this district. And I think that is part of it!”, Leroy explains passionately. According to him, that’s exactly what people come to the Red Light District for. “You want it to be a little shady, a bit exciting and rough when you walk here.” He also tells about the unity that used to reign in the district. A sense of unification that nowhere else in the city could be felt so well. “Because of the rough atmosphere people got each other’s back. Years ago someone tried stealing something from the shop. I chased him and when I finally got the mother fucker, all people would come from their stores and windows and check what was up. It was like a small community,” Leroy says nodding.

Even the local dealers and junkies were part of that group. “They would chill in the front of the store when they heard my music, but as soon as I eyeballed them not to block the door, they would jump up and say ‘off course man, sorry!’ Now a days they are less chill. Police are a lot less tolerant of them as well. Which has changed the whole vibe here, too.”

The focus should be much more on the experience of the unique district and less on shopping, because people can do that anywhere. “This district was more alive. It shouldn’t get regulated so much. The drunk English tourists, the junks, the dealers. It’s all part of the experience! This is the Red Light District, not a shopping mall!”

I just want to sell. It bugs me that there are so many people that don’t buy anything.

Newcomers, however, think differently about that. “I just want to sell. It bugs me that there are so many people that don’t buy anything”, Zina from Russia says. Four years ago she started working in a sex shop, located at the canal at the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. “I just needed a job and found it here”, she explains. She worked in all kinds of retail stores before. “This time it happened to be a sex shop.”

She is annoyed sick by the entertainment seeking visitors. “They just walk in to have a laugh, they touch stuff, they make jokes and then leave. I think that is rude.”

The shop is filled with large glass display cases, containing hundreds of colourful veined vibrators, whips and latex suits. “Because of the internet people get used to crazier stuff every day. By the look of people, you won’t guess their weird fetishes”, Zina explains. She experiences the craziest things, but always tries to stay professional. “A guy came in a while ago. A big muscled manly guy. He asked for latex lady panties and tried them on. He even brought his own pair of heels to see if they matched. Then he asked me if I liked it. Sure, I don’t judge.”

Zina worries that the buying customers sometimes get scared away by the jokesters. While fiddling with a piece of paper between her fingers she stares at the door. “You see that doll over there? She got kidnapped once and lost an arm! A drunk man grabbed her and ran away with her! He ran to the bridge further up,” Zina Says. She is often alone in the shop, so she could not just leave everything behind and run after the drunk guy. “Then he started humping her in the middle of the street. Her arm fell off and he threw it in the canal!”, she says with disbelief. “She is still the prettiest girl of the Red Light District though”, Zina jokes. “Like I said: weirdo’s, you get them a lot. It should be about the buying costumers.”

We all like sex don’t we?!

Michael doesn’t really recognize those stories about troublemakers. In the modern shop on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal you mainly find ‘very normal people’. “Just normal and serious costumers. We’re all people, we’re all different and like different stuff and that’s okay!”, he says. According to the young entrepreneur, you can’t lump people together. “We all like sex don’t we?! Shopping for sex toys should not be something scary”, he says while typing on the keyboard of the newest Mac computer.

His elegantly furnished luxury store has been in business for about two years. “It’s a good location, just a little outside the red-light area. Not right in the middle of the district, so barely any drunk weirdo’s come in.”