Contained Pleasure: Power Relations in the Red Light District

Amsterdam’s De Wallen red light district is iconic; it attracts vast numbers of tourists annually, many simply wanting to experience its immoral landscape (Symanski, 1981) from afar, whilst others wish to indulge actively with the services on offer. This space of commoditised sex and eroticism is made visible not only through the prostitutes in the windows, but also through the presence of sex theatres, fetish shows, pornography vendors, and lingerie/sex shops, contributing to an image that a ‘modern open-air shopping mall… designed to be a tourists Mecca’ (Wonders & Michalowski, 2001, p553). But what if it is more than this? One could consider it as a site that has brought sex work to the foreground by integrating it into ‘everyday’ society, helping it emerge as a viable profession from behind close doors and into the public eye, and in by doing so diluting the stigma attached to it.

This analysis will be based on fieldwork undertaken in De Wallen, drawing from first hand conversations with sex workers from the Prostitution Information Centre (PIC), and from my own reflections as I adopt a role as a flâneur in the tradition of Walter Benjamin (1999). I will also draw upon the extensive literature that exists in order to contextualise my own observations. De Wallen is a set-apart space in terms of symbolic and day-to-day use, and the intention is to frame this from critical positions that both valorise and problematize the space. At heart, it is a space of contestation, as one tries to rationalise both attraction and repulsion, ideas of domination and victimisation; the role the state plays; and how to adopt an open minded approach that resists an over moralising that might patronise the workers and their understanding of identity empowerment, but that acknowledges exploitation and objectification.


Who ‘Gazes’ Who?

There is no doubt that the De Wallen can be framed as a site of the spectacular, the adult ‘theme park’ .The setting is intentionally theatrical to attract the gaze: lavish lighting, an extensive menu of sexual images, an excessive overload that is an invitation to gorge on a permanently switched-on insatiable sexuality, but that is also oddly conservative in that it is a mainly heterosexual space, oriented towards traditional male/female relations. One informant revealed that there was only one registered male prostitute in the red light district. This plays to the prime target consumers of the space in terms of economic transactions: single and groups of males that are entering a play zone, where ridicule and group ‘banter’ might come to the fore in a way that would not be part of the day-to-day, comparable to football culture when fans may be inclined to act out the unactable and forbidden. Entering a liminal zone permissions behaviour that might only exist in that space, that you are unseen, and that visitors collude in that respect. This plays to the attraction/repulsion phenomenon that is a common affect within red light ‘tourist’ districts. Female visitors participation may be more complicated. Chapuis’ (2017) reflections as an ethnographer supports this, as she describes her marginalisation, as being a paying client depended on being part of a male/female-client/female-worker transaction, which emphasises a heterosexual fantasy imaginary. This is at the behest of the workers, so they control the moral gaze that privileges a heterosexual normative, endorsing conventional relations that align with male/female binaries that embed in societal practices relating to ‘family’ in the traditional sense.


The windows spaces of display provide an extreme example of ‘invited voyeurism’ (Aalbers, 2005, p54), which invites a critique of prostitution that ‘emphasize[s] the subject/object relationship between men and women’ (Tani, 2002, p349), implying that women are passive victims in a heterosexual relationship. However, as Aalbers points out, this does not capture the complex nuances of ‘gaze’ in this space. Certainly, the women are gazed upon, but they gaze back. Their role is certain: they ‘hunt’ men; they can reject men; they intentionally foster eye-to-eye contact; and will reduce their prices if they attracted to a client (Aalbers). Both Chapuis and Aalbers refer to a completely different body language on behalf of clients, who avoid the gaze, walking swiftly. As a male visitor, walking with mostly female companions, I avoided the gaze, whilst they could look with a freedom that escaped me, as they were not a target, and not ‘hunted’. Whether my disengagement was a strategy to distance myself from other male groups, or to avoid judgement from my peers is something to reflect upon. In my role as flâneur, I felt I practiced a Foucauldian self-regulation.

Empowered Victims?

