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Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution: a review

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 remarks from a “part time excort whore” who commented on it 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 is down a few stairs from street level in an ordinary Amsterdam building.
The entrance to the Red Light Secrets prostitution museum in Amsterdam

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.

Two high chairs, like barstools with backs, stand in front of two very tall windows that look out on the street.
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 against their will.

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 it shouldn’t surprise you 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 typical Amsterdam canal houses along a canal: each has a different shaped gable, but all are red brick with big windows. Many bikes are parked along the canal edge and a few pedestrians walk along the street.
A row of historic buildings in Amsterdam’s 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?

Effective presentation

In any case, the museum is a remarkably well-presented, well-lit, mix of exhibits and videos. Two small rooms, for example, are representations of how 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.

The room has a single be on the right, built in with tiles on the side. A mirror above the bed on the wall. The pinkish tiles continue on the wall and around the corner, where there is a sink and a low cupboard. The sink has all sort of items on it and on the small shelf above it: soap and wipes and such. Bottles of lotion and sprays cover the little cupboard. A small stuffed animal and two pillows lie on the bed. A paper towel dispenser is mounted on the wall.
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 is 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.

The two windows have red lights along their sides and heavy dark red curtains. They open on what looks like an alley and a man - grey hair, leering grin - stands looking in with his hands in his pockets.
a screen that recreate the street as seen by a prostitute in a window

The 10 Commandments of Prostitution

Visitors to Red Light Secrets learn the 10 commandments of prostitution: a list spelling out the rules of how to treat prostitutes:

  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.

If you’re planning to take a canal cruise as well as visit this museum, this combination ticket covers both.

One room is 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.

The small altar is simple wood, with 16 small pictures of women on it and a sign in the middle that says "In memory" and explains the purpose of the memorial. A candle burns in the center in front of it and a bunch of flowers stand in a vase to the right.
A small altar in the museum to prostitutes who were killed.

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.” Here is her response 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.” 

And another point of view…

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.  

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 the walk is about 5 minutes. Opening Sunday-Thursday 11:00-18:00 and Friday-Saturday 11:00-22:30. Admission: 12.50/$15.

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Text: Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution, Amsterdam (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). The picture is of a row of houses in the red light district.

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Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more...

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I love your blog posts because you really tell it like it is. After reading this I feel as though I have a clear idea of what to expect at the Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution. It seems like a tough way to make a living even with all the safeguards. The tips are definitely handy.

I’m so glad the museum presented prostitution in this way. So often people make a joke of it, not stopping to think what life must really be like for the people concerned.

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.

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.

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.

Oh, I did not know there were 10 commandments in the Red Light District. Interesting!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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