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I have always heard of Amsterdam’s infamous “red light district” (or “De Wallen” in Dutch) as this mysterious place where anything was legal; prostitutes roam the streets, drugs run rampant, and strip clubs can be found on every block. But was this actually the case? How could something like that actually exist? I, of course, had to find out.

Last weekend my friends and I took a trip to Amsterdam. Interestingly, the Red Light District is in the center of the city, and we happened to wander through it on our way to dinner one day. We didn’t even realize that’s where we were until, in broad daylight, I noticed women in lingerie standing by large windows and putting makeup on. When we went back at night, the streets were crowded with people walking around, smoking, and standing in lines. What I found most shocking was how overt and unapologetic it all was. Women, wearing basically nothing, stood eyeing us through windows and trying to catch the attention of the men who walked by. Part of me felt bad for them. I don’t want to dismiss the women who willingly chose and enjoy this profession, but I couldn’t help still feeling bad for the girls waiting for someone to think they are attractive enough to pay for their services. They seemed almost like caged show animals vying for our attention.  

In addition, there were also tons of “peep shows,” “erotic massages,” “sex palaces” (whatever that means), and blatant pornography. You could pay a small fee to see a woman strip naked or a larger amount to see live pornography. There was no shortage of options for those interested in paying for a sexual experience.

In regards to the drug culture, what I gathered was most people were smoking and there were some soft drugs but not a whole lot much more than that. Marijuana is legal throughout the city anyway, and people don’t need to go to the red light district to feel comfortable smoking. I had to quickly learn the difference between a café and a “coffeeshop,” which is their polite way of referring to a dispensary. Coffeeshops are almost as numerous around the city as the cafés that sell actual food and coffee.

The case of Amsterdam is fascinating to me. I couldn’t help thinking about how much money each woman makes, how well they are treated, how regulated it is, how much money the sex industry brings in for the city, and not to mention the ethics behind it all. Something like this could never occur in the United States… but should it? Everyone who lives in an urban area knows what places of the city are dangerous or where illegal activities are likely to occur, so what would happen if we tried to regulate it? Regardless, it seems to work for the Dutch, and well, when in Amsterdam…

UVA '23

Hi! I'm Phoebe, a second year from Connecticut studying economics and computer science at UVA. In what little free time I have, I enjoy puzzles, listening to podcasts, going for walks, and spending time with friends. I also love traveling, all things food related, and cats! I hope you enjoy my eclectic mix of articles :)
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