Why do sex workers use red lights? This is done for a number of reasons: the red light makes skin look more smooth, making them look more attractive. In the past, red light was used to obscure marks of sexually transmitted diseases.
Why do some windows have purple lights instead of red? A purple light indicates that the sex worker is a transgender.”
Posters on the walls of Amsterdam’s Museum of Prostitution are replete with such information and trivia on the history of prostitution around the world and how the trade is handled in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legalised. The small museum, bang in the middle of De Wallen, considered the largest and oldest red-light district in the world, is aptly called “Red Light Secrets” — a stark reminder that this symbol of hedonism hides many a dark secret.
It was in 1811 that the ban on prostitution was lifted in the country and regulations were brought in. Now, there are regular compulsory health checks for the sex workers operating in the area, and they also need a permit to operate there, called the red card.
The De Wallen neighbourhood is a criss-cross of alleys, comprising about 300 one-room cabins, which are rented by sex workers, who offer their services from behind a window or glass door, illuminated by red lights. Window prostitution is a big tourist draw for Amsterdam. The area also has a number of shops, theatres, peep shows and coffee shops.
But behind all this glitz and glamour lies the sad reality that despite such regulations in the country, forced prostitution could not be ruled out. As another poster on the wall announces: “Although the police carry out daily inspections, this remains a complicated question.”
As one walks into the museum, a room replicates what a typical cabin of a sex worker, there looks like — with her clothes, a small bed and some disposable bedsheets. The house that has been converted into this museum belonged to a sex worker who died mysteriously a few years ago. Another room pays tribute to her — with her pictures, handwritten notes and sundry belongings. There are also audio recordings by some practising sex workers, narrating their many experiences. To add a twist to the experience, a room filled with red light allows visitors to stand on the other side of a glass window, looking out at De Wallen and the tourists that swarm the street each evening.
The last room has a big board explaining the aim behind the tour. “We hope you will be able to see prostitutes in a different light. After all, they are human beings, doing a hard job, often under difficult circumstances,” it says.
The museum was created less than a decade ago with a view to quell negative publicity about Amsterdam being a den of hedonism and debauchery. The idea was to give tourists some behind-the-scenes information and also generate money to help the sex workers through ticket sales. For a place that has at least 3,000 women standing across glass windows each evening accosting visitors, this unique initiative educates the wanderers about the world’s oldest profession in a light-hearted way.