If you had asked for my opinion of Amsterdam’s Red Light District (Dutch: Rosse Buurt) before my travels I would have said something along the lines of “Prostitution, the world’s oldest trade, is not going away anytime soon, so if a country can find a way to keep it safe, destigmatized, and regulated by making it legal, way to go”. Mind you, I don’t condone prostitution but I like the idea of it being decriminalized even though I’m fully aware that legal is not synonymous with moral.
Well, I’ve now been to Amsterdam’s Red Light District and my eyes are wide open. Sad to say, despite all the attempted regulations, there is nothing new under the sun.
This used to be the port on the Amstel River where the ships would off-load and the sailors would come and find prostitutes before going into the church (De Oude Kerk) to pay their penances, our guide rambles. In fact it got to a point, where the clergy would just meet the sailors as they got off the ships, he continued. It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m with a group of curious tourists on the free Sandeman Tour. Our tour guide had previously explained that we were going to walk through the Red Light District to the Oude Kerk and we must not take any pictures. As we walked through the one narrow street, I saw two or three scantily clad bored women on their cellphones in the windows on either side of me. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and these women work independently sort of like businesswomen, he continued in an animated way. Though the rent for the room is expensive, a girl can easily make it up in a matter of hours. Sometimes, they make over €1000. Everything is regulated, they get tested for venereal diseases every few months, and there are police around to protect them from unruly clients. It all sounded so wonderful to me and I said jokingly to N’ku imagine if you can’t claim unemployment or welfare because there’s a job as a prostitute available that you refuse to try out for?
So of course the clubbing didn’t happen. Instead, the guys, initially but only briefly sulky, decide to show us on foot parts of tourist Amsterdam we may not yet have seen. Bless their souls for I know they don’t like tourist Amsterdam and I don’t think they are accustomed to walking long distances so I can only imagine they were laid up in bed the next day as they might have anticipated but for very different reasons…and wondering how possible?
The legal age to be a prostitute is now 21 up from 18 which explains why the girls all look so young. But interspersed are much older women who have been at it for decades…and men. Yes, men. But these are not men as men for the pleasure of women or even for other men, but rather men as women solely for the enjoyment of men. Not to say that none of these women or men-women would refuse a man-woman couple who would like to engage in some kind of threesome, but the reality is that the clientele is male be they young or old, foreign or Dutch.
And then we are back to no respectable woman of Amsterdam would do this. There has to be something wrong with her such as a bad drug habit or a low self-esteem. Maybe, she’s so in love with her pimp (boyfriend) that she would do whatever he tells her. Sometimes, the he in question is not just a pimp, but an owner for the girl might be a sex slave. We are told yes the rents for the windows are expensive and you must pay for them ahead of time in blocks of time such as a week’s worth of eight hour shifts (or sixteen if you are particularly enterprising) so after accounting for taxes one needs about five or so clients per day just to clear the daily rent. How very exhausting?! We are told, yes medical checkups are offered but no, they are not mandatory.
Throughout the night I think about these girls who occasionally bang on their windows to grab the attention of a man passing by, or touch themselves suggestively, or hurl unknown liquid (urine?!) from plastic cups onto men who dare to disrespect or anger them. Yes, we missed being splattered by one such attack focused on someone in a group of guys ahead of us. Luckily for us, despite slick sneakers occasionally joking with the girls peering into the windows, showing us how one would start a transaction, no-one directs any vitriol towards us. But I was saying. Who are these girls some with lost eyes others having a grand old time? What are their stories? What do they do when they are not merchandise in windows? Does anyone else care to know? Do these men, clients, ask themselves these questions?
“Imagine you are an 18-year-old Hungarian girl. You end up in the Red
Light District and don’t even know which country you are in. Your lips
are pumped full of Botox, your hair is dyed blond and you are wearing a
skimpy bikini. You have to allow dirty sweaty men to have their way with
you for 16 to 18 hours a day. A girl like that speaks no English.
But somehow she has managed to register with the Chamber of Commerce,
to obtain a stamp from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service in
her passport, to sort out a tenancy agreement, to open a bank account and even to find herself a room in the Red Light District. How is that possible? You tell me…”