Amsterdam’s sex industry: fighting for freedom

5 Mins read

Not on your average high street would you find a sex museum, a strip club, a peep show and a sex shop – the enigmatic, wild energy of Amsterdam has brought millions of people into its city centre.

Cannabis cafés are a part of the allure, but perhaps even more so is the booming sex industry. Tourists and locals alike fill the Red Light District with business — whether that’s paying for sex work, visiting a museum or buying a toy for yourself and your partner.

For those visiting the city, it can be easy to laugh or gawk at the overt sex culture. The taboo of talking about sex can lead to some uncomfortable moments with family or friends when you are visiting the city, as Amsterdam is so comfortable with the whole concept of sex. 

But what about those who work in Amsterdam’s sex industry, those who are making their living from a business that most visitors don’t even know or understand? 

Smart Fetish and Fantasy is a BDSM sex shop located in the heart of Amsterdam. It’s small, but mighty. For the past 26 years, three staff members have hand-made every single piece in the shop, apart from outfits, and in conversation with Artefact, one worker explained why they were attracted to the business. 

“I always had to deal with a lot of prejudice in my life; from then on people started to treat me different,” they explained. As part of a minority group, they have felt cast out often in life and found working in industries like hospitality have been more welcoming. So, working in a BDSM shop was not going to faze them: “people have shown me that I’m not mainstream.”

Sitting behind the counter, the worker shared their reluctance with talking to the media because of the misrepresentation the shop has faced before. “Alcohol is embraced, but we all know what alcohol does to people,” they explain, highlighting the difference between how drinking culture is celebrated but BDSM culture can be seen as harmful and dangerous, even though both can have their downfalls. 

The number of tourists per year in Amsterdam can reach a staggering 20 million. With this many people from all over the world, it’s no surprise that many of these visitors are not as educated or comfortable on the topic of sex. 

A glimpse of the Red Light District in Amsterdam. There is a BDSM shop and tourists walking over the bridge.
A glimpse of the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Photos of workers are strictly forbidden. [Flickr: Michael Costa]

The sex shop worker explains that the aim of the shop is to “de-escalate and inform.” Yes, a shop full of intimate toys along a busy high street can be a strange sight for those that aren’t used to it. The taboo of talking about sex can make it awkward whilst you’re perusing the shop fronts, but this is the livelihood of those working in the sex scene of Amsterdam. 

“I had this woman in front of the shop screaming,” they explained. She was talking to her friends about “BDMS.” The worker quickly stepped outside to inform them that they were not even saying its name correctly, and that they should probably educate themselves before coming and drawing their conclusions. 

The shop even declines interviews with BDSM magazines, because their goal is not to preach to their own people. The worker explains they are “making a new bridge instead of renovating existing bridges.”

There is an intrinsic problem with the stigmas around sex, even within Amsterdam itself. The sex shop worker explained how a few woman bartenders looked down upon those who worked in the Red Light District. 

Located on a busy road, La Vie en Proost is a strip club with an unassuming entrance. Windows fogged and reception well-lit, a security guard welcomes you into the club. From there, you are greeted into a dark room filled with neon lights, booming music and dancers on top of the bar. Mirella, bartender and worker at the club for 21 years, is at the back bar. 

“Things have changed a lot in the last few years — after Corona[virus] it’s been less busy than before. It was always packed in here,” Mirella explains. Whilst quiet, it was only 9:00 pm, and she explained that groups of customers came in a lot later. 

The connection is strong between the dancers and bartenders, who Mirella lovingly refers to as “the girls.” As a long-serving staff member, Mirella feels a connection to the strip club, and sees its importance in the city. 

“I think if men can come to a bar like this, they don’t have to go in other bars and harass girls who don’t want to get harassed. In here, you can do what you like, to a certain extent. [But] you always have to treat with respect.”

Image of dancers at strip club celebrating with champagne. Only their legs and shoes can be seen.
Dancers from La Vie en Proost on shift. [Instagram: @lavieenproost]

La Vie en Proost is filled with businessmen and regulars in the week, but the weekend is when tourists and stag parties take a particular interest. 

Earlier this year, the Dutch capital ran a campaign telling those who want a messy weekend in Amsterdam to ‘stay away’ — and it was aimed at British men.

A 30-second video depicting a young man being arrested and detained was released, accompanied by the text “a messy night + getting trashed = €140 fine.” 

The campaign further emphasises the importance of places like La Vie en Proost — controlled fun, where boundaries are taught (if you didn’t respect them already). “Some guys cannot talk to ladies in a normal bar, but when they are here, the ladies come to you and talk,” Mirella goes on to say.

Sex shops and strip clubs aren’t the only things in Amsterdam that showcase its booming sex culture. Among many things such as the Red Light District and sex shows, there are also museums. A visit to the most popular one, Sexmuseum Amsterdam, was definitely in order. 

Compared to the worker in the shop and Mirella of La Vie en Proost, Sexmuseum definitely wasn’t as informative or insightful. Myself, my partner and our friend from Holland all bought a ticket and entered. 

The entry corridor was full of wax figures performing almost every sexual act you could think of. Some were animated; some had a delightful audio accompaniment. When we looked for information, a sign was nowhere to be found for many animatronic exhibit pieces. 

Whilst there was some awe-inspiring ancient erotic art with information, a lot of the wax figures seemed to be for shock factor. It’s clear that the Amsterdam Sexmuseum, alongside many other sex attractions in the city, has a big focus on tourists and the sensationalised version of sex. 

However, it’s once you venture into the city a bit more, become hands-on with the experience, and get talking to people within the industry where you will get a true feel of sex positivity in Amsterdam.

The worker at the sex shop finished our conversation with a particularly touching story of a former US marine coming in and shaking the worker’s hand. The marine explained that his entire platoon was blown up in his last mission whilst he thought he was fighting for democracy, and returned home realising that he had been used.

The marine shook his hand and explained it was because both of them were fighting for democracy and freedom but in different ways. The marine saw the worker’s job as a brave act. “I still think about this gentleman every now and then,” they told us.

Whether it’s a big part of your world or not, sex is a prevalent part of life that, in many cultures, is seen as a taboo subject.

Amsterdam highlights and showcases the world of sex in more ways than one, and potentially opens its visitors up to the more beautiful and meaningful lives of those who work within the scene.

Featured image by Paul Woods via Flickr. It has been edited.

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