Go Inside The World’s Red-Light Districts In 35 Striking Photos
By Austin Harvey | Edited By John Kuroski
Published November 20, 2022
Updated December 11, 2022
Red-light districts are city neighborhoods with a high concentration of sex work. These unique worlds exist all over the globe — and each has their own unique history.
Many people around the world know about red-light districts thanks to places like the famous De Wallen neighborhood in Amsterdam. However, for centuries, red-light districts have existed in various forms all around the globe.
Such neighborhoods where sex work is popular and concentrated, are common in many urban settings. So-named for the red lights signaling sex work in storefront windows, red-light districts exist in cities from Thailand to France to Singapore — and each neighborhood is marked by its own unique history and culture.
But exploitation, criminal activity, and abuse have forced some red-light districts to crumble, while others have faced resistance in the form of protests demanding legal protections for sex workers. And to truly understand the issues facing these places today, we first have to know the history behind some of the world’s most notorious red-light districts.
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A sex worker standing on display in Amsterdam's red-light district — prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000, and it is estimated that in Amsterdam there are roughly 5,500 sex workers.Horacio Villalobos - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
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Dancers outside the "My Way Bar" during "Bahnhofsviertelnacht" (Train Station Quarter Night) in the red-light district of Frankfurt, Germany.Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images
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1988: A Go-Go bar in the red-light district of Patpong in Bangkok where bar girls danced for customers on stage — most of the women were sex-workers. Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Kabukicho in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan is an entertainment and red-light district with many host and hostess clubs, love hotels, shops, restaurants, and nightclubs. It is known as the "Sleepless Town."Frédéric/Getty Images
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A sex worker in Bangkok, Thailand sitting on a hotel bed. Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images
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Amsterdam's red-light district circa 1976. Evening Standard/Getty Images
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A brothel in Yoshiwara red-light district in Edo, Japan circa 1900. At the time, sex work was so prominent that Tokugawa Hidetada of the Tokugawa shogunate restricted sex work to designated city districts.Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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The Palais d'Amour brothel at the Reeperbahn in Hamburg's St. Pauli district.Calle Hesslefors/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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Sex workers waiting for customers at the Dolly brothel comple in Surabaya, Indonesia, which the city's mayor, Tri Rismaharini, planned to close.
Sex workers and others, such as taxi drivers and street vendors working in the district, protested the closed planning of the district out of fear for a loss of income. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
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Sex workers in Hamburg protesting against lockdown measures that prevented brothels from reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images
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Workers at the Safari Bar in Patpong red-light district in Bangkok, March 1981. Alex Bowie/Getty Images
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Sex workers in Rio de Janeiro's red-light district, Vila Mimosa in 1975. Müller-Schneck/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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An illustration from 1754 of women working in a brothel in the Shin-Yoshiwara red-light district in Edo, modern day Tokyo. Universal History Archive/Getty Images
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A sex worker lying on her bed at a brothel at Taunusstrasse during the "Bahnhofsviertelnacht" in Frankfurt, Germany.Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Dominatrix sex workers in a German brothel, spanking a male customer.Calle Hesslefors/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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The Swingland Sauna and Massage Parlor in Soho, London.Fox Photos/Getty Images
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A cat on an empty sofa inside a brothel in Surabaya.Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
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A group of sex workers locked behind metal bars in Yoshiwara Akasen district (red-light district) in Edo, present-day Tokyo, Japan, in 1895. Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Young girls in bikinis and cosplay uniforms standing outside a brothel in Thailand's Pattaya red-light district to lure in tourists and customers.
Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Women standing in the doorway of a nightclub in Yoshiwara, the red-light district of Tokyo, in 1955.Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images
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A sex worker in Hamburg's red-light district cleaning a car windshield. Calle Hesslefors/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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Soho, 1987. For much of the 20th century, Soho had a reputation for sex shops as well as its night life and film industry.Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
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The Reeperbahn district in Hamburg, Germany. Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Hainan Street in Singapore was named for its majority Hainanese Chinese population, but in the early 1900s it was also notorious for Japanese karayuki-san brothels, though the Japanese sex work industry slowed down after World War I under pressure from Japanese authorities.Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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The Casino de Paris in the Reeperbahn district of St. Pauli, Hamburg, Germany circa 1959.Leber/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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A bar-owner and his go-go dancers in Patpong, Bangkok, 1982.Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images
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The incredibly primitive washing facilities at a brothel in the Philippines that employed at least 50 women, many of whom were mothers, in 1998. Most of the women lived in bunkbeds on the second floor.Gerhard Joren/LightRocket via Getty Images
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"Die Gasse" street in Hamburg's red-light district, 1955.Imagno/Getty Images
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A "condomerie" on display in Amsterdam's De Wallen neighborhood where a number of custom, colorful condoms are on display.Klaus Roseullstein bild via Getty Images
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An elephant with a group of sex workers in Bangkok's red-light district in 1999.Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images
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A guest room inside a brothel in Hamburg. Markus Scholz/picture alliance via Getty Images
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A sex worker in Manila in smoking a cigarette as she waits for her next customer. Gerhard Joren/LightRocket via Getty Images
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A group of young men walking among the strip clubs in London's Soho district, 1966.BIPS/Getty Images
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Patpong Erotic Museum covers 100 years of history and contains displays of various paintings and photos of the district's past.Paul Lakatos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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The red-light district of Amsterdam.KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images
Go Inside The World’s Red-Light Districts In 35 Striking Photos
The History Of Amsterdam's Famous Red-Light District
There are several stories about how these neighborhoods got their name, but one of the most common asserts that the term was coined in 1890s Kansas when railroad workers left their red lanterns outside a sex worker's door so they could be roused when they had to get back to work.