Public opinion tends to views sex workers as either victims of abuse and trafficking or as empowered people, who have reclaimed their sexuality. However these two stances are associated with individuals’ morals, and are rather one-dimensional, and fail to fully illustrate the complex and unique circumstances that shape someone into becoming a sex worker. Weitzer (2010) shares this view; ‘ While exploitation and empowerment are certainly present… there is sufficient variation across time, place, and sector to demonstrate that sex work cannot be reduced to one or the other’ (p6). Weitzer goes on to suggest an appropriate perspective that he terms the ‘polymorphous paradigm’, this is a view that is ‘sensitive to complexities’ recognizing that ‘Victimization, exploitation, choice, job satisfaction, self-esteem, and other dimensions should be treated as variables (not constants)’ (p6). Our guide at the PIC pointed out that the public have a desire to portray the workers as victims as it makes it easier for people to grasp why someone would work in the profession. This might be because, on the whole, Europe is a patriarchal society; its much more fitting to the status quo if a women is submissive and exploited, rather than being empowered and feeling ‘a sense of satisfaction at the power they… [feel] they… [have] over men’ (Deshotels & Forsyth, 2006, p231-232).


Brunt’s analysis of the hunter/gatherer role reversal when considered within the frame of sex work indicates empowerment; ’the hunter positions [herself] strategically in the scope of the prey, in order to enable nonverbal communication in the form of body language’ (1996, p66). Whilst this might play to the stereotypical notion of the predator as a manifestation of the dangerous ‘other’, there are other stances, some more nuanced than others: the worker has economical control of transactions; clients may want to ’abandon their powerful role in daily life to subordinate themselves’ (Aalbers, p59); that prostitutes ‘resist the voyeuristic gaze through performances that undermine any scripting of heterosexuality around notions of masculine power’ (Hubbard 2000, p205) and the ‘sexual enjoyment thesis’, (Savitz & Rosen 1988 p207), whereby workers claim to ‘greatly enjoy sex’ (p207). Whilst the intention is not to diminish the problems of sex workers caught up in an illegal world of human trafficking and exploitation, De Wallen, as a legal site, can be understood as a place where workers can be at ease, with a known place of work where familiarity creates a sense of safety and routine. Workers are empowered, whilst clients might feel vulnerable, anxious and ashamed. This is summed up by one man’s comment ‘I’ve never felt so objectified in my life. I felt like a piece of meat walking through there’ (Wonders and Michalkowski, 2001, p553).


The State Sanctioned Body: Freedom or Control?

Since prostitution was legalised in Amsterdam in 2000, transactional sex has lost much of its moral sting, and contributes to De Wallen’s image as a tourist destination and a place of culture. In this respect, it seems relevant to reflect upon sex work within this set-apart space through the conflicting lenses of welfare and neoliberalism, and how this impacts upon understandings of state in the modern era. The idea of ‘state’ plays out at a local level in De Wallen. It is a demarked adult territory with a specific culture, which might be at odds with concepts of globalisation, deterritorialisation and free trade that mark neoliberalism and modernity. State authority has decriminalised prostitution, a strategy that protects sex worker from violence and exploitation (Hubbard et al, 2008). However, it also ensures that the state is protected from the threat of illegal immigrant sex workers by ensuring that prostitutes are registered taxpayers contributing to the economy. Protection is removed from those who cannot afford registration, forcing them to the margins where they are again vulnerable to violence and exploitation. By leaving the state sanctioned and controlled place of normalised sex work, prostitutes are again victimised and vulnerable. ‘State’ also maintains control of the body, by encouraging health checks in the name of welfare: ‘disease prevention occurs within a framework of governance which, following Foucault, exerts subtle degrees of moral control over individuals’ (Howson, 2013, p159). Informants at the PIC spoke positively about unionisation having a collective, normalising affect on sex work, therefore becoming a career option of choice. However, the notion of the body as an enterprise in neoliberal terms diminishes the collective voice, encouraging a free-trade mentality that fosters competition and the culture of self, at odds, perhaps with the group action that created change. The role of state in De Wallen is conflicting. On the one hand it fosters the notion of enterprise excess in terms of all the possible sex trades permeations, and yet is highly controlled, so body and identity are sanctioned by the state, in terms of health and heterosexual norms, as discussed above. Both freedom and regulation are exercised simultaneously.

