Tag Archives: feminism

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.”


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.


Muscles & mussels.

After a rocky start, my weekend improved considerably. Saturday afternoon, three other assistants and I went to the Angers v. Grenoble football match. It was a very worthwhile adventure, memorable for a number of reasons.

Cast of characters, from left: Abby & Caitlin, fellow American assistants, and Andrea, a German assistant. Note the uncapped bottles.

Being recent college grads and cheapskates, Caitlin and I wanted to sneak in some drinks. Being American, we assumed this would be interdit and got a little nervous when we had to open our bags at the gate. As it turns out, they couldn’t have cared less that our bottles of Coke had clearly been…improved. They just made us throw away the caps so we couldn’t use them as weapons.

When we took our seats, we noticed right away that it was a sausage fest. I was surprised and annoyed to discover that sports spectatorship is even more gendered here than it is in the U.S. I don’t mean to say that sports are any less of a Dude Thing in the U.S. than anywhere else, but I’ve attended plenty of games of plenty of sports and I’ve never felt so clearly outnumbered as we did on Saturday. In our section of around 200 people, we made up half of the women. That’s right: 8 out of roughly 200. I’m not sure whether I should be more annoyed at French men for being men or French women for staying home.

Not only were they all male, they were all wearing black coats and blue jeans. Granted the team's colors are black and white, but then where were the white accessories? It was a funny image.

Both of the teams played badly. The game didn’t hold our attention very long, but when while it did, we had spirit, yes we did. I’ve noticed that the French like to chant together, so I was really disappointed that I couldn’t get our section to sing “AhnZHAY, AhnZHAY, AhnZHAY, AhnZHAY, Anzhayyyy, Anzhayyyyy” to the tune of the World Cup “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Olééééé.” I’m just too clever for them, I suppose.

I was also disappointed, if completely unsurprised, that no one joined me in making vuvuzela noises. I’m probably the only white person in the world who genuinely loves the vuvu, so I’d just like to note that it was at the precise second that I played a vuvuzela iPhone app that Angers scored a second goal to tie the game 2-2. See? They’re good luck!

After the game, the girls came over to my little house where Andrea made us a delicious dinner of mussels in a white wine & garlic sauce. I was mesmerized. I haven’t eaten much shellfish in my life, but when I have, it’s always been in the form of canned clam bellies. It never even occurred to me that I might be capable of making the things in the shells into a meal, so Andrea is now pretty much my hero.

The fruits de mer of Andrea's labor. Yumlicious.

Stay tuned for a very special episode next week! I’m finally taking advantage of my five-day weekends and going to Amsterdam on Wednesday!

A Funny Thing Happened on the way au marché

I woke feeling groggy and a bit congested this morning, so sadly, I didn’t feel as eager about the farmer’s market as I usually do. To miss it, though, is unthinkable! Plus, the petits pains aux épices et chocolat—which I would describe as chocolate-covered spice cookies, but the name literally translates to “little breads of spice and chocolate,” which is fantastic because cookies are a sometimes food, but you can never eat too much bread in France—could pull me out of a coma. (Though I hope they’ll never need to…)

So I set off as usual, and I don’t know if it had something to do with the pseudopedrine in my system or what, but this morning was weird.

First, a block from my house, a young man (20ish?) zipped past me on roller skates. Not rollerblades, roller skates. Maybe in France a 20-year-old on roller skates is totally unremarkable but I had to do a double take to make sure I believed my eyes. The only other time I’ve seen roller skates outside of a roller rink is when the Minnesota Roller Girls are in parades.

A few meters farther down the rue, I saw something even weirder. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, except that it was CREEPY: a hundred or so white wooden silhouettes of women arranged around the gazebo in the park, each one labelled with a name tag.

Turns out, it was intended to be upsetting. A woman involved in the installation informed me that it was a memorial to women who were killed by their husbands.

May our daughters inherit a world in which memorials like this one shall be unnecessary.

Third, I had a very strange interaction.

As a foreigner, I’m not always sure whether something was weird because of a language barrier or some subtle cultural difference or whether it was just plain weird—but in this case, I’m leaning toward the latter. Let me explain.

I was drinking coffee from a ceramic travel mug. As I was crossing the street toward my friend Caitlin (we always go to the market together), a guy asked pointed at my mug and asked “Où est-ce que vous avez cherché ce truc?” (Where did you find that thing?)

His question didn’t strike me as weird. The French don’t carry their coffee around with them as we Americans do, so it’s reasonable that he would be curious about a ceramic travel mug with a silicone lid. I answered that I had bought it in the U.S., but that I had seen some just like it in shops around Angers.

What’s weird is what happened after I responded.

He didn’t go away.

He just stood there, looking at us. I greeted Caitlin. He kept watching us. In a fruitless attempt to make his presence less awkward, I asked him his name. He responded—David—but he didn’t ask mine; he just stood there. It was so awkward that I wondered for a moment whether he even spoke French.

At that point I said that I had to go find my favorite cookies—which of course means Time for you to go on your merry way, David—so Caitlin and I turned to cross the street.

He followed.

He was standing too close to us for me to say discreetly to Caitlin that I didn’t know why he was following us, and he wasn’t being a creep, really, just extremely odd. It would have been perfectly fine for him to follow us around—goodness knows we could use more French friends—if he had been making conversation, but he wasn’t. We both figured he was just really bad at being friendly, so we talked to him a little bit but also made a few attempts to part ways with him by slowing down, then speeding up, and acting really engrossed in the various stalls.

Clearly, no sparks were flying, yet David finally took his leave by asking what I was doing in the afternoon. I said that I had a lot of work to do, which of course means Not spending it with you, if that’s what you’re going to ask next.

An appropriate response on his part would have been: Okay, well, have a good one.

But his response was: Call me.

(It gave me flashbacks to Cameroon, where guys insisted on giving us their numbers even if we specifically said that we were NOT going to call.)

He finally walked away, and Caitlin said, “He would have been really intriguing if he weren’t weird and standing too close to us.”

Last but not least…


Previously, I’ve felt more and more at home at the market with each passing Saturday—American accent? Oh, that’s just because I’m a globetrotter, but I’m French, really!—but this week, I was back to square one. Want to know why?

It was a bunny slaughterhouse.

We all know that the French eat rabbits and I’ve noticed that the French are more honest about the origins of meat than Americans are

(as evidenced by the fact that they leave heads and feet on dead chickens)

and I’ve lived in Cameroon

(where the butcheries looked like this)

but I still couldn’t help but gawk today. I had previously only seen rabbit meat arranged into neat bundles, tied up with sprigs of sage, ready for the roast. I guess it’s seasonal, because today, for the first time, I saw bunnies looking like THIS:

Intense, n'est pas?

Big box o' bunny guts