AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Amsterdam‘s famed red light district held its first ever “open day” on Saturday as its peep-shows and brothels gave crowds of wide-eyed visitors free entry to help shed the area’s increasingly negative reputation.
Armed with a list of 25 establishments opening their doors and flinging back their red curtains, hundreds of tourists and locals seized the opportunity to see a prostitute’s bedroom, watch a brief live peep-show or chat to a lap dancer.
Harrowing reports of forced prostitution and human trafficking have caused a public outcry in recent months and even prompted calls from councillors for the 800-year-old red light district to be shut down, to the fury of many sex workers.
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Stories of petty crime and gang violence also dominate.
“The open day is partly to promote the red light district but also to help change the image of the area because we think it is too negative,” said organiser Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute who now runs an information centre on the district.
“There are not just problems here,” she added.
Prostitution has been fully legal in the Netherlands since 2000, and sex workers are self-employed and subject to tax.
However one rights group estimates that around 3,500 women are trafficked to the Netherlands each year from eastern Europe and Asia to work in secret brothels or illegal escort agencies, where they are often held captive and abused.
Tourist authorities admit the district — a clutch of narrow alleys and canals lined with sex shops, brothels and neon signs — is as big an attraction as Amsterdam’s museums and coffee shops, where marijuana is freely smoked and sold.
Every night visitors throng the streets, agog at the scantily clad women sitting behind huge red-lit windows, but only a fraction venture inside.
“This is a very good idea,” said 28-year-old Dutchman Maarten Ritsema, grinning after experiencing his first ever lap-dance at the Bar La Vie en Proost.
“I’ve never been inside anywhere like this before … it’s pretty casual, not as tense or hostile as I imagined,” he said.
Many of the area’s sex workers also took the chance to explain more about their work and dispel myths.
Candy, a 39-year-old dancer from France, sat in her usual position behind the counter of the Banana Bar, joking with visitors and posing for photographs.
“People out today see it’s fun, that this is entertainment.”
There may have been less flesh on display than usual for the non-paying public, but visitors, mostly drawn by curiosity, didn’t seem to mind.
“It was still sexy and you can use your imagination,” said 31-year-old Rob Jansen, on leaving the Casa Rosso theatre, where the strippers left their clothes while performing.
Amsterdam resident Ina van Leyan, 49, said she hoped the area would never be closed down: “It belongs to Amsterdam. Its for the tourists, it’s for the men without wives, it’s a key part of the city.”