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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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’ room 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.
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.
Visitors to Red Light Secrets are told the 10 commandments of prostitution: a list spelling out how prostitutes should be treated.
- Do not take photographs or film.
- Do not tap or spit on the window.
- Be respectful toward the ladies.
- Do not peek through cracks in the curtains.
- Do not stand in front of the doors or windows.
- When visiting, pay in advance and discuss beforehand what is and is not permitted.
- No unprotected sex.
- Be hygienic (clean and well-groomed, not intoxicated).
- When force or coercion is suspected, call the police on 0900 8844.
- 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.
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?
This is one of my on-going series on small museums in Amsterdam. Here’s the whole list:
- Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder
- Het Grachtenhuis (canal house museum)
- Museum van Loon
- Rembrandt’s House
- The Handbag Museum
- The Brilmuseum (spectacles)
- Huis Marseille Museum for Photography
- The Dutch Resistance Museum
- Red Light Secrets: Museum of Prostitution
- Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum
- Body Worlds: Museum or Freak Show
- The Sex Museum