Damnsterdam! Day 4 (cont’d)

Day 4 (cont’d)
Everyone’s a Little Roxanne Sometimes

Among other vices Amsterdam is known for offering, one of the most unique is window prostitution. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, so rather than making themselves—and their customers!—vulnerable on shady street corners, sex workers can rent a window from which to hawk their wares. As I said on Day 2, seeing prostitutes behind their windows is crazy weird at first, which is one of many reasons the Prostitution Information Center exists.

The PIC, established by a former sex worker, has a multifold purpose. It’s a gathering point where sex workers can find advice on things like taxes and healthcare, but it’s also a good stop for visitors who want some background on the Red Light District. (Or, if you’re into that kind of thing, advice on where your particular sex tourist desires can be satisfied.) You can ask questions and browse books and brochures, or, as I did, take a walking tour of the area.

I nearly turned down the walking tour because it cost 15€ ($20.31 US), but I decided that (a) it’s a donation to a quirky and inherently feminist nonprofit and (b) I can only be sure that I’ll be in Amsterdam once, so I should just carpe the freakin’ diem. I’m really glad I did. If you’re ever in Amsterdam on a Saturday afternoon, go to the Prostitution Information Center and take the walking tour.

Nearly all of the women who work at the PIC are former sex workers. Our guide was not, but she had written a thesis on the history of prostitution in Amsterdam. She told us about how the area has been known for “pleasures of the night” for centuries.

This church, the oldest in 'dam, was built with the mission of cleaning up the neighborhood. As you can see, it failed miserably. Women work from windows just behind the church.

Coming from the U.S., where sex workers are relegated to the shadiest street corners in the grittiest parts of town, I was surprised to learn that the RLD is some of the most sought-after real estate in Amsterdam. It makes a lot of sense, actually: the prostitutes have an interest in keeping the area desirable and safe so that they’ll have plenty of visitors and customers. The canal houses nearby sell for millions.

As a feminist, of course it bothered me to see hundreds of male tourists wandering drunkenly by, commenting on the women in the windows. But becauseI’m a feminist, I can’t stress strongly enough how preferable that system is to the shady street corner version of prostitution practiced nearly everywhere else in the world.

Prostitution has been around forever and probably always will be. To legalize it makes it safer for everyone involved. When prostitution is illegal, sex workers have no recourse if their customers abuse them or refuse to pay. Customers have no recourse if sex workers hurt or rob them. To prevent abuse, Amsterdam’s prostitution windows are equipped with panic buttons that go directly to the police. Furthermore, a window system empowers the prostitutes to be particular about their customers and to negotiate their terms. Consequently, HIV rates among Amsterdam’s sex workers are very, very low.

I’m not saying that prostitution seems awesome. Far from it. It’s still an undesirable job that the vast majority of women involved do for the money and only for the money. To feel sorry for them, though, is demeaning—remember, a minority of women do it because they like it. My guide told us that she knew a woman who kept working as a prostitute into her 80’s even though she could afford to retire ten times over.

Included in the price of the tour: posing for pictures in the window at the PIC!

In the 90 seconds or so I spent posing for the picture, at least a dozen passersby wondered why I was so clothed.

I’m still no fan of the icky males who outnumbered women four to one in the RLD, but after the walking tour, I couldn’t help but like the area anyway. It’s unique and exciting, and I appreciate the Dutch attitude of, “Hey, it’s going to happen anyway, so let’s be frank about it so we can generate tax and tourist revenue.”

Epilogue

When I told my dad that the RLD is prized real estate, he couldn’t believe it. “I wouldn’t want to raise my kids in a neighborhood like that,” he said, “and how could you invite guests over?” I understand his point, but here’s my counter.

While seeing prostitutes behind windows made me uncomfortable at first, it made me even more uncomfortable to come home to France and find this ad campaign plastered all over the Paris Metro and Angers bus stops. You can avoid the Red Light District if you want, but can’t avoid these ads.

This one is tame compared to a few others in the campaign. French ads are even worse for women than American ads, but that's a topic for another post entirely.

Okay, so the prostitutes behind windows are alive and the poster is merely an image, but I find the distinction irrelevant when the poster is so clearly designed to titillate the viewer. In another one from the same campaign, she’s even wearing a fetish mask. Imagine what pubescent boys are doing while they wait for the bus. Ew!

I wouldn’t want to be a prostitute, but I wouldn’t want to be that model, either. At least the prostitute gets paid every time she gets you off.

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