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 travelers for centuries.
Of course, a tangle of thorny dilemmas need 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 marginalized communities of women, LGBTQ people, the economically disadvantaged, and persons of color. 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 de-stigmatized), 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. The issue is made more complicated as sex work, like all aspects of life, moves online. In fact, the scene in many of the neighborhoods listed below is nowhere near as intense as it once was (Geylang, in Singapore, is a case in point).
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 sanitized tolerance zones and violent neighborhoods where tourists should never be seen. Consider yourself warned!
The Most Famous Red Light Districts in Asia
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 sleazy, 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.
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 — Shinjuku — 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. It’s also worth noting that foreigners are sometimes excluded from these venues. And in case you thought that well-mannered Japan would have a spic-and-span sex trade, think again. Sex work is technically illegal (though there are ways around these laws), and organized crime plays a major part in the daily goings on in Kabukicho.
Plenty of travelers land in Phuket with visions of palm-lined beaches, the turquoise Andaman Sea, and pristine beaches. And all of that can certainly be found across Thailand’s most famous tropical island. However, there are pockets where anything but basking in the sun is on the mind — particularly in Patong. The town is Phuket’s main party hub, and rowdy nightclubs and bars pound with live music until late. Much like Bangkok’s red-light districts, you’ll also find all manner of for-pay sex, sex shows, and anything you can imagine along with it. The heart of the action is clustered along Bangla Road, which is where some of the more notorious bars and clubs can be found, along with sex workers on seemingly every sidewalk. Keep your wits about you, as you would in Bangkok, as even entering one of the go-go bars can come with pretty steep fees for drinks, often aggressive management, and more-than-pushy demands.
For now, Geylang is still the largest legal sex-work zone in Singapore — but that is quickly changing. As Vice Media reports, the rise of online programs for sex workers are creating streets that are increasingly tame in Singapore’s once-notorious district. However, there are still a number of brothels that operate in Geylang, though you’ll find that the whole district isn’t quite as wild as it once was. Sex work in Singapore is subject to regulations, ostensibly with the hope of making it safer for workers and patrons. There are plenty of bars, restaurants, and low-budget hotels in the area — sex work aside, it’s one of the most famous local-food districts in the entire city. Geylang also happens to be incredibly central, though be warned that packs of gawking foreigners have been known to meet with less-than-happy locals.
The Most Famous Red-Light Districts in Europe
Amsterdam may conjure images of charming canals, quaint row houses, and Dutch pancakes. 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 in existence 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, organizations like the Prostitution Information Center offer pro-sex and pro-legalization platforms for sex workers in the city (as well as tours of the De Wallen with former sex workers). The aim is to de-stigmatize those in the industry while empowering workers who choose to engage in this line of employment. Even so, things aren’t 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.
Ah, Paris — it’s a city for romance and love. All around, doe-eyed couples ogle sights like the Eiffel Tower, the gilded 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-fueled 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.
Tolerance zones have flourished in cities across Northern Europe as attitudes toward everything from drug addiction to sex work have grown more progressive. In turn, the involvement of organized crime, rates of disease, and other once-dangerous elements of society’s formerly illicit corners have been folded into the urban fabric. In Antwerp’s Schipperskwartier, this translates into an almost impeccably clean red light district that blends Amsterdam’s legalized approach with something like a mini-mall of sex. With Villa Tinto at its core, this three-block section of town draws those looking for sex and those just looking to check out the scene. This part of town is also a go-to destination for clubs and nightlife.
Amsterdam’s De Wallen gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to European red light districts, but Reeperbahn in Hamburg is equally notorious. The area is packed with nightclubs and bars, making it a go-to spot for travelers and locals who want to let off some steam on the weekends. It’s also home to Herbertstrasse, where women and those under 18 are strictly forbidden. In fact, the street itself is gated off to help enforce this policy. Otherwise, the district is a melange of sex shops, porn stores, and the like, all mixed in with people in search of good times. Sex work is legal in Germany, so there are regulations surrounding the endeavor that, at least on the surface, keep things feeling a bit less tawdry than in other parts of the world. Even so, don’t come here expecting the warm and fuzzies.
