An Insider’s Look at Prostitution in Amsterdam’s Red Light District

by Christy on

NOTE: This post does not contain photos of the windows in the Red Light District. This is out of respect for the anonymity of Amsterdam’s sex workers and sex buyers, but also because photography is strictly limited in the district and cameras have been known to get confiscated.

Prostitution in the Red Light District in Amsterdam

The Red Light District

Though all forms of sex work except streetwalking are legal in the Netherlands, the windows in Amsterdam’s Red Light District are perhaps the most notorious face of the country’s prostitution sector.

The area is dotted with over 300 windows lit with the hazy red lights that give the district its name. The sex workers hanging out in these windows can’t be fully naked (that’s considered indecent exposure), but they’re dressed provacatively in hopes of attracting the eye of a potential client.

When you’re walking around the Red Light District, don’t stop and stand in front of the windows if you’re not a potential customer. You’re blocking business!

When someone is interested, they approach the sex worker directly and negotiate a price. The transaction itself takes place in a (usually very) small room behind the window, which holds a bed, table, small bathroom, and a panic button.

If a client becomes violent or aggressive, the sex worker can push the panic button to engage a loud, flashing alarm. The safety of the sex workers is taken very seriously, so when that alarm goes off a whole host of people immediately respond: anyone working in the building, other prostitutes in nearby windows, and the police who are patrolling the streets.

The Red Light District in Amsterdam

The Sex Workers

The prostitutes in the Red Light District are self-employed; they rent windows in eight hour shifts and make all their own decisions, such as who to accept and how much to charge each client. They work independently and have a great deal of professional autonomy.

For those seeking the “girlfriend experience”, you’ll definitely want to look elsewhere. You can find escorts in Amsterdam if that’s what you’re after, but window prostitution is all about the quick orgasm. In fact…

How long (on average) do clients actually spend with the sex workers who display their wares in the windows of the Red Light District?

Six minutes. SIX MINUTES from start (taking off the clothes) to finish (clothes on and out the door).

The Clients

The sex workers in the Red Light District are highly selective when it comes to accepting clients. They won’t see anyone who hasn’t bathed recently, but most importantly they won’t accept a client who is visibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

If you hope to pay for sex, you need to be sanitary and sober!

People who are drunk or stoned tend to have highly unpredictable and erratic behavior, plus narcotics dull sensation so it’s more difficult to reach climax in a timely fashion. For sex workers who are looking to move through clients quickly, this obviously presents a rather annoying problem.

Most tourists are automatically eliminated from the client pool due to sex workers’ ban on narcotics, so contrary to popular belief window prostitutes actually tend to see more locals than foreigners.

The Money

Prices vary, but the minimum fee for 15 minutes of vanilla sex is €50. Fifty euros for fifteen minutes of fun! Of course you can negotiate, but odds are you won’t want to haggle too aggressively. That just seems… counterproductive.

Anything beyond super basic sex (standard intercourse or oral) will increase the price, sometimes substantially. If a client wants to have sex without a condom, for instance, they might be charged up to four times the basic price.

The most requested sex act? I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Each sex worker ponies up anywhere between €85 to €185 to rent a window for the eight hour shift. In eight hours a prostitute can see up to 30 clients, so at €50 a pop (heh) that means she could be making at least €1300. Each shift.

Working in the windows of the Red Light District can be very lucrative.

Red Light District in Amsterdam

In the words of Aretha, it’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Our society has a lot of contention around the issue of prostitution, and unfortunately when it comes to sex work I hear too many people say “Well, *I* could never do that!” with an air of self-satisfied moral superiority.

Cue my extremely dramatic eye roll.

I mean, that’s great and all, but just because YOU can’t doesn’t mean others feel the same. Sure, I couldn’t work in the windows of the Red Light District, but I also couldn’t be a construction worker, or a professional basketball player, or a surgeon (ugh, blood).

In Amsterdam sex work is legal, and it is a viable occupation. Is it an easy job? Nope. Is it a job that doesn’t carry any stigma? Definitely not. But it’s a legal job, and sex workers deserve respect and rights like everyone else.