Today, red-light districts prominently display their services with bright lights, too, but historically, these services were sold much more discreetly.
Nino Hilal/Getty ImagesThe famous red-light district in Amsterdam covers a large area of the oldest part of the city.
According to The Culture Trip, in the 19th century, the De Wallen neighborhood displayed red gas lights in the windows to notify clued-in customers as to the true nature of the business within.
Long before that, however, De Wallen was a trading port founded in 1270, where sailors of the Dutch Empire gathered to sell their spoils. Naturally, De Wallen also drew crowds looking to partake in more "unsavory" activities — and sex work quickly flourished.
By the medieval period, De Wallen had become so notorious — and wealthy — that certain groups of people were actually outright forbidden from entering, namely priests and married men, who could be corrupted by De Wallen's seductive delights.
Wikimedia CommonsMany are tempted by what De Wallen has to offer.
For a few good centuries, sex work in De Wallen remained in a strange limbo between legal and illegal. It wasn't expressly forbidden, but it was looked down upon.
That changed in 1578 when Protestant leaders in the Netherlands declared sex work to be illegal, forcing brothels to conduct their business in a more secretive fashion. Then, once again, the practice came to be accepted in the 19th century when Napoleon's army moved through the Netherlands — and frequented the brothels.
And once more, in 1911, brothels became illegal, though sex work itself did not. Thus, the "red-light district" started to earn its name.
Other Red-Light Districts Around The World
De Wallen in Amsterdam may have earned the official title of the Red-Light District, but other parts of the world host regions of equally unabashed sexual frivolity.
Patpong in Bangkok, for example, has become quite famous for its naughty bars and go-go dancers.
According to the Patpong Museum, the now notorious red-light district was once a banana plantation and even served as a headquarters for the Japanese in World War II.
Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel/Getty ImagesSoi Cowboy street in the red-light district of Bangkok.
Then, in 1946, the land was purchased by a Chinese immigrant named Luang Patpongpanich for only $2,400 — land he intended to be used for his family's home. But when his son Udom Patponsiri inherited the land, he began putting up shopfronts instead, hoping that the high amount of traffic along the nearby road would lead to plenty of successful business ventures.
He was correct, but eventually, business owners realized that sex sells, and the road became lined with brothels.
Other prominent, lively, and scandalous red-light districts can be found both in Frankfurt's Bahnhofsviertel and Hamburg's Reeperbahn neighborhoods in Germany, in Pigalle in Paris, France, in Soho in London, England, and in Kabukichō in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan, all of which feature sex-themed storefronts, films, and shops.
That said, while Kabukichō, Soho, and Pigalle are considered red-light districts, they do lack the defining characteristic of their Dutch and German counterparts: sex work is not legal there.
The Future Of Sex Work
TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty ImagesA life-size Godzilla head on an eighth-floor balcony of Hotel Gracery Shinjuku in the Kabukichō shopping district in Tokyo.
Today, there is a lively global movement to decriminalize sex work, as legal prohibitions can compromise a sex worker's health and safety.
Many believe criminalization stigmatizes what should be seen as legitimate work, and because sex workers can also experience violence in connection with their work, criminalization prevents them from seeking protection. Indeed, a majority of voters — 52 percent — in the United States support decriminalizing sex work, and in March 2022, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill to monitor the health and safety of sex workers.
As laws continue to evolve and conversations around sex work change, red-light districts are sure to change as well. While we don't know what the future holds, we do know that the history of these places gives us a unique perspective on humanity's past.
After all, it's here where religion, crime, commerce, politics, and pleasure collide — and altogether capture the diversity of the human experience.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a bachelor's degree in screenwriting (widely considered to be a bad move) from Point Park University.