Amsterdam Red Light District: An interesting take on the Wallen

Take a walk with former sex worker Mariska Majoor and her daughter Robin Haurissa as they stroll through Amsterdam’s oldest area in Amsterdam Red Light District: The Future of Our Past.

Majoor shares her own feelings and experiences on her time spent in the windows of the Wallen, as the area is called in Dutch, and talks with researchers, police officers, neighbours and even the mayor of Amsterdam about the area and how it has changed. Her daughter does the photography, capturing the activity of the streets in stark black and white.

The stories in the book are interesting. Majoor pulls back the curtain on what it’s like to work in the red light district, as a sex worker but also as a police officer, cafe owner and even window washer. The anecdotes are charming and captivating.

The now 55-year-old is critical of what the area has become and how the people who work there are treated, both by the overwhelming number of tourists and by the city administration.

Majoor’s conversation in the book with Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema is enlightening and both women struggle with solutions for the area’s problems. “The current debate about the future of the Wallen seems like a continuation of the discussion over the last 13 years, though with a different approach,” Majoor writes, reflecting on the proposals Halsema puts forward.

The most fascinating conversation is the one that Majoor has with her daughter. The pair explore what it was like for her to grow up with an infamous mother and how they discussed her mother’s work.

That being said, the book unfortunately lacks a cohesive structure and is not always organised in a logical fashion. Large quotes appear without direct attribution, making it difficult to follow the narrative. There are also a number of grammar and spelling errors that detract from the work.

The author is one of the most well-known sex workers in the Netherlands and worked in the Red Light District from the age of 16 to 20 – which would now be illegal.

In the late 1980s, Majoor grew tired of sex work and went back to school before founding the Prostitution Information Centre in 1994. The non-profit provides information about the sex work industry to researchers and advocates on behalf of those who work in it.

Majoor left most of her advocacy several years ago. In 2016 she was diagnosed with lymphoma and had to take a step back from work while undergoing treatment. A year later, she changed direction and started Koekje uit Amsterdam (Cookie from Amsterdam). She now distributes shortbread cookies with Amsterdam’s iconic three crosses across the city to restaurants and catering companies.

Amsterdam Red Light District: The Future of Our Past was first published in Dutch as “De Wallen, Toekomst van ons verleden” in 2020. It was translated into English by Petra Timmermans and published in 2023.

If you’re interested in the red light district and the recent history of Amsterdam, the book is worth a go. You can buy Amsterdam Red Light District: The Future of Our Past from De Wallen Winkel.

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