Day 5 @ the Red Light District of Amsterdam, Netherlands
I have finally come to this day. Today. When I am writing about the ‘Red Light District‘ of Amsterdam. I feel that Amsterdam is the best place for a woman to take up sex work in a safe environment. It is the only city where prostitution is a conscious decision, and where women know, “My body is my Business”.
The first reaction that people have when they hear Amsterdam is, everything is legal! weed! And, the Red Light area! Well, yes, marijuana is legal here, and you can buy it at any coffee shop if you’re over 18 (they will check for ID if they want to, so don’t try to fool them). And, then De Wallen, or popularly known as the “Red Light District” (I shall use RLD for short, since I will be using this term a lot in this post). Where do I even begin? I find myself at a loss of words. Not out of pity though. But, because I was truly fascinated by it. I believe It takes guts to get into a profession like this. And that too on your own will. As much as it awes us, it is everyday life and business for the people working there.
I took my time in writing this post, because it really made sense to me. It wasn’t just sight seeing, but quite informative. And, I wanted it to be as informative to the readers as it was to me.
So, to start with, we took a guided tour of this district. The tour is arranged by the Prostitution Information Center (PIC), which was started by a lady named Mariska Majoor, a former sex worker from behind the window in the RLD. This center has mainly been established to help or assist sex workers with any kind of personal or legal matters. It is also to guide women who want to get into this profession, to provide any information to students who want to study about this, as well as for the general public like us. It is very easy to get to the PIC from Amsterdam Centraal station. Just use Google maps, and you can find your way there, or anywhere for that matter. The tour costs EUR. 15 per person. You cannot book this online. You need to be at the PIC 15 minutes prior to the start of the tour, which takes place every Wednesday from 18:30. It lasts for about 1.5 hours, and payment for the booking is only accepted in cash.
The tour starts at the back of the old church of Amsterdam. It is a beautiful church which is said to be built in the 1300’s after Amsterdam got its city rights. The church is close to the Amsterdam harbour. It is said to be built so close to the harbour to make it convenient for the sailors to get to the RLD back in the good old days. The lady who gave us the tour also spoke about a myth back then. Apparently, it was believed that customers came to the RLD, and then directly went to the church after. They thought the act was sinful, and needed to be washed off immediately. Don’t know if it actually happened.
After a little History lesson, our guide started talking about the profession of prostitution. To begin with, I got to know that Amsterdam is the only place where prostitution is legal. If a woman wants to work behind the window in the RLD, she needs to register herself with the Chamber of Commerce to start practicing it. There are three main criteria of doing this. 1. They need to prove that they are above 18 years of age; 2. They come from one of EU countries; 3. They have been registered at the local municipality. For women wanting to be a sex worker from outside the EU zone, it is tough, and a whole other ball game. Nonetheless, no matter how legalized systems are for prostitution in Amsterdam, illegal prostitution still prevails. They simply don’t register, and keep working out of their place of residence. Maybe, this is also because if they register, they need to pay taxes.. yes, they are professionals earning an income which is taxable.
A few ground rules when you’re taking this tour..
(a) Don’t look at the sex workers with pity, or feel sorry for them. They are smart women who know what they are doing!
(b) Don’t stare at them when they are standing almost naked behind a glass window! They are only humans, not aliens.
(c) No pictures without their permission! A lot of these women lead dual lives. So respect their need for privacy.
Every sex worker in the RLD is the owner of her own business. She works for herself, on her own terms. They are their own bosses, and can do what they want with their bodies. You might think that they have been forced into doing this, or they might have been the victims of human trafficking. But, no. They are where they are because they wanted so. Every woman behind the window has her reasons for getting into this profession. More often than not, it is a temporary stint for them. A way to make good money to fulfill their dreams and aspirations. Many women get into it, and stick around for as long as they have not earned their required amount. This time duration varies from person to person. One woman just got into it for six months, and then moved on with her studies.