Want to learn more about the Red Light District? Check out the PIC!

The Prostitution Information Center (PIC) is a fantastic place to learn about this fascinating and historically rich area. The PIC is located right in the heart of the Red Light District and is run by a former sex worker, Mariska.

You can check out their museum and informational displays whenever you get the chance, or take the one-hour walking tour that’s offered every Saturday at 5:00 P.M. No (respectful) question goes unanswered!

In additional to educating ignorant-but-interested tourists like us, the Prostitution Information Center also answers questions for folks considering sex work as an occupation or looking to pay for sex in Amsterdam.

Mariska and her team are knowledgeable, non-judgemental, and incredibly nice! For those heading to the Red Light District, the PIC is well worth a visit.

The Prostitution Information Center in Amsterdam

Full Disclosure: We received two complimentary tours at the Prostitution Information Center in Amsterdam. However, all thoughts and opinions are entirely our own.

{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

Marie @ A Montrealer Abroad June 18, 2012 at

What an interesting post! I remember going to the Red Light District and just stand there, watching the prostitutes in the windows, seriously intrigued. This is such a taboo in North America, I had never seen anything like it before. As a woman I was very interested to see how they worked, how they were treated, etc.

I’m definitely going to book a PIC tour when I go to Amsterdam in October, to satisfy my curiosity.
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Christy June 18, 2012 at

Marie, if you’re interested in learning more you should definitely check out the PIC! It’s hard to get accurate information, so I think most tourists just sort of wander around and wonder about how prostitution in the RLD works. It’s nice to actually find out. :)

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Brock - Backpack With Brock June 18, 2012 at

Very thorough! This is great background for people wanting to visit the Red Light District. Thanks for posting!
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Christy June 18, 2012 at

Thanks, Brock – I’m glad you found it informative. :)

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Eriktwitter: eriksmithdotcom June 18, 2012 at

I haven’t even started to try and catch up on the thousand of unread items in my reader after I neglected it during my NZ trip, but when this one popped up on Facebook, I had to give it a read, since I did the same tour years ago. Sounds like it is just as informative now.

I’ve tried to explain this tour to a number of my American friends and most people are extremely put-off by even the discussion of the subject. (I should preface this by saying that I am a liberal surrounded by conservatives)

Nice job- when I have friends going to Amsterdam I am going to recommend this post to them!
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

How cool that you took the same tour! It is sometimes hard to discuss sex work with people who approach it from a vastly different standpoint. I think knowledge and education are key, and the cool thing about the PIC is that they offer information without any judgement attached. They don’t condemn sex workers or sex buyers, but they also don’t glorify the whole thing. It was a refreshingly honest approach.

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D.J. - The World of Deej June 18, 2012 at

Great post….the Red Light District is one of those places everyone should see once, just don’t stare…they’re liable to open the door and yell at you:)
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

Haha, do you know this from experience? I’m sure the women are used to getting stared at all the time, since hordes of tourists walk through the RLD just to gawk. Just don’t stand in front of the windows or be rude, and I’m sure it’s okay! :)

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Stephanie - The Travel Chicatwitter: thetravelchica June 18, 2012 at

Very interesting. It’s great that the women are in control and that it seems safety and health are a top priority.
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

That really stood out to us as well, Stephanie; it was reassuring to know that it’s taken seriously.

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Camels & Chocolatetwitter: LunaticAtLarge June 18, 2012 at

I lived in Holland and hardly knew any of this information!
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

You should have stopped by the PIC, Kristin! :D

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Ayngelina June 18, 2012 at

I really like the open-minded view you’ve taken here. You are right we need to approach things like this with a fresh mind instead of letting our own country’s perspective cloud things.
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

Thanks, Ayngelina. We take a more sex-positive approach than most people in the U.S., but even for us it was difficult to let go of what we thought we knew about sex work (from the U.S.) and just hear about how it works in Amsterdam.

