A Land of Cannabis, Canals, and Sex Work
When I was abroad in England, I came across the word “partners” a lot. Everyone I met seemed to call their significant other their “partner” (except for one woman, who called her husband her “better half”). I came from a context where it seemed most people who called their significant other their “partner” were in same-sex relationships. So for a while, I walked around thinking everyone I met in England was gay.
I soon found out, however, that “partner” is the more colloquial term used in England, even in heterosexual relationships. This small shift opened my eyes to what I could learn from other cultures, and was not the only cultural difference around sex and relationships I learned about while traveling abroad.
When I went to Amsterdam, I went to the Red Light District, where brothels, “coffee shops,” (legal weed dispensers), peep shows and sex shops abound. The name of "Red Light District" comes from the red neon lights that spotlight the 300 windows where women are working. There’s even a museum about the history of Amsterdam's sex-work industry, called Red Light Secrets, complete with testimonials, exhibits, and confessionals. I learned about the reasons people go into sex work (some do it to pay off student loans), and about the difference between voluntary sex work and exploitation.
Though sex work is still illegal in my home country, the United States, in Amsterdam people are incredibly open about these services. Women literally advertise their services by dancing scantily clad in the windows of buildings (they’re called “window prostitutes”).
Since October 2000, window prostitutes have been allowed to legally offer their services. Today, sex workers in the Netherlands also pay taxes. Since prostitution is now a legal profession, the Dutch government ensures that all sex workers have access to medical care and can work in better conditions by regulating and monitoring working practices and standards.
Though I’m not sure how day-to-day interactions go when these women tell people they are sex workers, it seems that the practice de-stigmatizes sex as taboo and gives women a full sense of their autonomy. The women are respected; their work is seen as a job. It is illegal to harass or take pictures of the women in the windows as well.
Something interesting about the Red Light District is the rising number of male prostitutes. While historically, women have far outnumbered men in Amsterdam’s sex work industry, that is starting to change. However, the only male prostitutes available in the Red Light District are for gay men. My immediate reaction to this fact is that I find it unsettling that women’s bodies are monetized and objectified for men, while the reverse is not true. It seems that the male gaze is always present, and the idea of a market existing in which women were the customers is not taken seriously.
But perhaps I need to remember that this is a choice for the women who engage in sex work, and many have found ways to draw empowerment from it. Additionally, this practice revealed to me that in the end, there is nothing mystical or magical about women’s bodies. As long as what they are doing is consensual, there is nothing wrong or dirty about it.
I learned a lot from this experience. I had already learned that as a feminist, it’s important to support sex workers and the decriminalization of sex work. To see a culture where that ideal is put into action, however, altered my perspective. I began looking up ways to educate myself further and support sex workers. If you want to learn more, check out Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, a national social justice network dedicated to protecting the human rights of sex workers and ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy. The best first step is educating yourself, and then supporting measures that decriminalize sex work (which is very different from legalizing it). Fun fact- Washington, D.C. may soon be the first place in the United States to decriminalize sex work!
I’m still working out what I think about sex as a job. But wandering the streets of Amsterdam, and learning about what legalized sex work really looks like, I was able to think critically about the ways I still subconsciously associate sex with something sacred and “dirty” at the same time. Even as I grapple with these conceptions of sex work, I walked away from the Red Light District with a new understanding.
So I implore you to do the same. Think about your own conceptions of sex, sex work, and sex workers, and ask yourself if you know fully what “my body, my choice” really means.