Most Famous Red-Light Districts in North America and South America
To be fair, this isn’t an outright red-light district — you won’t see sex shows and porn shops lined up side-by-side. Instead, for visitors to Sosua, Pedro Clisante is the town’s nightlife hub. Restaurants and bars set up shop along the street, with patrons spilling out all around. Within the mix, of course, are the sex workers that are a fixture in many of the Dominican Republic’s beachside towns. Some travelers find them aggressive, others as simply a part of the local scene, and others take little notice. But they are omnipresent, particularly in the areas around the biggest nightclubs. Like many sun-belt nations where economic inequality is rampant, issues persist here about exploitation, organized crime, and the vast network of social ills that have caused sex work to — legally — flourish. It certainly doesn’t help that plenty of Canadians, Americans, and Europeans flock to Sosua flush with expendable cash and a disregard for consequences.
Zona Norte, Tijuana, Mexico
For better or worse, Tijuana has long been the kind of place where Americans go to misbehave. It’s position right on the border with the United States, and just across from the San Diego metropolitan area, has made it nearly synonymous with partying — exchange rates are favorable, food and drink are cheap, and laws have often been loosely enforced. In recent years, Tijuana has undergone a renaissance, as the city tries to cement a reputation as a cultural and culinary hub in Mexico’s Baja Cailfornia. Microbreweries are now almost as common as cheap tequila-shot bars, and destination dining is now on par with the city’s famous street food. However, the less bright-and-shiny side of Tijuana is still alive in Zona Norte. Here, strip clubs and rowdy bars make up one of the largest official red-light districts in North America. Keep in mind that while the neighborhood’s “companionship” activities are generally tolerated, the police are hyper-active in this part of town, and have been known to shake down tourists for bribes. Also, the likelihood of being busted for buying drugs on the streets of Zona Norte are high, as are the punishments for doing so.
Mention Nevada and the bright lights, easy money, and unrestrained hedonism of Las Vegas likely springs to mind. Some Americans might also think of the oft-repeated assertion that it’s home to legalized prostitution. That’s not entirely true, and the laws governing sex work vary from county to county. In fact, Clark County (which is home to Las Vegas) does not allow legalized sex work to take place within its borders. As such, the red-light status of Nevada is a bit more diffuse. In fact, most of the legal brothels in Nevada are quite far from its major urban centers (according to Nevada law, the industry is only legal in counties with a population of less than 700,000). The government also requires regular STD testing and mandatory condom usage.
Much like Sosua in the Dominican Republic, the lack of restrictions on sex work in Brazil mean that while the trade flourishes, it’s a bit more integrated into the day-to-day fabric of the city at large. As such, there aren’t parts of Rio de Janeiro that are jam-packed with sex shops and porn theaters. Instead, massive brothels can be found in many of the major beachside neighborhoods, including Copacabana and Ipanema. Copacabana, with its faded glamour, has a seedier vibe, and just to its south sits one of Latin America’s most infamous brothels, Centaurus. This mega-brothel is built for high rollers and has drawn plenty of celebrities, though there are other go-to brothels in Ipanema, like Monte Carlo. If you feel like taking your personal safety for a risky spin, Vila Mimosa is the true red light district in town, where storefronts operate as cover businesses for a vast network of sex workers, pimps, and the related hangers-on in this industry. However, you definitely shouldn’t attempt visiting this neighborhood on a casual jaunt — it’s unsafe for anyone but seasoned locals and has a violent reputation. In any case, as with most areas where income gaps and inequality persist, the agency of those involved in the trade is not always clear, and many venues charge exorbitantly high rental rates of their workers, keeping them entrenched in poverty (and debt) while offering the veneer of fast cash.
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