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Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution: a review

This entry is part 12 of 22 in the series Amsterdam Museums

What I expected on visiting Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution was a presentation that titillates and that presents prostitution as a happy profession with practitioners who choose to become prostitutes.

Note: I’ve updated this post with some comments from a “part time excort whore” who commented on this post on Twitter. See below.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. That means I’ll receive a small commission on anything you buy through clicking the links. This will not affect your price.

The entrance to the Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution in Amsterdam
The entrance to the Red Light Secrets prostitution museum

I expected that because I had read several blog posts by visitors to Amsterdam that made it seem this way. They emphasized the fun of pretending to be a prostitute in a window in the red light district, for example. Very light-hearted, almost mocking posts, written from the point of view of a tourist passing through Amsterdam quickly.

Red Light Secrets’ own website also leans toward the prurient side: emphasizing the audio stories of Olga, “Amsterdam’s most famous lady of the night” and showing visitors laughing and taking selfies.

Visitors to Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution in Amsterdam can sit in the window to get an idea what it's like for the prostitutes in the red light district.
Here you can find out what it feels like to sit in the window like an Amsterdam prostitute.

What I got was far more serious, not particularly titillating, except maybe the room devoted to bondage and sado-masochism. The museum points out clearly a) the dangers prostitutes face daily, including a display listing murdered prostitutes next to a small altar, and b) that many women get into prostitution because they’re forced to do so.

The Red Light District

I should warn you that the museum is smack-dab in the middle of the Red Light District. It’s one of the oldest areas of Amsterdam, lined with beautiful brick rowhouses along picturesque canals. Yet you shouldn’t be surprised as you walk along these pretty streets to see large windows on the ground floor lit with red neon lights, where scantily-clad women sit or stand, waiting for customers. Mostly they look bored.

A row of historic buildings in the red light district in Amsterdam
A row of historic buildings in the red light district, where the Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution is.

Prostitution in the Netherlands

The museum also informs visitors of the facts: numbers of prostitutes—to the extent they can be counted—and it details what the actual rules are of legal prostitution. (Yes, legal prostitution is subject to very specific rules: working conditions, pay, health checks, rental charges for their windows, taxation, client behavior.)

Mostly the museum conveyed to me a feeling of sadness. The goal seems to be that visitors gain some respect for women in prostitution, and it succeeds to some extent, but I mostly felt sorry for these prostitutes, both the legal and illegal, for having to do this for a living. The designers of the museum don’t seem to be asking for pity, however; they emphasize respect.

The museum claimed that 70% of prostitutes are in committed relationships or married. Could that really be so?


You might also like these reviews of other Amsterdam museums:


Effective presentation

In any case, the museum is a remarkably well-presented, well-lighted, mix of exhibits and videos. Two small rooms, for example, are set up as prostitutes’ rooms in De Wallen, the red light district of Amsterdam, might look: one basic, one more upscale. The touchingly ordinary objects in these rooms—stuffed animals, for example—accentuate the humanity of the people involved in this seamy profession.

a reconstruction of a prostitute's room in the red light district in Amsterdam, which she rents out from the building owner
a reconstruction of a prostitute’s room, which she rents out from the building owner

One display is simply a collection of objects that clients have left behind, which must be embarrassing, especially when one of the objects is an ID card that is perfectly readable!

One room was particularly effective in creating empathy with the prostitutes. Visitors sit on high stools, like prostitutes often do in red light district windows, and watch screens the size of windows on the wall. The screens show the scene outside as a prostitute sees it: creepy men ogling them, leering. Some stop and make lewd gestures, then wander away again. Some point and laugh. Disapproving women shake their heads, walking by quickly, tsk-ing. It’s a powerful experience for visitors to the museum.

One of the screens that recreate the street as seen by a prostitute in a window, at the Red Light Secrets prostitution museum
One of the screens that recreate the street as seen by a prostitute in a window

The 10 Commandments of Prostitution

Visitors to Red Light Secrets are told the 10 commandments of prostitution: a list spelling out how prostitutes should be treated.

