You don’t need to take your clothes off to find out what really goes down in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. Duncan Rhodes gets all the juicy details on an insider tour run by former sex workers.
“Here around the Old Church you’ll find mostly black women and Hispanic women, on this side until the next bridge you’ll find mostly Eastern European women, and from this bridge on you’ll find mostly white women of all countries…”
Welcome to the land of contradictions, our guide Verma had said at the beginning of the tour, and as we stand on a scenic spot over the sleepy waters of one of Amsterdam’s famous canals, it certainly seems contradictory that such a picturesque place could also be one of the world’s infamous epi-centres of perversion. Like most people I’m fascinated by the sleazy side of society, normally kept out of view, but – also like most people – I’m either too shy, or too prudish, to experience the notorious charms of Amsterdam’s Red Light District first hand… which is why I’ve opted for a tour instead.
This particular tour is run by the Prostitute Information Centre (PIC) of Amsterdam, an organisation set up by former sex worker Mariska Majoor seventeen years ago. Mariska entered the sex trade at the age of 16 of her own choice – and, despite her young age at the time, it’s not a choice she has ever regretted. After years serving on the frontline, first at a nightclub, and then later in the red-lit windows, she still felt a great attachment to both the district and the profession, an attachment which drove her to set up the PIC.
“I think it’s really important to have a free and open place in the middle of this world-famous red light district where everybody can go to and ask for information. It’s important for everybody, but in the end it’s most important for sex workers, because people always look at them in a really bad way. My goal is that if I can explain to people and give them a a better view of sex workers then they can feel less embarrassed about themselves and what they do for a living. It makes it easier for them to stand up for their rights and feel secure about their profession. The tour is part of that explaining process,” says Mariska.
Back on the streets and we’re now standing underneath the towering Gothic ‘Oude Kerk‘ church, our group of curious couples and young back-packers huddling around Verma as she explains some of the history of the naughty quarter, which goes way back beyond the first cheap flights to Amsterdam.
“Many people are surprised to find a church here, right in the middle of the Red Light District but from the 14th century this area was already known as an unsavoury area. Building a church here was actually a strategical move by the government of the time to convert these poor poor women who, they believed, had fallen victim to men’s evil and lustful desires.”
The plan however didn’t work, as construction on the church continued on and off for 600 years (as one wag in our group pointed out, the construction workers must have got distracted), and for centuries the naves were used for a market place, where the ladies of ill repute would often meet and socialise during the daylight hours. Today at last the church functions as a place of worship, but some things haven’t changes since medieval times, claims Verma.
“Many people today, in 2011, still believe that all the women involved in prostitution are victims and all the men are the perpetrators. At the PIC that’s also part of our mission to tell people that we are not all victims, that we’re not little lambs just following the wolf into the big bad woods. We can make decisions and choices of our own, even if they’re not necessarily your choices.”
Verma, a jovial academic type, is in fact the only member of the PIC who is not a former sex worker, but she shows a remarkable solidarity with the women of the RLD (often using ‘we’ in casual talk about them). This solidarity, coupled with her four year’s of study of the history of prostitution in Amsterdam, makes her the perfect tour guide for this infamous district. Her slow walking pace (she is using crutches, having hurt her leg) is an added bonus, as it give us plenty of opportunity to apply our retinae to the red-lit windows that occupy the ground floor of the austerely-beautiful 17th century canal-side properties. Women of all shapes, ages, colours and sizes can be found gyrating, beckoning or pouting in bikinis from the inside of their softly-lit love nests, but here on the main canal most confirm to typical male fantasies of being young, pale and pert. In the last remains of daylight, these pornographic creatures seem more than a little incongruous and most of the tourists passing by – families, couples and big groups of students – either ignore them, giggle, or try to take a surreptitious photograph (a practice much frowned upon in this neck of the woods).
“Are there always women in the windows, 24/7?” someone asks.
“Oh yes. You can come here at 7 o’clock in the morning and there are still women in the windows. There are lots of people who like to come to work with a smile.”
After crossing over to the other side of the waterway, Verma draws us up close to a window where a busty brunette is busy pretending to field a phonecall (…apparently this makes them seem more unattainable). Verma is careful to position us so that we are not obstructing the passage of any potential customers.
