learning about sex work in the Red Light // my week in Amsterdam

This past week, I traveled with my core class at DIS to study in Amsterdam.  Notorious for its historic Red Light District, Amsterdam was an obvious choice for our study tour since my program is specifically focused on Prostitution and the Sex Trade.  Over the course of the week, my class had the opportunity to hear from a diverse array of individuals and NGOs about their perspectives on prostitution, human trafficking, and migration.

My week in Holland was an illuminating academic experience–truly unlike anything I have experienced in a traditional classroom setting. I have gained so much insight into the reality of the sex trade in Amsterdam, hearing firsthand from people who have bought and sold sex.

This post turned out to a pretty lengthy one–it was a jam-packed week–so if you want a quick summary, just scroll down to LONG STORY SHORT.


On Monday afternoon, we arrived in Amsterdam after a brief flight.  After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we went to visit and hear from a representative at PIC, the Prostitution Information Center.  The center was founded by a former sex worker in 1994 with the goal to provide accurate information about the Red Light District to tourists, student groups, and sex workers themselves.  In conjunction with PROUD, the Dutch Union for Sex Workers, the PIC aims to clear up misconceptions about this profession, giving sex workers a platform to share their own stories and experiences. For instance, the woman who spoke to our group at PIC works for an organization that connects sex workers with psychiatric patients and people with disabilities. Though she still works part-time as a nurse, she finds sex work rewarding and profitable.

Challenging the “victimhood” narrative that is so prevalent in discourse about prostitution, one of the slogans at the PIC is “Don’t Save Us, Save Our Windows.”  Rather than “saving” prostitutes–women who have chosen to enter the profession of their own volition–the Dutch government should be focused on saving their windows–providing sex workers with a safe working environment.


After this lecture, we ate a group dinner before visiting the Red Lights Secrets museum in the heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. It was our first time walking through the area at night, and the streets were packed with tourists. Though I would have assumed that tourism would be good for business, many of our speakers spoke to the contrary. The hordes of tourists populating the Red Light District often have no intention of purchasing sex–rather, they come to stare at the women in the windows much like animals in a zoo. Furthermore, these onlookers might discourage actual customers from completing a transaction. Therefore, the presence of this museum in the area was somewhat problematic, as it continued to attract a tourist crowd.


Though Red Light Secrets museum was a bit sensationalized, it did give us the opportunity to feel what it might be like to stand in the window ourselves.  The front of the museum looked like the front of any other brothel; upon first glance, you wouldn’t be able to tell it was a museum.  Once inside, you could sit or stand in the window, looking down at the masses of tourists.  For just a brief moment, I witnessed the scrutiny, judgement, and stigma of the window.

This experience challenged me to think critically about how I myself was looking at the sex workers in the Red Light District.  Though I certainly didn’t want to ogle, it also felt wrong to walk by the windows and very purposefully avert my eyes, disregarding the humanity of the sex workers standing in the windows.  After my experience at Red Light Secrets, I aimed to acknowledge the sex workers in the windows like I would any other person that I crossed paths with on the streets of the city.



The next morning, we went on a walking tour of the Red Light District led by a former sex worker from the UK named Mark.  He told us about his own experience working in Amsterdam and showed us some of the landmarks in the area.


a statue in the Red Light District, “portraying sex workers as they would like to be seen”

That afternoon, we attended a lecture from a representative of CoMensha, an organization working to combat human trafficking in The Netherlands.  We had heard from several anti-trafficking NGOs during our study tour in Sweden; however, this lecture from CoMensha was slightly different.  Since sex work is legal in Holland, voluntary sex work was not conflated with trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Following this lecture, we had a little free time to explore the city before our next group activity.  During this time, we wandered around the Cheese Museum (so. many. free. samples) and the beautiful Tulip Museum.

Our next scheduled activity was the Anne Frank house. This was a solemn visit, particularly in light of recent events in the United States, and walking through the secret annex was a poignant experience. However, reading Anne’s defiantly optimistic words of wisdom left me feeling hopeful for the future of the world around me.


the Anne Frank house

“All her would-haves are our real possibilities. All her would-haves are our opportunities. And the book’s a flame, a torch, we can light our own candles and take them and illuminate our hearts with the incandescence of her spirit.”

Emma Thompson, 2006


On Wednesday, we took a day trip to The Hague. In the morning, we visited the Humanity House, a museum that aims to give its visitors an immersive and interactive glimpse into the experience of a refugee.  Though the ‘immersive” portion of the museum was definitely a simplified portrayal, I enjoyed the last room in the exhibit where I was able to walk around and watch video clips of refugees sharing their personal stories. The museum did a good job of showing how multifaceted migration can be–each refugee had different reasons to flee their country, different reasons for coming to Holland, and needed different forms of support.


After some free time exploring The Hague and the Mauritshuis Museum, we attended a lecture by Maarten Abelmann, a representative from the Dutch Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings.  He spoke to us about the reality of human trafficking in The Netherlands and how the government is working to combat this crime.


Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer (in the Mauritshuis)

Though the National Rapporteur is responsible for coordinating data collection and reporting on the statistics of human trafficking, our speaker was candid about the difficulty of collecting accurate data about the prevalence of this crime.  His honesty was refreshing–many of the organizations we have spoken to seem to use any numbers and statistics that support their agenda without discussing the data collection process.

Maarten Abelmann also discussed how prostitution in The Netherlands is changing–rather than existing solely in the windows, prostitution is moving online.  He noted that, in one sense, this shift makes it more difficult to identify victims of trafficking.  With online prostitution, the incoming sex workers do not have to undergo an “intake interview” with the landlord or brothel owner to ensure that they are participating of their own free will. However, he also noted that this shift to internet prostitution can be a useful tool for the police, as they can look for signs of trafficking within internet profiles (for instance, if a profile says “available 24/7” or “willing to engage in unprotected sex”).


Thursday morning, my class went to Amsterdam’s city hall to hear a lecture from the Prostitution Policy Unit.  This government group was formed back in 2012 with the goal of creating a safe working environment for sex workers in Amsterdam.  They discussed some of the legislation and policies regarding sex work.  Additionally, we learned about some of the programming to support sex workers such as free STD testing, educational programs for vulnerable minors, language classes, and prostitution exit programs.

Next, we visited P&G 292, the prostitution and health center.  This clinic provides free hepatitis tests, pregnancy tests, and STD tests and treatment.  They can also provide PREP and PEP for a low fee, helping to protect sex workers against HIV.  Furthermore, they have confidential counselors and can help to refer sex workers to other social services.

Our last academic visit of the day gave us a look behind the window–literally.  We were able to step into a brothel and speak with a Romanian woman named Felicia who works there.  She shared her personal story with us, and we had the opportunity to ask any questions we might have about her experience as a sex worker.



On our last full day in Amsterdam, we had the opportunity to hear a perspective that seems to be largely silent in the public debate about prostitution: the voice of the sex buyer.  We spoke with a man from the UK who has been traveling to Amsterdam to buy sex since 2007 and keeps a record of his experiences on a blog.  He discussed the relationships he has established with some of the women in the Red Light District throughout his years of sex tourism and how his experiences with sex workers challenge the “prostitute as victim” narrative. Marcus also spoke to the stigma of purchasing sex–although he was happy to speak (very candidly) to us about the topic–he was careful to maintain his privacy, as he does not want anyone from his home or work to know about his escapades in Amsterdam and London.

Next, we heard from an organization called Not for Sale.  This NGO helps victims of human trafficking to integrate and reenter the work force, offering training programs and employment opportunities in their cafe.

Last, but certainly not least, we went on a canal tour with a company called Lampedusa. This unique company gives tours on the boats used by immigrants and refugees on their journey to Europe, and the tour guides are all people who have immigrated to Holland. We had the opportunity to hear from an Egyptian refugee about his process of seeking asylum in Amsterdam.

Long Story Short

Overall, I had the most amazing week exploring and learning in this city alongside so many of my new friends.  I think what I appreciated most about this experience was the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts from so many people who have experienced the reality of sex work.


with my classmates in Amsterdam

In particular, the first lecture we attended at the Prostitution Information Center has had a strong impact on the way I think about sex work.  During this lecture, we heard from former nurse–now sex worker–who works exclusively with disabled and mentally challenged clients. This woman challenged the traditional, stereotyped representation of a sex worker: her appearance, education level, and age set her aside from the prominent cliché. This visit affirmed the fact that there is no one narrative–every sex worker’s experience in this field is unique and complex.

My experience in Amsterdam has continued to complicate my understanding of sex work and the public policy surrounding this profession.  It’s easy to look at the prostitution debate as two-sided: the “happy hooker” versus the victim, legalization versus criminalization. However, the reality of the issue is much more complex.  Even if sex work is legal, as it is in Amsterdam, how will it be regulated? How can the government ensure the safety of sex workers without infringing on their right to privacy?

Being exposed to so many viewpoints and perspectives has challenged me to think deeply about my preconceptions of sex work.  More than anything, I think that this trip has affirmed that sex work is work. It involves people, just like any others, doing a job in order to pay their bills. Some might enjoy the work, some might not, and sometimes it just depends on the day. The profession is as multifaceted and complex as the people who choose to engage in it.

2 thoughts on “learning about sex work in the Red Light // my week in Amsterdam

  1. Robin Andrews says:

    Great post, Lillie. Your insights are enlightening and I’m impressed with your scholarly and compassionate approach to exploring this controversial study. So proud of you!

    On Mon, Nov 5, 2018 at 4:45 AM Lillie Goes Abroad wrote:

    > Lillie Penley posted: “This past week, I traveled with my core class at > DIS to study in Amsterdam. Notorious for its historic Red Light District, > Amsterdam was an obvious choice for our study tour since my program is > specifically focused on Prostitution and the Sex Trade. Ove” >

    Liked by 1 person

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