Wednesday, April 5, 2017

On the Red Light District in Amsterdam

I am in Amsterdam to attend a conference and my curiosity about the red light district is stoked by colleagues who have taken the tour. The city has been hailed as a success story for why weed and sex work should be legal. I joke to my husband " well in this society where sex work and weed are legal and people are still not happy they can choose assisted suicide and die, because that is legal too."

I consider myself a liberal and inclusive person. I probably should not have taken the tour given my views that follow - so I apologize in advance for my hypocrisy.

Anyway, more about the tour. The red light district as a historic relic came to be at its present location to serve sailors returning from months at sea, located as it is next to the then port. The port has now been replaced by the Centraal Station. However, the red light district continues at that location presumably to serve tourists.

We start our tour in front of a church in a cobblestone pathway. Hardly the setting for a red light district! There, on proud display, is a miniature Belle, the statue which represents the hard fought rights for sex workers to get the profession regulated and legalized in the year 2000. These rights cover web-camming and porn as well. Peep shows and live sex shows are on the decline given the abundant availability of porn on the internet. However, regulated does not mean decriminalized, as it is in New Zealand. What a novel idea! I will elaborate on why I think so.

In the heart of the district, Mariska Majoor the leader who spearheaded the fight for sex worker rights runs the Prostitution Information Centre (PIC) which also doubles as a coffee and cake shop. It is feminine a la out of a women's catalogue, just a tad seedier, and filled with books and pictures tracing the early history of sex work and offering information on rates for sexual services. It also serves as the location for the meetings of the sex workers' rights organization PROUD. Now that the profession can be operated with licenses and permits, sex workers have health checks and panic buttons to ensure their safety.

After our introduction to this heroic movement we walk the narrow alleys in this ancient neighbourhood, beside the famed canals. I am startled when we suddenly come upon a brothel display window with a woman posing behind it, and even more taken aback when we are led through the entry way of a residence which suddenly morphs into a brothel with rows of rooms that have curtains drawn open or shut, depending on whether or not a customer is visiting. We actually see a man come out of one of them. I find myself in this very personal space peering in like a voyeur. Try as I might, I cannot look away from the women, immaculately groomed in high stilettos and scanty clothes, though sufficiently covered. Their professional, "I mean business and I am bored" expressions are not seductive or alluring and at odds with their beckoning gestures with their hands, or with the jiggling of their ample bosoms and buttocks. They are definitely proud and picture perfect to the point of being robotic. They come in all sizes and colours, are all in great shape and well augmented. We are told the cabins with the blue lights are for transgendered women.

I am not quick to judge or moralize. Each to their own is my maxim. I am passionate about individual freedom and respect for the choices people make. But these brothel display windows do exploit and objectify women. I am not alone since I hear this is a polarizing issue.

Many say these girls choose to, so what? I draw the line where an individual's choice is self destructive. So just as I sway on the side of addiction treatment rather than harm reduction, I cannot condone and support women displaying their bodies as wares through windows. Especially where there is still stigma associated with sex work. I don't think it is healthy for them given we don't live in societies which normalize sex work - but which still choose to fetishize it. Does having a day care or residences beside these display windows normalize this behaviour ? Sadly - no. And while 50 Euros for 10 minutes is good income, they would need to see three customers in a 6 hour shift to break even with rental and other payments!!

At the moment these brothel windows are still an attraction - evidence the large number of tourists, and the vast array of restaurants, souvenir shops and stores selling sex paraphernalia all around the district. They serve to bring in customers. However, the bureaucratic red tape and pressure to gentrify the red light district are making sex work, and these brothels in general, less and less viable. When viability is an issue there is definite risk of trafficking, irrespective of whether sex work is legal or not.

Criminalization is not an option, given this is one of the oldest professions and will thrive underground if it remains unregulated, placing women at considerable risk of being trafficked and making criminals of them, even more than the johns they serve. I could even accept this whole enterprise of standing behind windows as objects on display, under the jarring red lights, and actively soliciting customers as an elaborate form of performance art. But I just cannot shake how disturbed I am that this red light district amplifies women's objectification in a profession still billed exclusively as women at the service of men. The liberal Dutch are quick to dissociate themselves from the district, swearing that it's not their women who work the district or their men who are johns. However, there is no disputing the tourism revenue that it brings in to Dutch society. And I definitely do not feel better about it when I am told the women in the red light district come from desperate lives in poorer neighbouring countries.

For all these reasons decriminalization a la New Zealand appears to be a better option. I don't think it will increase our collective depravity in any significant way and would simply mean money being exchanged for sex by consenting adults and no bureaucratic red tape. This may also mean less trafficking?!

Of course, where consent is absent or where children are not old enough to consent such behaviours would come under the purview of the criminal laws of the land?!