P.I.C .jpg

Despite its seeming excesses, De Wallen is a site of control and contestation. It fosters a public image ensuring that morality is symbolically contained within acceptable boundaries. No doubt there is a darker, inner space, where unacceptable practices and taboos are enacted, but, as a liminal space that must adopt an outward facing position to ensure an audience, the affect is one of carnival/theatre, where the visitor can suspended belief, for a time.

De Wallen 2 .jpg

Works Cited

Aalbers, M. (2005). Big sister is watching you! Gender interaction and the unwritten rules of the Amsterdam red‐light district. Journal of Sex Research, 42(1), pp.54-62.

Benjamin, W., Eiland, H. and McLaughlin, K. (1999). The arcades project. 1st ed. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.

Brunt, L. (1996). Stad [City]. 1st ed. Meppel: Boom.

Chapuis, A. (2017). Touring the immoral. Affective geographies of visitors to the Amsterdam Red-Light district. Urban Studies, 54(3), pp.616-632.

Deshotels, T. and Forsyth, C. (2006). Strategic Flirting and the Emotional Tab of Exotic Dancing. Deviant Behaviour, 27(2), pp.223-241.

Howson, A. (2013). The Body in Society. 1st ed. Oxford: Wiley.

Hubbard, P. (2000). Desire/disgust: mapping the moral contours of heterosexuality. Progress in Human Geography, 24(2), pp.191-217.

Hubbard, P., Matthews, R. and Scoular, J. (2008). Regulating sex work in the EU: prostitute women and the new spaces of exclusion. Gender, Place & Culture, 15(2), pp.137-152.

Savitz, L. and Rosen, L. (1988). The sexuality of prostitutes: Sexual enjoyment reported by “streetwalkers”. Journal of Sex Research, 24(1), pp.200-208.

Symanski, R. (1981). The Immoral Landscape: Female Prostitution In Western Societies. 1st ed. Toronto: Butterworths.

Tani, S. (2002). Whose Place is This Space? Life in the Street Prostitution Area of Helsinki, Finland. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26(2), pp.343-359.

Weitzer, R. (2010). Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography And The Sex Industry. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.



Comparing cities: Space and Division in Belfast and India

Urban environments can provide unique insights into how identity issues impact upon on spatial organisation of cities, and how lived, embodied experiences shape spatial territories in a literal and symbolic fashion. In this enquiry, conflict and contestation are the themes under consideration. The main focus is based on fieldwork undertaken in Belfast, but with references to urban unrest in Hyderabad and Mumbai.

The conflict in Belfast has ostensibly been fought under the guise of religion and beliefs but perhaps this ‘tug-of-war’ between the Catholic and Protestant community has been less a battle of opposing cosmologies but is actually associated with issues of nationality and identity. As Boal (2002) suggests ‘the religious labels really signify [a] more broadly ramifying ethnic difference’ (p688). Ethnicity appears to be a much more significant issue among the labouring class, as ‘the intense ethnonational… [divide] is predominantly a working class phenomenon’ (p693). This suggests that once you have economic capital, you are removed from the space of contestation. Appadurai (2000) highlight this when he notes that in Bombay ‘what [really] counted was the colour of money’ rather than ethnic origin. Nonetheless when a working class individual enters the urban world ‘ethnicity’ becomes significant, as they cannot simply ‘purchase’ their space; they need to, as a group, claim their stake in the land. It is ‘where’ you come from and ‘who’ you relate too that becomes your most germane feature as ‘people… [categorise] each other according to their place of origin’ (Erkisen 2015, p310). The issue of ‘origin’ in Belfast was made clear to us when our Black Taxi Tour guide revealed the system the working class populous had come up with ‘to identify their enemies’. They would ask a sequence of questions – ‘What’s your name?’ ‘What school did you go to?’ ‘Where do you live?’ This would give them enough information to identify whether the person was a Catholic or Protestant. The information indicates their origins in a number of ways; certain names are associated with each community, the majority of the schools in Belfast are tied to a certain ethos, and there are a number of segregated communities in Belfast, which ‘belong’ to each religion.

