The Strange, Seedy History Behind Window Shopping For Prostitutes In Amsterdam's Red Light District

Sex: it's arguably one of the oldest trades in the world, and Amsterdam's Red Light District knows how to do it well.

Amsterdam is one of not-so-many places in the world where pleasure work is legal, and the city has worked hard to blend their reputation of tolerance with one of accountability when it comes to pleasure work. However, when it comes to dealing in terms of flesh, regulation is easier said than done, and the history of this district reveals the ups and downs encountered along this controversial road. 

Working women and men have flourished in Amsterdam since the 13th century, back when the port city was flourishing with riches and imports from the spice trade. Sailors and money often lead to cathouses and women, and there were no jobs for these workers for the next few centuries. 

Technically, Amsterdam actually has three districts, but the largest and most infamous remains the one that originates from the oldest part of the city (De Wallen, as it's known in Dutch).

Today, Amsterdam cathouses remain some of the city's premier tourist attractions, as well as means of work for literally thousands of pleasure workers, both forced into the business and not. In the infamous "window [cathouses]," women (and even some men) sway and beckon to potential customers, tapping on the glass and partaking in a trade that for Amsterdam, has become tradition.


  • There Are Approximately 250 Windows Where Visitors Can 'Shop,' Plus Hundreds Of Mature Shows

    The city's district has a grand reputation for a reason: there are about 250 windows in which to "shop," as well as countless other adult attractions. The Dutch are known to have a culture that embraces pleasure and sees it as a normal aspect of life; hence, one can find nearly anything their heart may desire here.

    Today, curious shoppers can find anything from multi-level adult cinemas to condom stores to even live shows.

  • The Infamous Windows Emerged In The 1930s, As Workers Weren't Allowed To Entice From The Doorway
    Photo: Vysotsky / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Infamous Windows Emerged In The 1930s, As Workers Weren't Allowed To Entice From The Doorway

    Leave it to the women to get creative. Working women had always run fairly rampant in the district, but prior to this time period, the business revolved largely around a woman pursuing a man inside a cathouse or inn; (there would usually be rooms in the inn set aside for this purpose) or otherwise the worker would take the man elsewhere once the negotiation had been settled.

    At this time, it was illegal for call girls to work from doorways, luring their clients. However, it was legal to sit in the window and entice customers from behind the glass. Women did just that, and with curtains partially closed, the tradition of Amsterdam's infamous windows was born.

  • The Origins Of The Famous Term Are Disputed, But It's Most Likely Not From Amsterdam

    Although Amsterdam's district is easily the most famous in the world, the truth seems to point toward the term originating elsewhere.

    One of the more popular theories goes back to old railroad days in America, in which railway workers would wander off to find some female entertainment, bringing with them a red lantern they would hang outside the door. Their jobs entailed that they be reachable at any moment, and so the lantern would let their employers know where they were in the case they were urgently needed. 

    Today, nearly every major city has an area that is referred to as the district by the same name of Amsterdam's signifying a concentration of cathouses. 


  • The Dutch Euphemistically Refer To The District As 'De Wallen' — 'The Wall'
    Photo: Mr.Nostalgic / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Dutch Euphemistically Refer To The District As 'De Wallen' — 'The Wall'

    Although foreigners are familiar with this part of Amsterdam, locals have always referred to it as, "De Wallen." In the early days of Amsterdam, all the way back in the 13th century, this part of the city was surrounded by earthen walls; De Wallen refers to this zone that was walled in. Wallen is simply the plural of wall.

    To this day, De Wallen implies the practice of paying money for pleasure. In other words, it's a well-known euphemism for what goes on in the cathouses.

  • Napoleon Briefly Ruled Holland, And He Was The First To Implement Mandatory Health Checks For Workers

    In case your European history needs some brushing up, Napoleon Bonaparte did in fact rule Holland in the early 19th century — from 1806-1810, to be exact. 

    At the time, the pleasure trade was booming, and the only thing Napoleon allegedly cared about more than himself was the power of his army. These health checks were his neurotic way of ensuring that workers wouldn't give syphilis to soldiers. Twice a week, workers were required to check in and be tested.

  • Workers Rent Windows On A Half-Day Basis

    To outsiders of the district and visitors from countries in which pleasure work is illegal, it's easy to be surprised with the professional efficiency one encounters when taking a peek behind the scenes.

    As far as the infamous windows go, pleasure workers obtain their spots through a scheduling system, generally renting windows on a half-day basis. A normal shift runs around 11 hours, and most reportedly work up to six days a week. As one might expect, though, a good deal of that time is spent simply waiting for customers.

    In 2014, Skift reported in an article that the average rental rate for a half-day was around 150 euros, or approximately $200. A standard cost for a 15-minute session was listed at roughly 50 euros, or $70, which means that, before taxes, a worker would only be taking home around 150 euros after seeing six clients.