February 18, 2006

Red light district “open day” draws curious Dutch

By Alexandra Hudson

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Amsterdam's famed red light district
held its first ever "open day" on Saturday as its peep-shows
and brothels gave crowds of wide-eyed visitors free entry to
help shed the area's increasingly negative reputation.

Armed with a list of 25 establishments opening their doors
and flinging back their red curtains, hundreds of tourists and
locals seized the opportunity to see a prostitute's bedroom,
watch a brief live peep-show or chat to a lap dancer.

Harrowing reports of forced prostitution and human
trafficking have caused a public outcry in recent months and
even prompted calls from councillors for the 800-year-old red
light district to be shut down, to the fury of many sex

Stories of petty crime and gang violence also dominate.

"The open day is partly to promote the red light district
but also to help change the image of the area because we think
it is too negative," said organizer Mariska Majoor, a former
prostitute who now runs an information center on the district.

"There are not just problems here," she added.

Prostitution has been fully legal in the Netherlands since
2000, and sex workers are self-employed and subject to tax.

However one rights group estimates that around 3,500 women
are trafficked to the Netherlands each year from eastern Europe
and Asia to work in secret brothels or illegal escort agencies,
where they are often held captive and abused.

Tourist authorities admit the district -- a clutch of
narrow alleys and canals lined with sex shops, brothels and
neon signs -- is as big an attraction as Amsterdam's museums
and coffee shops, where marijuana is freely smoked and sold.

Every night visitors throng the streets, agog at the
scantily clad women sitting behind huge red-lit windows, but
only a fraction venture inside.


"This is a very good idea," said 28-year-old Dutchman
Maarten Ritsema, grinning after experiencing his first ever
lap-dance at the Bar La Vie en Proost.

"I've never been inside anywhere like this before ... it's
pretty casual, not as tense or hostile as I imagined," he said.

Many of the area's sex workers also took the chance to
explain more about their work and dispel myths.

Candy, a 39-year-old dancer from France, sat in her usual
position behind the counter of the Banana Bar, joking with
visitors and posing for photographs.

"People out today see it's fun, that this is

There may have been less flesh on display than usual for
the non-paying public, but visitors, mostly drawn by curiosity,
didn't seem to mind.

"It was still sexy and you can use your imagination," said
31-year-old Rob Jansen, on leaving the Casa Rosso theater,
where the strippers left their clothes while performing.

Amsterdam resident Ina van Leyan, 49, said she hoped the
area would never be closed down: "It belongs to Amsterdam. Its
for the tourists, it's for the men without wives, it's a key
part of the city."