Public opinion on legal prostitution - Wham, Bam, thank you 'Dam?
January 14, 2010 4:44 PM   Subscribe

I've just been watching the fascinating BBC documentary on stag weekends and prostitution. Whilst quite comprehensive with its conclusions, It got me wondering about how legal prostitution in the UK would be perceived. My question, then, is: what is the public opinion of prostitution in Amsterdam (and other such places). I remember during my time in Amsterdam asking the owner of a flower shop where the red light district was and receiving the most disgusted look I've ever had in my life. I sort of suspect that many people may share this sentiment, but please add your thoughts and experiences! Thanks.
posted by jhighmore to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
(Just for information: prostitution is legal in the UK. Only certain activities connected to it are illegal.)
posted by Sova at 4:49 PM on January 14, 2010

Response by poster: Whoops. Well, my point was that it is more exposed to the public consciousness in Amsterdam!
posted by jhighmore at 4:55 PM on January 14, 2010

Prostitution per se is legal in many places -- as sova says, it is the ancillary activities such as living off the avails that are prosecuted.

In any event, I suspect that the look of annoyance is because, for better or worse, you were asking the shopkeeper about the one thing that characterizes Amsterdam to many visitors. I have encountered shopkeepers in Cairo who rolled their eyes at people asking about the Pyramids or the Sphinx. I can imagine citizens of Amsterdam with some civic pride cringing at one more visitor reducing a European capital that spent centuries as the financial centre of the world to a bunch of hookers shaking it for the passing gawkers.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:17 PM on January 14, 2010

Total speculation here but:

You may need to separate people's reactions to discreet, in-call prostitution that they don't have to look at or think about, as opposed to having a very visible red-light district in their city, and having foreign tourists descending on it. I think that might be more what bothered the guy in Amsterdam.

Other countries, such as Thailand, have a similar dynamic: most of the population is actually quite traditional, despite foreigners going there for sex and drugs.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:17 PM on January 14, 2010

Other countries, such as Thailand, have a similar dynamic: most of the population is actually quite traditional, despite foreigners going there for sex and drugs.

That is not true in the case of Thailand. Open prostitution geared towards Westerners is onyl the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of prostitution in Thailand is for Thai males. A staggering amount actually.
posted by Falconetti at 7:17 PM on January 14, 2010

The Inspector DeKok mystery series by A.C. Baantjer often touches on the attitudes of the Amsterdam police and other Amsterdam residents to the red-light district. They're interesting books in general.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:25 PM on January 14, 2010

Falconetti--Do you have a source on that, or is it from your personal knowledge? I'm curious to learn more.
posted by emkelley at 9:08 PM on January 14, 2010

Just as an aside, twice while visiting cities for conference/business purposes, I have had a cabbie ask me if I were interested (presumably they get kickbacks or other ... favors). Probably a more likely place to ask than a random shop, if my admittedly shallow experience is any guide.

I think there's probably a legitimate perception that sex tourists are different from vacation/exotic land/etc. tourists. And there's a NIMBY component as well, in that as long as it's out of sight it isn't objectionable, but when it's across the street that's another thing entirely.
posted by dhartung at 10:41 PM on January 14, 2010

My understanding is that the Dutch attitude to prostitution is strongly informed by the country's history of Calvinism - which holds, roughly, God already knows who will sin and who will be saved. Since sins are pre-determined, they are between you and God, and other people bear no responsibility to stop you from committing them. Hence, you end up with a country where, although very few people actually want to use prostitutes (or marijuana), they are quite happy to allow others to do so. This attitude seems to persist, even among non-religious people.

The Dutch people I met in Amsterdam were quite frank and not at all embarrassed by the presence of prostitution in their city. It was just a fact of life, although I think they'd still disapprove if a close friend or relative was buying or selling sex. But I also got the sense they were a bit sad that their great city had been reduced, in the eyes of the world, to a place for foreigners to smoke dope and buy sex. They see Amsterdam as the New York of the Netherlands, a perfect city for so many other reasons, with sex and drugs just bullet points at the bottom of a long list. I suppose it's the way Americans would feel if the only things the world knew about you were McDonalds and Las Vegas.

All that said, though, the Dutch government is making efforts to 'clean up' the Red Light District and regulate prostitution more strongly. There are Christian politicians who completely oppose the practice, but it seems like most of the impetus for change comes from people concerned about the social consequences of prostitution, rather than the practice itself. I know there's been a lot of concern about human trafficking and forced prostitution - and I can't imagine anyone, Dutch or not, being okay with that.
posted by embrangled at 1:35 AM on January 15, 2010

I have a feeling that the disgust shown by the flower shop owner was more related to you being yet another tourist asking him yet again for the red light district (no offence to you, btw) than to prostitution in itself.

Nobody here thinks that tourists asking for the RLD are actually planning on having sex with a prostitute. Most just hang around, walk in front of our bicycles and giggle. Which is annoying. Actually we'd probably prefer it if you would just visit the hooker and went home again. ;)
posted by Skyanth at 8:33 AM on January 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

... and go home again.
posted by Skyanth at 8:34 AM on January 15, 2010

It's legal here in Queensland, and the locals are still a bit shamed by it. They're not particularly uncomfortable about the brothels being around, provided they stick to industrial areas and away from schools, but even the men using the services are pretty embarrassed to admit it. There are a lot of itinerant workers and travelling businessmen who use brothels, and locals who do generally don't talk about it. The girls make good money though, and are often understaffed. There's still a lot of stigma attached, and many of the girls claim pretend to have another job. Data point: I work in the industry, though only in a retail capacity, and have spoken to both the prostitutes and the johns about these things.
posted by Jilder at 3:03 PM on January 15, 2010

OK ... I have lived in Amsterdam for 6 years ... and I basically live in the red light district (on the Zeedijk) ... but I am a foreigner.

The Dutch attitude to prostitution is that it is tolerated, and your use of prostitutes is none of my business.

The redlight district, however, is distasteful, unpleasant and ugly ... and strictly for tourists (and the most despised form of tourists ... the rude, loud, and obnoxious ones ... particularly the English, particularly in groups.)

Thus asking about the red light district (rather than, say, the Van Gogh museum) places you firmly in the minds of the locals as "one of those tourists"
posted by jannw at 1:45 AM on January 16, 2010

I'd recommend "The Undutchables" as an interesting book about cultural attitudes to all manner of things in the Netherlands. It does talk about attitudes to prostitution a bit - but also about a couple of other related areas:

1. Windows: Dutch people tend to avoid curtains and you can look in at people going about their business. One theory on how this came about is that it was linked with Calvinism: if everybody could see into your house they could see that you were not up to anything unapproved. It also served a secondary purpose however - of letting you show off your possessions. That kind of combination putting normally private things on window display and showing off your wares is part of the red light area of course (not just in Amsterdam but in other Netherlands cities too).

2. Money: The Dutch have always been good at all aspects of capitalism (consider the number of enormous international companies which have originated there in a country of just 16 million). If there is money to be made from something then they are willing to set up a stall to do so (and their government will keep an eye so that they can collect tax). Drugs and prostitution have to be just about the most profitable activities out there so why not legalise them and rake in a share of the profits?

I have been living in Amsterdam - near the red light district - for the past couple of months. And working on the outskirts. My Dutch workmates tease me about the seedy reputation of my neighbourhood in just the same way that people from the UK do.
posted by rongorongo at 1:02 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

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