Why Antwerp Has The Best-Run Sex District In The World

Antwerp, Belgium has turned its once-violent prostitution zone into an incredibly safe and efficient red light district, criminology professor Ronald Weitzer writes in a fascinating book that advocates for legalizing prostitution.

His book, “Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business,” shows pictures of the pristine district, which is far from the city’s center and resembles an upscale outlet mall on a slow day.

Here’s what clients of Antwerp’s red light district said in online comments:

  • Antwerp is a secret, little known gem. Fantastic place … Clean, safe … Loads of choice and no frigging tourists.
  • Probably the best RLD [Red Light District] that I’ve visited. Like AMS [Amsterdam] without the bachelor party and tourist groups.
  • Very laid back and well policed.

The new sex district was created in 2000, after a decade when Antwerp faced a growing problem of dangerous prostitution in the part of the city where sailors stayed. Mobsters moved onto those streets and occasionally fought, driving out non-prostitution businesses, Weitzer writes.

In 2000 the city’s mayor squeezed prostitution into a heavily regulated, three-block “tolerance zone.” The mayor personally signs all permits for owners of prostitution “windows,” so the city takes its rules and building codes seriously. This regulation makes Antwerp’s red light district a relaxing place to visit, even if it may not be as entertaining as other red light districts.

A New York Times Magazine travel piece described the city’s prostitution district as the perfect place for an after-dinner walk:

Inside the tiny, large-windowed storefronts, women of all ages, races and shapes chatted on cell phones, read magazines or posed suggestively. Many were strikingly beautiful and most, apparently health conscious, had large bottles of spring water beside their stools.

These women may be happier than sex workers in other red light districts because they get to socialize with one another. While “window rooms” in other districts may be relatively siloed, the units in Antwerp are connected in blocks of three, five, or seven units, according to Weitzer.

“This has two important advantages: the women can socialize with each other, and they can collectively assert control over troublesome men,” he writes. “In other words, both camaraderie and empowerment are enhanced by this proximity to other workers.”

Antwerp’s prostitution zone is pretty much the antithesis of the spectacle found in Amsterdam. Here’s what Amsterdam resident Shannon McAllister had to say about the red light district in a post on About.com:

The close proximity of Amsterdam’s Red Light District to the city’s main train terminal, Centraal Station, means it’s often a first stop for visitors who arrive having heard all about the famously provocative area. Expect the obvious groups — herds of men celebrating a bachelor weekend, gaggles of girls embarrassing a bride, college kids who’ve been planted in bars and coffeeshops for hours on end — as well as the more unexpected — senior travellers fresh off a cruise ship, pointing and giggling at the fleshy sights all around.

Of course, if you’re a tourist who’s not actually in the market for sex, you may opt for a lively and loud district over the clean and efficient district in Antwerp.

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