For instance, when it comes to prostitution usually my first question is about the safety/consent of the women involved, but in the Netherlands it’s so different from a lot of places. Sex trafficking likely exists (as it does in pretty much every counry), but that’s definitely not the case for the women working in the windows of the RLD. Learning about how the sex workers consent (and re-consent) at every step of the process was really eye-opening.

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Christy June 19, 2012 at

I was beginning to wonder how you guys knew so much information about this. ;) A very lucrative line of work, indeed. I wish I was more motivated to learn stuff like this when I travel.
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

Hahaha, only five days in Amsterdam and we became experts. ;)

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Chrystal McKay June 19, 2012 at

This is fascinating! I never would of known they provide tours with such details of the REALITY of what goes on. So interesting!
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

I definitely agree – it’s nice to find a tour that actually provides detailed information on the topic, and from such a reputable source. The PIC is great, because you know you’re actually hearing about the reality of what takes place.

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Yvette June 19, 2012 at

Hi-

Nice post! As someone who lives in Amsterdam, though, there are a few details here that aren’t quite right-

1) Price is 50 EUR for 10 minutes or until you orgasm these days- like anything, prices go up. ;) You’re really not going to negotiate a better price though off that, not like there’s a lack of business…

2) It’s true that most of the people who visit the prostitutes are locals, but most of the ones who you see in the touristy part of the Red Light District aren’t. (Put it this way, if you lived in Amsterdam would you want to be spotted negotiating in the window?) Instead there’s a discrete side street you’d never notice unless you went by there, and those women make quite a lot indeed.

Cheers :)
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

Thanks so much for the comment, Yvette! It’s great to hear from someone who actually lives in Amsterdam. :) It’s good to know that the prices have gone up; just out of curiosity, how did you come by that information? ;)

And good catch about the crowds in the Red Light District – it’s so true that like 90% of people hanging out on the streets are tourists (drunk or otherwise). I didn’t realize most locals visit a more discreet street, though — and I hadn’t even thought about locals being even more concerned about staying anonymous. Fascinating.

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Leightwitter: hikebiketravel June 19, 2012 at

You’ve got some very unusual facts in this post – six minutes in and out – WOW! I’m very glad to hear safety is taken so seriously. Many countries could learn from Amsterdam.
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Christy June 19, 2012 at

Learning all those fun facts was the best part of the tour — and there were so many more that we didn’t include!

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Aggytwitter: dewtraveller June 19, 2012 at

What an interesting post. The world needs more open-minded people like you guys! I love your unusual facts and I absolutely agree on you on the respect bit, they deserve just as much respect as other workers too.

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Christy June 20, 2012 at

Thanks, Aggy! It’s just so sad that in a lot of places violence against sex workers is condoned. I think it’s important to conceptualize sex work as an occupation rather than an indication of moral deficiency.

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Megan June 19, 2012 at

Sex work isn’t called the world’s oldest profession for nothing, and it’s not going anywhere. This kind of system seems like a reasonable way to ensure the safety of both the worker and her clients, especially compared to the way sex work generally proceeds in the US.

That clothesline of nifty condoms, though…that looks like just a little too much fun in one place!
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Christy June 20, 2012 at

It does provide some interesting evidence regarding the benefits of legalized prostitution. At the very least, it helps protect the safety of sex workers.

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Scott - Quirky Travel Guytwitter: quirkytravelguy June 19, 2012 at

Fascinating facts. I checked out the red light district in Tijuana and found it similar, but definitely not this open where people were advertising in windows.
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Christy June 20, 2012 at

Huh, I had no idea there was a red light district in Tijuana!

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Abby June 20, 2012 at

Loved this! I haven’t been to Amsterdam since I was right out of college. In the meantime, this has been a hot topic in my current hometown of Las Vegas.
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Christy June 20, 2012 at

That’s interesting, Abby. Do you know if they’re considering legalizing prostitution in the Las Vegas valley?

