A History of Prostitution in De Wallen

Amsterdam’s De Wallen Red Light District has its roots in the thirteenth century, attracting sailors who wanted to satisfy their sexual needs. [1] Since the sixteenth century Amsterdam has been, in addition to the financial and political center of the Netherlands, the center of prostitution. [2] For centuries authorities have tried to suppress prostitution in the Netherlands, but the demand for prostitutes was always too great to completely eradicate it.

Efforts to regulate prostitution waxed and waned with the times, and with the shifts in morality. In 18th century Amsterdam there were music halls, or “musicos,” where prostitutes tried to pick up clients. [3] Legislators in turn enacted very strict regulations which they hoped would eradicate the profession. Brothel owners and whore madams were scaffolded and whipped severely, and sentenced to long prison terms, concurrent with a rise in conservative and religious values among the growing middle class. A man could be subject to the death penalty for forcing his wife to engage in anal sex. [4]

During the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, Napoleon decided to regulate the sex industry of the Netherlands to prevent the spread of venereal diseases: it was taken for granted that soldiers would use the services of prostitutes to satisfy their sexual needs. Prostitutes received medical examinations and were given a red card which became a permit. Thus, while prostitutes were despised and ostracized in mainstream society, it was acknowledged that they provided an essential service to society. [5] Indeed, Napoleon once stated that “prostitutes are a necessity. Without them, men would attack respectable women in the streets.” [6]

Before the twentieth century, prostitutes worked under difficult conditions. Because condoms were not available, it was common for them to contract venereal diseases, which caused many to become infertile. In addition, pregnancies were common.

In 1911, brothels were officially declared illegal. An ordinance in Amsterdam stated: “Women are forbidden to take their stand on the steps or in the doorways of taverns and beer-houses or other houses accessible to the public, or being within the houses to attract the attention of passers-by to themselves by a deliberate act of communication or exposure.” [7] As with previous attempts to regulate sexual activity, this decree failed to stem the demand for prostitutes.

The market for prostitution in Amsterdam changed in the 1960s. The market grew given the sociological factors associated with the urban character and modernization of the city. Additionally, there was a shift in sexual mores during this time associated with the advancement of feminism and sexual liberation (although some feminists opposed the sex trade). So while prostitution was officially illegal, it was tolerated and authorities looked the other way. Safety also increased with the widespread use of condoms among prostitutes. Amsterdam’s De Wallen Red Light District became a major international attraction given the open display of prostitution. In 2000, recognizing that government imposition of morality was neither practical nor desirable, brothels were legalized and subject to government approval through licensing.

In recent years there has been a growing concern about human trafficking and money laundering by criminal gangs in Amsterdam’s De Wallen Red Light District. In response, there has been a public reaction against the current market conditions in the Red Light District. The former mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, worked to significantly reduce the number of windows in the District, from 400 to 80. [8] Charles Geerts, the largest owner of windows in the Red Light District, was forced to sell a large portion of his property to the government. These properties have been converted into boutiques, art and design shops. The mayor has also forced the closure of some coffee shops which allegedly did not comply with regulations. The political party Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), in ascent with the rising tide of conservative sentiment in the country, has also used their political influence to curtail both prostitution and the sale of soft drugs in the city. In addition, there are concerns about the need for the Netherlands to conform with the existing laws of other European Union members with regard to prostitution and soft drugs.

Given the current cycle of conservative reaction in the city, some business owners in and around the District have actively opposed the forced closure of prostitution windows, sex clubs, and coffee shops. They blame the government for reduced tourism in the District.


[1] Melanie Abrams. “Amsterdam: City of Lights” (www.historytoday.com/melanie-abrams/amsterdam-city-lights).
[2] Lotte C. van de Pol. Regulating Morality (Antwerp: Maklu 2000) p 97.
[3] Geert Mak. Amsterdam (Cambridge: Harvard University 2000) p. 164.
[4] Lotte C. van de Pol. Regulating Morality (Antwerp: Maklu 2000) p. 106.
[5] Melanie Abrams. “Amsterdam: City of Lights” (http://www.historytoday.com/melanie-abrams/amsterdam-city-lights).
[6] Bonnie and Vern Bullough. Women and Prostitution. (Buffalo: Prometheus Books 1987) p. 188.
[7] Abraham Flexner. Prostitution in Europe (Montclair: Patterson Smith 1914) p 297.
[8] Adriana Stuijt. “Amsterdam Courts Ready to Clean Up Red Light District” (www.digitaljournal.com/article/265520).