Red Light Reflections

Inside Amsterdam’s historic district.

Red Light District 1. By Steve. 3/14/18. CC BY-SA 2.0

Red Light District 1. By Steve. 3/14/18. CC BY-SA 2.0

All the mythology of Amsterdam seems find its mooring in the red light district, the city’s spiritual center of tolerance and liberalism. Yet as I walk through the district on a late afternoon it doesn’t seem to be the mecca of sexual appetite often pictured in the media. I had envisioned (of course) the scarlet pulsing of the lights, women in lace lingerie lounging against open windows, hordes of beer-smelling smelling people weaving their intoxicated way through the streets, then stumbling into those notorious doorways. And perhaps that is the view at midnight, but now with the light of early evening filtering through the trees to the canal bellow I see only a strangely peaceful street occupied by families, commuters on bikes, and the tourists like myself following their curiosity. It is a moment in which I experience that infamous gap between expectation and reality, being in the place versus experiencing its mythology.

I wander towards the edge of the neighborhood where the turrets of an impressively gothic church create an ironic backdrop for the district. On my way I rejoin my tour group in time to hear the guide mention the legends that have arisen around this juxtaposition. She says that according to fable, clients of the nearby district would come to this church in order to receive a kind of fast-pass confession in which they would be forgiven for all they were about to do that night. Another, more colorful legend included priests themselves selling tokens to parishioners that could then be accepted by sex workers in exchange for their services. “So you know what that would make the church,” the tour guide says as my group laughs, filling in the blank.

The actual history of the church, called Oude Kerk, or old church in Dutch, is a bit more drab — most likely it was built early on in Amsterdam's history where it would have been located in the heart of the city — a medieval metaphor for Christianity at the center of daily life.

I walk with my group past Oude Kerk to the front of a small strip of nondescript buildings where the headquarters of the Prostitution Information Center, or PIC, an activist agency working to de-stigmatize sex work in the Netherlands is located. As my group enters the building I take a seat at the back of the small room we have entered. The PIC headquarters are cozy and welcoming — filled with haphazard rows of benches and stacks of nonfiction and memoir. At my back a display window holds a mannequin wearing fishnets, heals, a garter, and a T-shirt reading “sex work is work.” To my left a mural depicts a canal street with pastel coloured buildings around a large red lamp post.

After being seated we are introduced to Jackie and Elsa, members of PIC and sex workers operating in the Amsterdam area. Jackie has light eyes and a kind face. She is celebrating 25 years of work in the prostitution industry — a fairly rare occurrence among sex-workers. When the leaders of our group encourage us to ask her questions about her work she laughs saying, “Ask me anything, I’ve seen it all. You can’t embarrass me, but you might make a fool out of yourself.”

As the conversation begins we learn that Jackie is a registered psychiatric nurse and works with people who experience erectile dysfunction, the disabled, and the elderly among others. She speaks with poise and eloquence, sharing how she likes to have time with her clients to talk and eat. To Jackie, sex work is emotionally validating — she sees it as going hand in hand with her nursing degree; both jobs allowing her to help and connect with people. When sharing how she first entered the sex industry, Jackie described feeling that she had found something incredibly validating, something that allowed her to use her talent for sensitivity and personableness. “I just like to be myself,” she says, matter-of-factly, “clients will ask if I can wear a certain outfit, but I don't like to do that. I usually wear something like this,” she says, motioning towards the floral dress she is wearing over a black t-shirt.

In some respects Jackie considers herself fairly lucky. Her family knows of and accepts her profession, and her brother even worked as her escort at one point in her career. Though she admits that her father wishes she had chosen a different career path, her mother is supportive of her choice, something she says is rare in the prostitution industry.

Elsa, the other PIC sex worker we speak with, works the windows of the red light district. She compares her own and Jackie’s lines of work to different restaurant experiences, saying, “she’s a three star Michelin restaurant and I’m a McDonald's.” Elsa calls window work “Mcpussy” — it’s a fast turnover business with little room for the kind of work Jackie likes to do. She doesn’t use the McDonald's metaphor pejoratively, but as a way to communicate to us the wide variety of services in the prostitution industry. When someone asks if she falls in love with her clients she laughs, almost derisively. “Do you fall in love with the person who serves you at a restaurant? There’s a difference between making a meal for someone you love and slapping together a Big Mac at your job,” she continues, “and there’s a difference between making love and sex.”

As the conversation continues, Jackie talks about the ways in which the industry has shifted over time. The advent of social media has made life difficult for sex workers, who often hide their profession from family and friends. Jackie says that she owns two Facebook accounts, one under Jackie, her sexworker alias, and another under her given name. She had worked hard to keep these two identities separate, keeping her sex worker friends on one platform, and her other acquaintances on the other; that is, until she was outed, presumably by a friend. “I noticed that my dentist and other friends started following my sex work Facebook and I new someone had given me away,” she said, “I don’t want my dentist knowing that about me.”

Jackie is adamant about the need to change the stigma surrounding sex work. She acknowledges that there are many women who are forced into the industry, but argues that human trafficking represents a small percentage of the prostitution industry and that most sex workers in the Netherlands enter the industry of their own will. “We need to end the view that sex workers are always victims,” she says, “this isn’t accurate.”

While the Netherlands is known for its toleration of the prostitution industry, Jackie explains why this isn’t enough. Dutch toleration of the industry was merely the recognition that prostitution is something that naturally occurs despite any laws made against it, legalizing and therefore taxing it enables the government to better ensure the safety of sex workers and make some money off the industry. This attitude, however, is merely one of tolerance and not acceptance. After all, the meaning of the word merely suggests allowing or refraining from punishing a certain activity — it has no requirement for validating, celebrating, or changing the stigma surrounding the thing being tolerated.

Eventually the conversation ends and my group files slowly out of the PIC into the twilight shadow of Oude Kerk. I know that soon the district will begin to change — the sex workers will arrive at their windows and the red lights will turn on and the ethos of the crowd will shift. But for now I walk with my group out of the district, savoring the new understanding that comes with seeing and engaging something experienced before only at a distance. I know that there are other stories, other sex workers who work in the prostitution industry merely to get by, or who are forced into it, and I acknowledge their experiences. Jackie and Elsa, however, represent a different narrative — one is rarely heard.

I think that maybe this is why we travel, to learn that all of our preconceived notions are rooted in our own cultural experience; that they may exist differently elsewhere.


EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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