I Toured Amsterdam’s Red Light District With My Mum
“Holy crap!” Mum shouts as a bike skyrockets past her, narrowly missing her little feet. “The bikes really own the roads and the bloody pavements here, don’t they?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t stand in the bike lane, Ma.”
She hops onto the pavement next to me and grabs my arm. Eventually, we manage to find a break in the army of zooming bikes and cross the road towards Dam Square. We pass a couple of shops sporting their impressive range of druggy products, from bongs to brownies to mushrooms to truffles to a multitude of other bizarre crap.
“Do you think we should get some space cakes?”
“Urm no, Ma, I don’t.”
“Yeah, you’re right, they make me paranoid anyway,” Mum sighs.
“Where are we meeting the tour guide?” I ask, trying desperately to change the subject.
“Just by the National Monument, oh look it’s right there.”
I squint up at the grey figures hanging from the Monument and the pigeons wrestling on their heads. People swarm around it to take photos and sit on the steps, basking in the sun. Even in the vastness of Dam Square, the pungent smell of weed still lingers in the air.
Suddenly a man, Christ Pratt’s Dutch doppelgänger, introduces himself loudly behind us: “Hello there, my name is Martijn and I will be your Red Light District tour guide this fine day. Please gather round so I can take your names.”
My head spins round to look at Mum. “Is this right? I thought we were just doing a general historical tour?” I ask.
“Yup, this is right,” Mum replies, smirking.
“Toe nou ladies and gents,” Martijn bellows, “to our first destination!”
He leads us away from Dam Square and through the maze of Amsterdam’s narrow streets. It’s crowded but somehow simultaneously peaceful. The buildings are tall and hug each other closely, gazing at the boat-filled canal. People sip their lattes outside coffee shops, florists arrange their array of tulips, elegant women walk their dachshunds and skilfully dodge people parking their bikes.
Martijn stops us outside a condom shop. A clothesline hangs in the window displaying the unique and certainly creative styles of condoms they have to offer; green, yellow, flavoured, elephant-shaped, tiger-shaped, flower-patterned, small, large, inhuman.
Martijn speaks briefly about the shop before swiftly moving the group along.
Mum stares at one of the condoms hanging in the window. “I guess it’s not one size fits all then, ey? Poor bloke.”
“Jesus, can you stop criticising the condom and hurry up, they’re gonna leave us behind.”
“You know, I had this boyfriend once…”
I debate buying two condoms to shove in my ears and run to catch up to the group, fearing for my sanity.
Martijn leads us down an alley to the De Oude Kirk Church, somewhere I definitely didn’t think we’d be stopping at on this tour. Windows line the buildings opposite; the red lights slightly too early to be lit and the curtains drawn.
“Oke, I need to make one thing clear: please don’t take any photos of the ladies or harass them in any way, unless you would like your camera thrown in the canal or a high heel chucked at your head – and mijn god does that hurt. They are just doing their job and don’t deserve to be disrespected in any way, oke?” I nod like a keen student and look around at our group to see if I can spot any troublemakers; they all seem fine.
“Prostitution was made a legal profession in 1988 and sex workers are given the same basic rights as anyone else, including health insurance, numerous benefits, they have a workers’ union, and free access to unlimited STI checks. And like any of us, they have to pay tax.”
“What about their safety?” a young American woman asks.
“Ja, police often patrol De Wallen, as the locals call it, and there are lots of cameras outside the windows. The girls also have panic buttons in their rooms if they come into contact with any not-so-friendly clients.”
“Do they have pimps?” asks a French man, whose wife glares at him.
“Most of the sex workers are their own boss – they hire their own room and are essentially independent entrepreneurs. Many will deny having a pimp, that it’s a thing of the past, but of course there are always some cases, so misschien,” Martijn replies, gesturing for us to follow him in walking down the street, the Church still looming over us.
We pass a 5D porn experience; the staff grin and wave at us. I don’t quite know what to do. Mum looks a bit too intrigued. Next door is a nursery. Children kiss their parent’s good-bye and walk in swinging their tiny lunchboxes, totally unfazed by their neighbours.