Sounds like they have a good life doing this work.. they choose who they want to entertain, and who they don’t. They decide what all they want to encourage when they take in a customer. Apparently, a lot of people come with all kinds of crazy sexual fantasies. But, these fantasies coming true is entirely up to the discretion of the lady behind the window. They make all the deals with a customer at the door itself, and if there is a disagreement, they can always send him back. They make a lot of money! Apparently, the minimum charge is EUR. 50 for 15 minutes. Any time extra, you pay extra. The cops are always around in cars and on horses. You can see them making regular rounds making sure things are under control. There are CCTV cameras at every nook and corner, so the area is always under surveillance. There is a panic button for the sex workers to hit on, if a situation gets out of hand. This is not a very usual phenomena, however, if it does occur, it is said that the police arrives in less than a minute. So, if you see, with everything legal, they have the police on their side, which is a huge advantage.
Even then, it is not all cream and sugar for the sex workers here. They too have a usual 8 hour shift. They need to book a room in the RLD for 8 hours, the money for which goes from their own pockets. This is business for them, and they pay around EUR. 150 for a room for 8 hours. Not to mention, buying some essentials such as condoms, lubricants, clean sheets, lingerie, etc. Not everyday is a good business day. I was shocked to know that it is usually weekdays, especially Monday mornings that are the busy days. Tourists don’t form a big part of their clientele, but it is the locals who do. And these things are not the down side to their work. I am sure it doesn’t even bother them. What does lack is the respect they get when people get to know their profession. Being a place with such a chilled out crowd, Amsterdam still has some people who aren’t. Even today, when a sex worker decides to quit and start afresh, she cannot always tell people where she worked earlier. Why? Because she won’t get a job, or if she has a job, she will get fired. Another reason for leading dual lives. The other thing would be that sex workers cannot open up a business account with a bank. Although, her work is her business, and she might want to keep a separate account for it. But no! They don’t get this privilege.
It seems a bit unfair, how people still look down upon sex workers. Especially in Amsterdam. They are doing this work because they want to. Who am I or anybody else to judge her life’s choices. It is in fact a tough job, and cannot be taken up by every woman. Standing in a g-string, posing seductively to tempt a customer is not everybody’s forte. As long as she’s happy, why make a grim face about her profession?
At this point, a lady asked our guide about male sex workers. Why are there no male sex workers in the area? Don’t women have needs? To which our guide asked counter questions. Would you actually go inside paying EUR. 50 for 15 minutes? And, more importantly, will 15 minutes be enough for you? Well, we all had a laugh.. but to answer the above question. She did mention, that they tried having male sex workers behind the windows. A lot of women came by, admired the bodies of these men. Blushed, went gaga over them. But, not a single one entered. She then said that women cannot usually have sex with someone they are not comfortable with. True. She also said that if a woman wants to have sex with a random guy, she needn’t pay for it. If a man and a woman, both step out and scream “I want to have sex with someone!”, a woman is likely to have more men approaching her than the women approaching a man. Which again.. no offense, might be true..
To sum it up this tour was a good insight about the lives of the sex workers in the Red Light District. To know more, you can read the book by Mariska Majoor, When Sex Becomes Work. In this book, she talks about her personal experiences from her days of working behind the window. She talks about how passers by gave her weird looks, when she always thought of her work to be just as normal as any other work. It is a short book, and a good read. Apart from the RLD, there is a Blue Light District for transgenders or transvestites. The Blue Light District was not known to me until the guide mentioned it. So, this is a rather less known fact.
After the completion of the tour, we headed to check out the Sex Museum. This place is quite close to the RLD or even Amsterdam Centraal station. You can use Google maps, and it is probably a 10 minute walk from either of the above mentioned locations. The entry ticket costs EUR. 4 per person. It is a four floor building showcasing ‘sex’ from the beginning of time I suppose. You can find all kinds of sculptures, photographs, paintings, posters, and what not, showing different forms and positions of sex. I don’t really have much more to say about the museum. You’d have to go see it for yourself. It is an experience!