//Amsterdam's dark side

Amsterdam's dark side

A huge tourist draw, the city’s notorious Red Light district is under scrunity by Dutch authorities, writes Robert Crew
Apr. 27, 2006. 10:41 AM, ROBERT CREW

AMSTERDAM—They stand there in window after window, bathed in flattering red light and wearing only bras and panties.

Many will stare boldly out at you. One or two will even open the door and wish you a cheery "good evening" as you wander by.

They are the "window" prostitutes in Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light district — a maze of narrow alleys, lined with sex shops, theatres offering live sex shows and coffee shops where pot is openly smoked and sold.

The district is an immense draw for tourists — as big an attraction as Amsterdam’s wonderful museums and canals. But it has come under increasing scrutiny of late, following reports of extensive, forced prostitution by criminal gangs.

"You have a lot of organizations in Russia or in other countries, trafficking these women in Holland," says Yogita Homma, a former prostitute who now works at the Prostitute Information Centre in the heart of the Red Light district.

"If a girl needs help, we will help her but with these large organizations, girls are afraid to talk or to go to the police because they think something will happen to them or their families. These aren’t very nice people. If they find out that you blather, they will get you."

Dutch authorities launched a campaign to fight forced prostitution early this year, leading to calls for the red light districts — the city has three of them, with a total of 450 windows — to be shut down.

Led by Mariska Majoor, founder of the centre, the prostitutes responded to the adverse publicity by holding an "open day" allowing the public to peek inside their places of work and talking to people about their lives and working conditions.

The Red Light district is 700 years old, we learned on a recent nighttime walking tour — called "Dark Amsterdam" — led by a sprightly 69-year-old former mechanical engineer named Kees Nave.

Amsterdam was a fishing village that grew into a major port and the brothels, distilleries and churches came into existence to cater to the various spiritual and bodily needs of the merchant seamen.

"The sailors are gone," said Nave, "but the pubs and the ladies are still here."

About a dozen of us have signed up for the walk, conducted in English.

Most of the group is middle-aged although there are three younger women. And although the Red Light district is comparatively safe, being part of a group does bring a certain level of comfort.

The walk starts near Amsterdam’s Centraal Station where subway extensions costing 1.5 billion euros ($2.1 billion Cdn.) are underway.

"The sex trade in Holland is worth 1.6 billion euros ($2.2 billion Cdn.)," Nave notes.

"Don’t complain that you haven’t seen any prostitutes yet," he tells us. "By the end of the evening, you will be bored with them. And don’t take photos because it makes them very angry. If you do, do it sneakily."