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Laurence June 20, 2012 at

Wow, great post. I’ve been to Amsterdam a number of times, and on one of those occasions it was an inevitable stag do. Two of the lads went down the entire street asking for prices, and it was concluded that €50 was essentially the price. Anti-Competition rules clearly not in play here ;)
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Christy June 20, 2012 at

We saw a totally bizarre and wild stag party while we were there. Some crazy antics on the street, but I honestly don’t even know what they were doing half the time. :P

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Juliann June 20, 2012 at

Very insightful post. I can’t get over the 6 minutes statistic. Wow. Not what I thought. I wandered around the Red Light District a little during my brief visit to Amsterdam. It was not at all how I pictured it to be. Now I want to check it out again, with these thoughts in mind.
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Christy June 20, 2012 at

It wasn’t at all what I pictured, either – it’s a much more historical neighborhood than I imagined, and the windows are a lot larger than I thought they would be. There aren’t a lot of photos of the RLD, though, so it’s hard to get an accurate mental image! :)

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the lazy travelers June 20, 2012 at

so interesting! i have to say, when we were there in october, i was surprised by how safe it felt at night. i really expected it to be super seedy and though it was definitely out of my comfort zone, it didn’t feel dangerous at all.
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Christy June 20, 2012 at

We felt really safe as well. Granted, we weren’t walking around late at night, but I also thought it would feel more seedy than it actually does. I’m sure the police presence helps a lot with that.

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Sebastian @ Off-The-Path.com June 20, 2012 at

Love your article Christy!

I lived an hour away from Amsterdam for 2,5 years and visited A’dam so many times! Great and interesting article and facts that I didn’t know about the red light district even though I visited it a couple of times already!!
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Christy June 22, 2012 at

Glad you learned something new, Sebastian! :D

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Gerardo el Gallo June 21, 2012 at

Excellent post, I was at the district many moons ago in my distant youth as a classical guitar major in Paris.
BUT- actually, most of them do not make a lot of money. The competition is fierce and most of the clients are gawking tourists. I saw many ladies sit there doing nothing but smiling for a long time (I made the rounds, and I hung out with one at a cafe).
Also, we need to get off the self-indugent North Amreican bashing by the self-righteeous liberals. Prostituion is not only seen as vile among most people of the world, it is punishable by death in many countries. Death at the hands of their relatives even more so than the state. Conservative North Americans and Europeans are in sync with the majority of the prevcious “other” than are the Liberals. These same open minded liberals are infatuated with Islam. YOu all know the fate of any woman involved in this trade among then right?
Also: Everyone is fairly liberal about prostitution as long as its not their mother, sister, or daughter up there in the window right?
I’ll believe in your open-mindedness when I see you stop in to check in on your daughter or mother at work…between clients….walking away smiling and proud of them.

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Christy June 22, 2012 at

I don’t even know where to begin with your comment, Gerardo – it’s sort of all over the place.

But just to address your last point: I do know people who have been involved in sex work in the past, and that doesn’t change how I view them. There are many different types of sex work, and not all of them are inherently degrading or dehumanizing. In fact, some women choose that profession because they actually want to.

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jadetwitter: vagabond3live June 21, 2012 at

wow- 6 minutes?! I can’t get over that!
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Christy June 22, 2012 at

And that includes taking off the clothes and putting them back on! Granted, getting dressed doesn’t take THAT long, but still…

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Andrea June 21, 2012 at

I’m curious about what they had to say about sex trafficking and whether any of the women are working there under duress…I once read an article about how that has happened – women are brought into Amsterdam and their passports are held while they work and have to buy their freedom so to speak. This wouldn’t be reported if it was done by a mafia-type gang where the women were afraid for their lives. I don’t remember any details now but I do remember that it got me thinking that maybe the district wasn’t as liberated as it seems. I’m not saying it does happen there, I’m just wondering if the subject was brought up at all on the tour.
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Christy June 22, 2012 at

That’s a really interesting point, Andrea. During the tour the first question we asked was about sex trafficking, and it turns out it’s not that common in the Red Light District. A woman in that situation could approach any of the police officers in the district and ask for help without fearing arrest or deportation. She might fear retribution from the gang, but ideally she’d be protected by law enforcement rather than criminalized herself.

