Confessions from the red-light district: Amsterdam

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I am in marketplace like no other I have been in before. Women in glass boxes arch their bodies invitingly, pretty young whores like mannequins who have come alive in store windows. Throngs of tourists stop to stare and point at the window displays. Bright lights complete for my attention but I hurry down the street, head down, hands stuffed into pockets. I feel like I am caught in a storm; a cyclone of uncertainty rushes passed me and I reach for the only thing that feels real to me – a growing feeling of discomfort that hollows out the pit of my stomach. But somehow, the tighter I seem to hang to my discomfort, the more slippery it becomes and soon I am no longer able to take solace in it’s existence and I am forced to succumb the cyclone. It sucks me into it’s vortex and in the madness, I look for the calm, hoping to learn something from this new discovery. Ticking on a glass box and I am drawn to a woman in back underwear lined with bright neon green. Clever, I think. That’s a good way to draw attention.  An interested buyer steps forward, Euros eager to be traded for flesh as he asks “How much?”. I cannot hear the trader’s response but I see her turn around to allow the buyer a better view of the goods he is about to purchase. He inspects her the way he would an object, a careful consideration of his purchase to ensure it is defect free. I do not know her or him but I can imagine what he sees when she leads him back to the room she has rented. Like many of the other small clinical rooms that line the street, she probably has a stuffed teddy bear on her bed, some posters of her favourite celebrities on the walls. It is as though her room is reminiscent of something lost, an innocence she seeks. I do not know how many customers she has had but I do know that it is only after her third customer that she is able to pay the rent for her room and start to make money. I also know that every year women like her are murdered by their clientele.

In this marketplace, I wonder what it is that gets traded. I wonder why we feel that it is okay to stare, to judge, as if these women no longer deserve our respect. Have they traded our respect for money? We save our condemnation for the woman that may have been forced into this life, that may see no other way to feed her family or to pay for her studies, yet we bear her patrons no ill will. It is easy to judge her and the choices she makes, we have names for her – whore, prostitute, hooker – but none for the men who she exists to service. Is she sordid, dirty, morally reprehensible? Or should a woman be free to do what she wishes with her body? How different is this woman standing behind the glass door to the woman who sleeps with her boss to get a promotion, to the woman to gives her body to her rich husband that she does not love? If we condemn the women in the red-light district shouldn’t we condemn the others who are just like her? Shouldn’t we condemn the men who procure these services and then go back to their wives and girlfriends? What would we do if we did not condemn these women, the men, the act of selling sex? Would we accept the objectification of women, would we accept it when our daughters, mothers, wives, girlfriends start to consider prostitution as a viable career choice? Would we turn a blind eye, pretend we don’t know what’s happening and chose to ignore the women of the night? I suppose the answers are not so clear cut or simple. It is a complex puzzle and I do not have all the pieces.

I wanted my first post about Amsterdam to be lighter, funnier. Perhaps I should have written about how the city is a contradiction in many ways, how after stumbling out of the red light district the first thing I heard was church bells or about the stoned middle aged couple that clung to each other terrified to fall off the pavement. But somehow, I could not get passed this experience. I would have liked to talk to one of the women on the street that night, I would have asked her how she got started, I would have asked her if she was not afraid, I would have asked her how she felt when men walked by without interest and she knew she had bills to pay. That night, I felt like I was walking through a city from a different time, a time where women relied on men for money, a time where women were things of pleasure instead of thinking, feeling human beings. I suppose my visceral reaction was more to that than to the actual act of prostitution. To me these women where caged, trapped behind the glass door of poor choices and bad decisions. The only difference between their trappings and ours is that theirs are laid bare for the whole world to see.

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