It’s probably telling that my first post on Amsterdam is about the Red Light District, but I am unsure how to feel about the legal prostitution here.On the one hand, I appreciate the transparency of the whole affair. The industry is governed by rules that it must follow to ensure the health and safety of those in it. People have had sex recreationally since the beginning of time, and prostitution, they say, is one of the oldest professions on earth. People want to –need to–“do it”, and in this consumer culture, some will naturally pay to satisfy their carnal desires. The legalization of prostitution de-stigmatizes the industry and creates a free market in which a person can purchase the service of sex if they have the means to do so.
It all makes sense in theory.
But then… Liebling and I take a stroll through the Red Light District on a Saturday night and the harsh reality of it makes me feel slightly uneasy. The streets cut by canals are narrow, teeming with people (mostly men), brightened by neon signs selling sex.
The rows of windows are filled with women awaiting their next customer. All different shapes and sizes, the only thing that seemingly unify them is the revealing clothing they wear. One stares blankly out to the street, unflinching as a man with a large blow-up penis tied to his middle thrusts it noncommittally in her direction, his group of six or so friends egging him on. Another massages her large, surgically-enhanced breasts and mouths words I’m unable to make out to passerby. She’s going for sexy but her gesturing is over the top.
It’s none of my business but I wonder about these girls: where they are from, their back story. What do they think? What do they feel? I don’t judge them but I wonder if they’re happy, I hope that this is something they chose and that they aren’t being subjugated and objectified by a demanding public. I want to ask the choosers what motivates them is to sell their sex, an act so taboo in most places in the world? Commoditizing one’s body is a foreign concept to me. I can’t put myself in their shoes, but I want to understand.
We spend fifteen minutes walking the main strip and then leave. Liebling stops for fries, the greasy thick-cut ones they wrap up in a paper cone, but I’m still haunted by the ladies in the window. Our last day in Amsterdam, Sunday, they are momentarily forgotten — it’s museum day for us and my head is instead filled with Van Gogh and his artistic vision and tragic sorrow — but Monday rolls around and I find myself back in London googling “prostitution in Amsterdam”.
I come across supposed real accounts from men who have dabbled. I read that it is 50 euros for a “basic” liaison of twenty minutes or so and that deviations from this are extra. I learn that prostitution in the Netherlands was only legalized in the 1990’s, and that more than two thirds of the working girls in Amsterdam are foreigners from poorer countries, many using their bodies as a ticket to financial freedom. I learn that as the sex industry in the Netherlands has increased in revenue, so has the amount of human trafficking into the country. Organized crime rings smuggle women into the country illegally and then force them to join the sex trade. Yes, I know, I understand that some have willfully chosen this profession and more power to them. Still, it is sad to know that for others there was no choice, so with a mouse click I shut the browser and move on to something more uplifting. But then… my mind wanders again and in the moment I blink I can see them — the girls — behind my eyelids, burning holes into my consciousness as they wait for the next customer.
Have you ever been to the Red Light District? How do you feel about prostitution and its legalization? Is it immoral or necessary?