Social exclusion is caused by the Peace Walls as physical interventions that cut through the working class neighbourhoods. Our guide informed us that the walls were ‘put up with the will of the people to keep people out’. This, partnered with the longevity of the walls (present in cityscape for 45+ years) shows that a lack of desire to intermingle has been continuous. Livingstone et al substantiate this when reporting that churchgoers would be ‘more willing to accept ‘inter-racial’ marriage than Protestant/Catholic marriage’ (1998, p152). The focal point here is ‘accept’, as this implies that either marriage situation would be an issue that they would have to come to terms with; indicating that social isolation/exclusion of the communities and the distance of ethos, is the consensus gentium. The walls can provide such spatial separation as they divide up the city, and provide ‘protection but at the same time isolation’ (Marcuse, 1994, p43) as they keep out the presence of the ‘other’. This desire may be due to the illusion of the ‘universal tendency of being more comfortable with one’s own, especially in times of political tension (Livingstone et al, 1998, p155). The notion of being with one’s own takes on a more complex form of identity in Sen’s analysis of violence in the streets of Hyderabad in relation to the child militias who policed Muslim space. Their loyalty was directed towards their own demographic group, so violence was intergenerational. They would punish family members who violated imposed codes of practice, as well as tradesmen and other adults. They deliberately disassociated themselves from Muslim religious leaders who wished to valorise their activities, calling themselves soldiers rather than jihadis. This form of group identity is counter to the idea of family being a construct of safety, so home as a spatial site is one of conflict.


Although isolation is present it is untrue to say that it is the only way in which Belfast functions, as it ‘is not divided into two almost hermetically sealed segments’ (Boal, 2002, p693). Indeed, as political tensions have decreased, there has been an increase in the number of mixed communities – albeit mainly middle and upper class neighbourhoods. This goes to support the earlier point that money is the highest shareholder when it comes to claiming and inhabiting space. The notion of mixed communities in relation to affluence finds a different expression in Mumbai. Appadurai points out that many workers undergo ‘complex transformations in transit’ as they move from ‘oppressed dwellers in shantytowns…into well dressed clerks, nurses…[and] bank tellers’ (p636). This sense of a double identity also plays out in another respect. Whilst there are acute differentiations in terms of economic empowerment between classes in Mumbai, they often share the same space. The poor live in the doorways, stairwells and pavements of the affluent. This is a compression of space, so that spatial boundary is literally determined by body. As Appadurai stresses, people are literally stepped over, positing the thought that these individuals are symbolically unseen. Despite proximity, the illusion is one of continuing separateness. Importantly as Shirlow points out, in relation to Belfast, ‘mixing is not the same as integration… residents still perform their social life among largely sectarian lines’ (2006, p102) This leads one to question, why, if there is not a conflict among the middle and upper classes, there is one between the lower classes, and why this mentality prevails. Perhaps this can be explained by the decline of violence in the 1970s due to the increase of voters supporting Sinn Féin resulting in the British state attempting to build relations with the Catholic middle class ‘whose loyalty they sought through an injection of public funds’ (Shirlow, p100). The growing political process of legitimate legislative inclusion in the British societal structure meant that the Catholic middle classes no longer had to ‘fight’ as they had found a way to engage with decision-making, allowing their voice to be heard.

The divide between the working classes in Belfast, particularly in communities in contiguous space results in an ‘us and them’ mentality forming, leading to both groups constructing ways to differentiate from one and other, to strengthen their cultural apartness symbolically (Graham, 1998). This can be seen in the ways they decorate their neighbourhoods, to present physically who this space belongs to. Although they both use similar techniques to do this, there is still a strong contrast in the symbolic imagery. Both communities paint memorials on the side of homes and walls, but they are associated with specific individuals and have a semblance of propaganda – Catholics paint IRA/Sién Fenn ‘heroes’, whilst Protestants paint images of military officers and Ulster unionists. The Memorials have a potent physical presence, creating a vehement ‘form of territorial marking and an illustration of territorialised power (Shirlow, 2006, p103).

An alternative way for these communities to decorate their neighbourhoods, to display their ‘nationhood’ is through the process of flag flying; Protestants will hang the Union Jack, whilst Catholics the ‘Irish Tricolour’.

Flags are significant symbols as they delineate the ethos of a nation evoking passion in the people. Sen indicates to their emotive effects in her 2012 study of Hyderabad; riots broke out due to a ‘dispute over the placing of religious flags in public places’ (p72) – the riots happen as once the flag is placed in a space it is seen as belonging to the symbolised group. In some sense flags conjure up imagines of colonialism, with empire claiming their territory – it would not be too farfetched too say this is what is taking place in Belfast. These spaces have been ‘claimed’, and strengthen the larger communities.

Flags Cartoon .pngOnce a space has been ‘claimed’, it becomes a sort of ‘no-go zone’ for an opposing community member. Our guide alluded to this feeling of restriction by saying ‘if you’re a Catholic you don’t go to Shankill Road, and the same goes for a Protestant in Falls Road’. The indication here is that something bad will happen if you ‘trespass’. He went on to describe Belfast as a ‘chessboard, with black and white zones for the Protestants and Catholics’. This is an interesting metaphor as the pieces in chess can only move in certain ways the rules allow; this is also the case for the residents of Belfast as unofficial laws limit their navigation of the city.

It is understandable that Belfast has a desire to rebrand its image – to escape its legacy of violence, and in turn attract foreign and national investment. However as a city, they need to be cautious of rebranding and associated globalisation of the city as it creates ‘new social divisions’ (Shirlow, 2006, p100). This is due to a feeling that it predominantly benefitting the already wealthy, whilst the poor get forced out, not only of residential zones, but also from leisure/entertainment spaces: ‘the city’s new hotels… employ security guards to keep the locals out’ and ‘apartments… sit boldly overlooking the riverfront… beyond the means of the many citizens’ (Shirlow, p99). This feeling of a city developing ‘without’ its residents is illustrated in Sen’s (2012) ethnography of Hyderabad, where a boy from the slums states ‘the city has run ahead, we are left behind, the same riots, the same poverty’ (p72). This abandonment of the poor might in turn lead to new conflicts over space – one that is not fought between ethnicity or religion, but one that is fought between social classes.


Although Belfast and the Indian cities are worlds apart, there are common underlying themes of violence that play out in unique ways within each cityscape as people attempt to claim dominance of space: ‘space matters because it mediates the experience of people in places… it shapes the structure of opportunity set available to them’ (Heikkla, 2001, p266).




Works Cited

Appadurai, A. (2000). Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai. Public Culture, 12(3), pp.627-651.

Boal, F. (2002). Belfast: walls within. Political Geography, 21(5), pp.687-694.

Eriksen, T. (2015). Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 1st ed. London: Pluto, p.310.

Graham, B. (1998). Contested images of place among Protestants in Northern Ireland. Political Geography, 17(2), pp.129-144.

Heikkila, E. (2001). Identity and Inequality: Race and Space in Planning. Planning Theory & Practice, 2(3), pp.261-275.

Livingstone, D., Keane, M. and Boal, F. (1998). Space for religion: a Belfast case study. Political Geography, 17(2), pp.145-170.

Marcuse, P. (1994). Walls as Metaphor and Reality. In: S. Dunn, ed., Managing Divided Cities, 1st ed. Keele: Ryburn Press, pp.41-52.

Sen, A. (2012). ‘Exist, endure, erase the city’ (Sheher mein jiye, is ko sahe, ya ise mitaye?): Child vigilantes and micro-cultures of urban violence in a riot-affected Hyderabad slum. Ethnography, 13(1), pp.71-86.

Shirlow, P. (2006). Belfast: The ‘post-conflict’ city. Space and Polity, 10(2), pp.99-107.