  1. Do not take photographs or film.
  2. Do not tap or spit on the window.
  3. Be respectful toward the ladies.
  4. Do not peek through cracks in the curtains.
  5. Do not stand in front of the doors or windows.
  6. When visiting, pay in advance and discuss beforehand what is and is not permitted.
  7. No unprotected sex.
  8. Be hygienic (clean and well-groomed, not intoxicated).
  9. When force or coercion is suspected, call the police on 0900 8844.
  10. Aggression will not be tolerated, also not on the street.

It’s easy to suppose that all of these things happen; otherwise, a 10 commandments of prostitution wouldn’t be necessary.

One room is set up as a small theater, showing an excellent ad about human trafficking for prostitution:

Not surprisingly, no one knows exactly how many illegal prostitutes work here in the Netherlands. Lots of safeguards are in place for those working legally, such as the right to turn down a client, to an agreed wage, to set their own working hours, to see an accounting of how much their employer withholds for taxes, etc. Illegals don’t get any of these rights. Red Light Secrets does a good job of presenting both worlds.

This is an excellent museum, which I would certainly recommend. It presents a measured, intelligent, pragmatic view of an institution that is usually looked at with derision and disapproval. It allows visitors a more nuanced understanding than the popular image of Amsterdam would normally allow.


Update: December 2, 2018

I had an interesting exchange with a woman I “met” on Twitter, @KanStaandPijpen, who describes herself as “Part time escort whore, full time human. trying to cut through the bullshit believed about sex work. Tool of choice: Snark. NOT here to get you off.” This is how she responded to this article about Red Light Secrets:

“We in the business think it’s just another way to exploit us by presenting us as passive objects of sadness. Just like every other thing about us without us.” 

and

“I visited once. I thought it was a shabby attempt to conjure the air of delapidation some brothels try to give off. Information on offer is not that accurate, the emphasis is on making us look like fallen women, and our clients as if they take advantage of us.”

When I responded with “From my outsider’s point of view, it seemed respectful of the women and scornful of the customers,” she added:

“Pity isn’t respect. Painting us as people fallen on hard times isn’t respect. The fact that it is our choice to do this work is de-emphasized to the point of denial. That bothers me, and I’m not alone in that. And our clients don’t deserve scorn.” 

She also sent me a link to an article (in Dutch), on a website called De ervaringen van een prostituee (The experiences of a prostitute). Scroll down to read her reaction to the museum. The writer also doesn’t think the museum is very accurate, making it all seem grubbier than it actually is. She’s particularly scornful of the museum’s criticism of the clients. She writes that the museum doesn’t show visitors the groups of tourists, especially the English, who take photos and yell, or the people who walk by with condemning looks. In general, she disagrees with the assumption that most of the “girls” are victims in one way or another.


Note: I paid full price and the museum personnel were not even aware of my intention to blog about it.

Have you visited this museum or walked through the red light district in Amsterdam? It’s a common stop on Amsterdam itineraries. What are your feelings about it?

If you want to buy tickets in advance, you can do so by clicking here.  They cost €10 or about $11.

Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution: Oudezijds Achterburgwal 60, about a 10-minute walk from Amsterdam Central Station. The nearest metro station is Nieuwmarkt (metro numbers 51, 53 or 54), from which you would walk about 5 minutes. Opening hours: 10:00-24:00 daily.

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26 Comments

  • Billie Frank

    November 9, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    I knew when I saw the header that this would be in Amsterdam. Very interesting post- the Museum of Prostitution isn’t something I would have thought of going to- but you make it sound very interesting.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 10, 2015 at 2:30 pm

      Definitely worth visiting! And of course it’s in Amsterdam! Though there’s also a red light district in any city in the Netherlands of any size, including my home, Groningen.

      Reply
  • Donna Janke

    November 9, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Interesting museum. I’m not sure I would have gone inside based on the title alone, but it sounds as if this museum really makes you think. Does it attract a lot of visitors? I’ve walked through Amsterdam’s Red Light District and found it rather sad. I don’t remember seeing this museum.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 10, 2015 at 2:31 pm

      I don’t know their visitor numbers, but I suspect that it does attract quite a few visitors. Lots of people include the red light district in their sightseeing in Amsterdam.

