Whether they’re spoken about openly, or talked about in hushed tones, there are corners of almost every major city where the sex trade is thriving.
From Nevada to Amsterdam, Paris, and Bangkok, red-light districts have occupied a place in the minds of artists, writers, self-professed bohemians, moralists, ethicists, and travellers for centuries.
Of course, a tangle of thorny dilemmas needs to be untied before you consider adding the world’s most notorious red-light districts to your itinerary.
First and foremost, you’ll want to consider what it means to partake in a spectacle that quite often exploits already marginalised communities of women, LGBTQ people, the economically disadvantaged, and people of colour.
It’s important to keep in mind that many of those who participate in the sex trade are not doing so consensually.
There’s also the question of legality. While cities like Amsterdam have notoriously liberal laws that, ostensibly, make entering the sex trade a choice that’s regulated (and therefore sanitised and de-stigmatised), in other parts of the world, it’s an outright crime.
This is to say nothing of the involvement of sex work in exacerbating already existing cycles of poverty and violence in regions where tourism has already contributed to single-sector economies.
Now, with all that in mind, here are a few of the world’s most infamous red-light districts, ranging from outright sexual free-for-alls to sanitised tolerance zones and violent neighbourhoods where tourists should never be seen.
Consider yourself warned.
- PATPONG MARKET, BANGKOK, THAILAND
With its sky-high temperatures and fast pace of life, Bangkok is essentially primed for all things steamy and sordid. So it’s not surprising that the city’s notoriously laid-back attitudes toward sex work — it’s not exactly legal, but not illegal either — have made Bangkok a hub for the trade in Southeast Asia.
And while those facts certainly means that you’re in for an experience walking the streets around Patpong Market, Soi Nana, and Soi Cowboy, it can feel more than a little insidious, and concerns about human trafficking should not be underestimated.
A tour of Patpong Market, past the mouth-watering street food stands and tables full of cheap T-shirts, is an assault on senses and sensibilities. You’ll hear hawkers selling everything from ping-pong shows to live sex, and most — if not all — of the participants can be had for a price. However, if you talk to most people who’ve witnessed these escapades, the effect is far from arousing.
For those who do choose to step into the bars and clubs in these parts of town — particularly in Patpong — expect strictly enforced (and exorbitantly priced) drink minimums, aggressive management, and high-pressure sales tactics.
- DEWALLEN, AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
Amsterdam’s red-light district is one of the most famous in the world.Source:Supplied
Amsterdam may conjure many images in the minds of travellers: charming canals, bright orange Olympic speed-skating outfits, quaint row houses, the smell of weed, and Dutch pancakes all come to mind.
Of course, it also has one of the world’s most well-known red-light districts — and it’s a major draw on the city’s tourist circuit.
In Amsterdam, sex workers occupy windowed cabins along the streets of the De Wallen, a gentrifying part of town that’s home to students, tourists, and sex workers alike.
Laws since 2000 have cleaned up what was once a part of town that was plagued by social ills. These days, pimping is illegal, brothels must be licensed, and everyone involved — from the client to the worker — pay taxes. The city even has a union for sex workers.
Additionally, organisations like the Prostitution Information Center offer pro-sex and pro-legalisation platforms for sex workers in the city (as well as tours of the De Wallen with former sex workers). The aim is to destigmatise those in the industry while empowering workers who choose to engage in this line of employment.
Even so, this isn’t to say that it’s all rosy in Amsterdam’s sex trade, despite the hazy pink glow cast over the De Wallen from its iconic red lights. While the window-bound form of sex work is heavily regulated, ethical concerns still flourish about other forms of street-based sex work, and despite numerous arrests and crackdowns, human trafficking continues to be present in the city.
- PIGALLE, PARIS, FRANCE
Ah, Paris — it’s a city for romance and love. All around, doe-eyed couples ogle sights like the Eiffel Tower, the gilt halls of Versailles, and the collection at the Louvre.
Perhaps it makes sense that the sexier side of life can be found here as well — and even though sex work is illegal in Paris, officials generally turn a blind eye to the industry. In fact, if you’re heading up to the stunning Basilica of Sacre Coeur, or snapping a selfie with the Moulin Rouge, you’ll be traipsing through what is still Paris’ most active red-light district.
Sex shops, porn stores, strip clubs, and peep shows are abundant throughout Pigalle, and street workers ply the busier areas as well. You should note that petty crime isn’t unheard of in this part of town, and soliciting sex workers is illegal in France.
Pigalle is also home to lots of rowdy bars and clubs, and when alcohol-fuelled belligerence gets added to the mix, the vibe can escalate quickly. However, like any good metropolis worth its weight in capitalist salt, the area is rapidly gentrifying, particular in what’s known as South Pigalle — a haven for the hipster elite to spend their money of bespoke cocktails, one-off hoodies, and tiny plates of food.
- KABUKICHO, TOKYO, JAPAN
The host and hostess clubs of Kabukicho are the stuff of legend. Right smack in the middle of one of the busiest tourist quarters of Tokyo — the Shinjuku district — sits this sex-packed part of town.
Here, bars staffed exclusively by pretty young men and women host visitors, and rates coincide with the club’s reputation. In most of these establishments, the men and women are paid to dote on customers, but services remain fairly tame (conversation and flirting).
However, bars where sex is for sale are certainly on nearly every block in this part of Tokyo as well. It’s also worth noting that management can get extremely aggressive about how much a customer owes for drinks during any visit — and that sometimes doesn’t match the price quoted upon entering the establishment.
Foreigners are sometimes excluded from these venues. And in case you thought that well-mannered Japan would have a spick-and-span sex trade, think again. Sex work is technically illegal (though there are ways around these laws), and organised crime plays a major part in the daily goings on in Kabukicho.