I think sex trafficking is actually more of an issue outside of Amsterdam and more in the countryside; customers visit the buildings so the women and girls never have to leave the premise, which means they don’t have the ability to contact anyone else for help. It’s not clear how common this actually is, but it’s definitely more of an issue than women being forced to work in the RLD under duress.

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Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelistatwitter: eurotravelista June 21, 2012 at

Everything we ever wanted to know about Amsterdam’s Red Light District but were afraid to ask! Very informative and interesting. When I visit Amsterdam I will be one of those tourists gawking at the windows :)
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Christy June 22, 2012 at

Haha, same here Debbie – we definitely did some discreet gawking ourselves. :)

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Kaylin June 22, 2012 at

I went to Amsterdam about 4 years ago and really enjoyed it. I’m going back to Europe this fall and hoping to make it there again as last time I just spent a weekend there. This was very interesting! I knew some of this already, but I never heard of the PIC and I’m really curious to see it now.
Somewhat related, but have you been to the sex museum that is right off the red light district as well? My friends and I loved it and thought it was hilarious. If it’s up your alley (ie you’re interested in seeing pornographic images from antiquity to present day, as well as giant penis statues and mannequins that flash you) it’s good fun.
Also the condomerie! I’ve been to that shop and bought one of those novelty condoms haha.
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Christy June 22, 2012 at

Someone else mentioned that sex museum to us — we totally missed it! That sort of museum is right up our alley, lol.

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Caanan @ No Vacation Requiredtwitter: NVRguys June 22, 2012 at

FASCINATING! Unlike Jade, I am not surprised by the 6-minute metric. Not surprised at all. ;)
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Christy June 22, 2012 at

Bwahaha!

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Laureltwitter: ExpatGermany June 26, 2012 at

Such an interesting post, I had no idea there was even a Prostitution Information Center, but it sounds like a very informative tour. Lots of great info in this post that provides a different perspective than what you usually hear about prostitutes.
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Christy June 27, 2012 at

Thanks, Laurel! It was super informational, and I really appreciated how non-judgmental everyone was at the PIC.

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Amanda June 30, 2012 at

Awesome post. You don’t often see this behind-the-scenes sort of information about this part of Amsterdam. So thanks for enlightening me!
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Christy June 30, 2012 at

Glad you found it informative, Amanda! :)

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Rease July 1, 2012 at

This is one of the most interesting travel articles I have read in awhile. I find the red light district very interesting. While I would also have to say I could not do that kind of work, it is certainly not because I look down upon these women. They are their own bosses and choose their clients. Maybe they like sex and enjoy it, maybe they just know how much money they can make – either way, it’s a legal profession there and I think it should be respected. I am also very happy to hear that they all have panic buttons for safety!
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Lawrence Michaels July 7, 2012 at

When I was in Amsterdam, it didn’t even dawn on me to check out the red light district until after I had left. I was there during Queen’s Day and I was too busy with the party.
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Zara @ Backpack ME July 16, 2012 at

Great post!
I had no idea that something like a prostitution info centre existed!
Neither did I know that the average duration of service is only 6 minutes… that IS quick!!
Kudos for the panic buttons!

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Mary - Green Global Travel August 10, 2012 at

Personally, I think prostitution should be legal in the USA. Take the crime and the abuse out of it.
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Lyon January 10, 2013 at

I am thinking of flying to Amsterdam to check out the RLD. I am not going to pretend is for sightseeing! I want to experience something new, so I will chose one of the girls.

Therefore, since I will go alone in my trip, I would like to know if I am in any danger, if I opt for one of the girls in the RLD or for one brothel or club. By the way, what is the difference between the last two in terms of safety and quality of the establishment and especially the girls?

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Bob January 22, 2013 at

I had the ‘pleasure’ of spending time with two women in the RLD behind the windows. Both times I know I spent at least half an hour with them. Very nice and professional women with excellent English.

I did see a young black man (clean cut and well dressed) outright rejected by a window prostitute. He was extremely surprised.

On my second pass through the looking glass, it was a Saturday night and the streets were packed. As I exited, I heard a British tourist yell, “Get that one, she’s still warm!”

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