      Reply
  • Carol Colborn

    November 10, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    This is one Museum I would not have singled out to visit. I have seen the Red LIghts District from a canal boat; I didn’t even dare walk the streets. But your post enlightened me about this no-no subject. Thanks for being brave to visit the Museum and for writing about it so well that the Museum’s goal is achieved.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 10, 2015 at 2:35 pm

      It’s not at all dangerous to walk around there, at least if it’s not really late at night, since by then there are a lot of drunk people wandering around. Besides the red-lit windows, it’s just a regular neighborhood with lots of pretty, old buildings.

      Reply
  • Anita

    November 10, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    Prostitution is not a frivolous subject, so I’m glad to see it get serious treatment–by the museum itself, and by you! I’m always on the lookout for specialty museums, and this is one that would surely provide plenty of food for thought.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 11, 2015 at 6:47 am

      I like small specialized museums best, mostly because my attention span isn’t long enough for a big one! But the quality varies a lot. This is one of the better ones; it covers a difficult, misunderstood topic intelligently.

      Reply
  • Paula McInerney

    November 10, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    Yes, it is an interesting museum, and prostitution is one of those Catch 22 situations. I knew of the rules or commandments, though there were so many people who didn’t and you could see the working people, and the horrible pimps getting very agitated.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 11, 2015 at 6:52 am

      Yes, apparently the prostitutes and shop owners complain about the big, loud, drunken groups that come in and behave rudely but don’t spend any money. Often they’re British stag parties, I’ve heard.

      Reply
  • The GypsyNesters

    November 11, 2015 at 1:48 am

    We didn’t visit the museum while in Amsterdam, but appreciate the way the subject is presented. Prostitution is going to happen whether it is legal or not, so it seems to me that it is better to try to keep some control and guidelines over it by making it legal.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 11, 2015 at 6:55 am

      Yes, I like Holland’s pragmatic approach. It’s more sensible and realistic than banning it. I just wish they could do more about illegal prostitution to shift them to legal status so they’d have more protection.

      Reply
  • Jackie Smith

    November 11, 2015 at 6:05 am

    In light of the subject of this post I found your use of the word, titillates, to be most clever – whether intended or not! Great post and most enlightening about this somewhat mysterious, but popular feature of Amsterdam.

    Reply
  • Kristin Henning

    November 12, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    I wonder how long this museum has been open? The idea of the window outward, from the prostitutes’ point of view, is intriguing. The use of the word prostitute is powerful, too, both in the name of the museum and in your post. It forces the issue, which is, ultimately, the point.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 12, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      Yes, I think that’s the point: to think of them as human beings, not as stereotypes or caricatures. To put us in their place so we develop some level of empathy and respect.

      Reply
  • Shobha

    November 13, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    I went through the red light when I visited Amsterdam years ago (pre-kids). I too was struck by the boredom of the women in the windows, showcased like goods on sale. How can any man find that attractive? clearly I don’t get it. The museum sounds fascinating. Not sure I would want to pose in front of a red window for photos – somewhat Disney-fying an experience that is a not very nice reality for other women. The video though showing the looks the women see from their point of view sounds fascinating though.

    Reply
  • Mark van der Beer

    November 17, 2015 at 1:35 am

    A decent post about what the museum presents, and how it present prostitution. But of course the real question is if the museum got it right? After all, just because someone claims something, doesn’t automatically make it true. Especially concerning the video they were playing of the girls dancing in the video, and the whole trafficking story.

    Now, let me make clear that I’m not at all denying trafficking happens, even in the Red Light District. But a video that claims ‘thousands’ of women end up ‘here’, while there aren’t even 400 windows in all of Amsterdam, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that those claims are simply false.

    Therefore I’d like to point towards the blog of one of the many Eastern European women who works in the Red Light District (most women are from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary). In this article a real current working prostitute describes herself how she experience this museum, and how much she recognizes in this museum about her own job.
    You can read the article here: http://behindtheredlightdistrict.blogspot.nl/2014/05/so-you-think-they-will-dance.html

    Kuddos for the rest of the article

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 17, 2015 at 6:30 am

      Thank you for posting that link! I didn’t actually read “here” in the video as meaning the windows of the red light district in Amsterdam. I read it as here in western Europe. And I don’t know whether the video is exaggerating the numbers or not, but it seems to me that the women in the legal world wouldn’t have any contact with the illegal world. I certainly agree with her that legal prostitution works better than forcing it underground..

      Reply

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