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History of the Red Light District

Prostitution is completely legal in the Netherlands since 1830. But not for everybody and there are restrictions.

Nowadays only citizens of the EU are allowed to work legally in the industry, since there are no working permits for prostitution.

The law does prohibit the exploitation of prostitutes and streetwalking though. The ladies even have to pay their taxes and they get special guidance from the local government or gemeente.

Why named ‘De Wallen’?

This painting by Jan van der Heyden shows a church tower (Oude Kerk) and an unrecognizable view of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal in 1670.

View of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, one of the wallen in 1670.

The Red Light District in Amsterdam exists since the 14th century.

It was close to the harbor, hence the development of prostitution in the area for centuries. Back then the streets were filled with drunk sailors hanging around the many distilleries.

The name De Wallen means dykes or walls and refers to the medieval retaining dam walls in the old city center of Amsterdam.

‘Whoring’ in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, prostitutes were not allowed to get married and the main reason why local authorities were not really acting against it was that it protected women from rapists on the streets. As can be found in this very old decree of Amsterdam.

Because whores are necessary in big cities and especially in cities of commerce such as ours – indeed it is far better to have these women than not to have them – and also because the holy church tolerates whores on good grounds, for these reasons the court and sheriff of Amsterdam shall not entirely forbid the keeping of brothels

A bit later in the 16th-century with the rise of the Protestant church also came a negative attitude towards prostitution. Church and state were no longer separated and sex-work was now a sin and punishable by law almost everywhere in Europe.

Stoofsteeg by morning, the wondow lights are off. A man alone walks towards the bridge.

Stoofsteeg by morning

But, we stood strong on our principles! Some Dutch cities, such as Amsterdam, decided against complete prohibition and instead choose to regulate the activities.

Amsterdam pointed out specific areas of the city and reserved them for brothels. With the Golden Age in full swing, the 17th-century brought forth a return of the laissez-fair attitude. Brothels were left, for the most part, to their own devices.

Latest legislation

In 2007, the city council of Amsterdam closed over 100 prostitution windows.  With the aim of developing the area with fashion designers and other up scale businesses. More regulations for both the ladies and the window owners resulted in less crime in the area.

Since then prostitutes have complained about not finding the right window and workplace. Some have left to other cities or proceeded online.

Nowadays it are not sailors who visit Amsterda’s Red Light District. But if you’d replace ‘sailors’ with ‘tourists’ you will get  what the atmosphere in the Red Light District is still like. The subtitles in this song say it all: