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.

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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.

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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.