“All the women working here are self employed which means they are completely their own boss, they are the ones who decide what they wear, or what they don’t wear, what they will and what they will not do, and who gets to come in and who does not. I always say this specifically because for some reason there are still a lot of people who believe that a prostitute is not allowed to say no. This of course is absolutely not true. Just because you’re renting your body – you are not selling it, just renting it out for a certain period of time – doesn’t mean it’s not still yours.”
Not only are the women self-employed but, as prostitution is legal in Holland, they also pay taxes. And whilst condoms are tax-deductable expenses their first concern is to get enough customers into their window to pay the exorbitant rents. The windows, Verma informs us, are rented by companies who own up to 100 each, to the women at a rate of 80 to 180 euros per 8 hour shift.
“As with any business, location is very important – this area is the main street so you’ll definitely be paying 180 euros to work here. If you want to go inside with a lady over here it will cost you a bare minimum of 50 euros for 15 mins, and that’s for the most basic, boring sex you can imagine. Basically you can ask anything you want but it’s completely up to the woman whether a) she’ll do it b) whether she’ll do it with you and c) how much she charges for it. So prices can be completely different from that window to that window for anything you want to do.”
I guess the message here is shop around.
Whilst the women in our tour group are outraged by the high rents and long shifts, the men question whether 15 mins are really enough time to get jiggy with it, no matter how big the lady in question’s fake boobs are. Verma assures us however that on average clients only spends 6 minutes behind closed curtains:
“This type of prostitution only has one goal, and the goal is not to spoon up beside one another, or have a nice massage in the bubble bath – the goal is orgasm,” she asserts. Small talk is at a premium when there’s customers queuing up and rent to pay, making Amsterdam’s Red Light District the McDonalds of the sex trade.
We move on down further the increasingly busy streets. Night has fallen and joining the more genteel tourists, the greater-spotted British stag parties have added a level of boisterousness to the evening. As one group lurch by to our left, we swing a right down the narrowest alley I’ve ever stepped foot in. Barely four foot wide there’s a slow train of people, mostly guys, walking in each direction and now you can really feel the district’s sleaze factor. Both sides of the lane are lined with more red-lit panes, and as we pass by at whisker’s length it strikes me this is window shopping of an extremely tempting nature. As the girls pout, wink, whisper, and whistle at those passing by I think I know how Odysseus must have felt on his way past the sirens. I don’t have any rope, but nor do I have 50 euros: it’s Lady Poverty who has tied me to the mast.
Amongst the skinny Slavs, fake-titted-and-tanned blondes, and bookish brunettes (complete with thick-rimmed glasses), I spy a perfectly proportioned pin-up with nipple piercings, arm-length tattooes and thigh-high PVC boots. That could be a wild 15 minutes, I think to myself wistfully. When I finally manage to catch up with Verma I ask her what percentage of the red light customers are tourists.
“A really small percentage. Most tourists never get to see the inside of the room, and that’s because there’s a couple of rules customers have to adhere to. The first rule is that these women will not take a customer that’s obviously drunk, because drunk people are unpredictable and that leads to bad situations – so there goes, what, 60% of all tourists? And that’s a conservative estimate! The second rule is you don’t take a customer who has obviously used drugs. It’s not that stoned people can get aggressive but they can pass out or be sick, and you don’t want to spend your shift dealing with that.”
It’s a testament to how protective this district is of the girls that work here, that they can afford to turn down customers they don’t like the look of – and with no pimp harrassing them, plus a panic button in every room, this is about as safe as prostitution gets, for both customer and concubine. We finish our tour at the other side of the church where we’d begun and Verma brings our attention to a statue in the square. It’s of a semi-naked girl, hands on hips, in a doorway.
“This statue right here, this is our Belle. We put this statue here in 2007. She represents the respect we have for all the sex workers all over the world. She is a unique statue of her kind because she shows a proud woman with her head held up and her chest forward – prostitutes are usually tucked away in shame in a corner somewhere. What we want to do is help empower these women. I always say that you don’t have to like this, you don’t have to do it yourself, but I do believe it’s time – it’s 2010 – that we start accepting the fact that there are women who do this. And, as we see here in Amsterdam, by making it legal, by making it safe, you can do it right.”