“And just after the nursery we have Big Momma corner, for those with a special preference.”
“There you go Ma, if you ever want to quit marketing and come live in Amsterdam…” I joke, nudging Mum who is distracted by one of the beautiful women drawing her curtains.
“I don’t think I’m the right type of Momma,” she pouts.
“Okay, don’t look too disappointed.”
Martijn leads us away from the church to the infamous Bulldog bar and hostel where smoke bellows from the windows and toward the glistening canal. A Smoke Boat playing loud reggae music cruises by; we all stare with fascination and amusement.
“Now, it’s very easy to miss, but this is Trompettersteeg, the narrowest alley in Amsterdam. It’s only one metre wide.” Martijn presses his hands against the opposing walls at the alley’s entrance. “This is where you can find the most expensive women, since it is the most hidden location – you know, so men can’t be spotted by their wives entering the red lit doors. Oke, keep your bags close, there may be some pickpockets down here.”
Mum strides confidently after Martijn down the alley, which is dark, claustrophobic, and never-ending. Red light starts to illuminate the tiny space as we walk further, deeper, the walls closing in on us.
Mum waves innocently at the sex workers, who giggle and wave back. I hurry behind her, holding on tight to my bag, head down, blushing, and avoiding eye contact.
We emerge from the alley. I can breathe again.
“Did you see their lingerie? So beautiful. The second girl was my favourite, she had such a nice dusty pink bra, maybe I should ask her where she got it,” Mum says, looking longingly back down the alley.
I shake my head. Please don’t. She shrugs and skips after Martijn, who announces that we are now on our way to Lady-Boy Lane.
More red lights start to switch on and I spot a group of men gawking at one of the girls through her window. They make rude gestures at her and she closes her curtain. She doesn’t do that kind of service. I frown at them but they just laugh and stagger away.
We turn a corner and Martijn speeds up while lowering his cap to hide more of his face. The lights are no longer red, but blue.
“Ja, they don’t like me down here, they know that I’m a tour guide and worry I’ll let you guys take photos, which of course I won’t,” Martijn explains, his eyes fixed to the ground.
I gain a bit more confidence now and admire one of the drag-queen’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired wigs. Suddenly, a skinny man in a grey tracksuit exits one of the windows next to me, totally unaware of the group of very interested tourists staring at him. The aspiring Marilyn waves him a theatrical good-bye, but he ignores her and slinks off into the alleys.
“Ooo naughty boy,” Mum says, raising her eyebrows.
“So ja, here is our last stop my friends, a more old-fashioned form of entertainment, the Peep Show.” Martijn opens his arms proudly to the entrance which is littered with images of naked women and people doing the dirty.
“I had a bachelor party book onto this tour once; the groom was dressed as a giant penis and could barely walk, especially after all the Heineken he drank at the pubs they dragged me into. Anyway, during the Peep Show he decided to start licking the window, jakkes I know, not something I would recommend unless you want every disease under the sun… Ja, it was a very strange night.”
“What a knob,” I whisper. Mum chuckles.
“Oke, before you go, let us take a photo in front of this masterpiece!” Martijn whips out his camera and the group lines up outside the Peep Show. I smile but it probably looks more like a cringe. Martijn says he’ll send us the photo, I’m not really sure I want him to.
The group disperses and Martijn invites a couple of us to the pub for a beer.
“Hey, we should go in!” Mum eagerly suggests, pointing at the Peep Show.
“What?” My eyes widen in disbelief that my mother is suggesting we go and watch actual people fuck; seeing Avenue Q with her was enough awkwardness for this lifetime.
“It will be funny!”
“Did you not just hear the giant penis story?”
“Ma, I’m not going to a Peep Show with you.”
“Okay fine…but can we get some space cakes?”
In April 2020, organised tour groups of the Red Light District will be banned. Femke Halsema, the Mayor of Amsterdam, believes this will stop tourists gawking at and disrespecting the sex workers, while others argue that the ban will have the opposite effect, tourists no longer being educated on the women and their rights.
Cover by Old Youth