Amsterdam is the kind of city where anything goes. All sorts of personal styles, guys holding hands, women holding hands, soft drugs are legal, people walking down the street smoking joints like it’s nothing, because it isn’t, millions of white dudes with dread locks, and prostitution is legal. Amsterdam is cool place visually, socially and culturally, but in a lot of ways it’s also a nightmare –- a place full of misbehaved British frat bros and regular American bros who can’t wait to debauch and do all the things that are basically illegal everywhere else.
Amsterdam is the Las Vegas of Europe. Their local coat of arms is XXX, three Vertical St. Andrews Crosses in a row. You can see it on buildings, flags, basically everywhere throughout the city. It’s a complete coincidence that XXX is now the symbol for the adult entertainment industries, because it has been the city symbol for the last 500 years.
And speaking of XXX, you can’t go to Amsterdam without going to the Red Light District. Even the locals think so. At least, that’s what the hip, tattooed 40-something year old woman at the coffee shop we’re in tell us.
“Take the corny canal tour of the city, definitely, and go to the Red Light District. It’s really interesting because it’s in the oldest part of the city. Those are the two things you have to do,” she advises.
We’ve already been here three days and we haven’t made it to the Red Light District, which is coincidentally a stone’s throw from the University of Amsterdam campus, a quaint neighborhood that is on some of the oldest land in the city.
By the time we get there it’s midnight, maybe one o’clock in the morning on Sunday/Monday. The walk through the University of Amsterdam campus to the District is beautiful. You walk on cobbled streets along the canal, which barely moves this late at night, and dim yellow streetlights punctuate the darkness. There is, overall, a quiet, painterly ambiance.
When you hit the Red Light District, tiny streets curl through and on them are boutiques, shops, and late night food joints. Because it’s so dark, the neon lights advertising “BAISER SUR SCENE/LIVE SEX SHOW” show up. That’s how you know you’re here.
Hundreds of scantily clad female sex workers stand in doorways behind glass, each of them framed by an unmistakable pink neon light. It’s a shopping center – a mall of women, all ready to fulfill every heterosexual male’s deepest fantasy. For a price. The women compete for our attention, work for it, dancing harder and harder the more we stand to look at them. The whole thing feels shocking because you’re not sure if you’re supposed to look or look away.
“I’m feeling really uncomfortable,” one of my friends says. “I feel like we shouldn’t be looking.”
“But this is their work. They are here to be looked at. They are working,” I say. “And werking,” I finish.
“Yeah, I know. But something about the gaze just bothers me” he goes.
And how does a woman react to all the nudity?
“Yassss!! Look at Miss Kitty over there,” one of the girls in our group says. “She is really werking. I want to get a bustier just like hers.” She waves at Miss Kitty and shouts, “Go ahead, sister!” even though the dancer can’t really hear because we are looking at her from the other side of the canal.
The women are dressed in all sorts of male fantasies – there’s a schoolgirl, a girl who could be a hipster in the hottest neighborhood of the city by day. There are even several transsexual women, located on a side street and slightly off the main drag. But plenty of men stare at them. Unsurprisingly, you don’t see many women of color.
The moment you see something you like, go up to the door, state your request. I’m sure you know how the rest goes. It’s an exchange, played out right here in the middle of the city on the oldest and most beautiful piece of land in town.
All labor gets boring eventually, no matter what kind of job you have. And some of the women in the vitrines look painfully bored – playing on their iPhones, sitting motionless and looking exhausted in front of the window and neon lights. You have to imagine that performing sex acts for foreign men starts to get really boring and annoying and old after a while, just like any kind of job.
Walking through the Red Light District is one of the most fascinating and difficult experiences you can have. On the one hand, legal prostitution is a huge tourist boon for the local economy. It’s also interesting to see because it is unlike any other Red Light District anywhere else, not least because of the unique architectural environment it’s in.
But it is also one of the most difficult experiences. Even though prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, for now anyway, how many of these women are working in the sex trade against their will? To a straight man walking through this neighborhood, seeing so many kinds of women behind glass vitrines, subservient and willing to fulfill his deepest wishes, this place is paradise. But for anyone else strolling through this famous part of Amsterdam who is not shopping for tail, you feel out of place. Strange, like you’re gawking and poking fun, maybe even being rude. This is sex work. These women are working, they are not here for you to be pointing at.
I’m all for the legalization of prostitution and I have no qualms with sex work or the public display of sex. The part that challenges me, however, is that the women are all on display, some of them desperate-looking, waiting on the next customer to come through. Is this the value of women’s bodies?
It’s challenging because the entire history of shopping is about women’s bodies. You can find examples everywhere from literature to painting, from Zola to John Sloan – women shop, men are much more rational and do practical things that actually benefit society. Women are irrational shoppers, so advertisers think. In the Red Light District in Amsterdam, what we have is not women looking at vitrines, but women in vitrines. It’s a zoo of women, and it’s hard not to think about the 19th century slave auction block.
“I want to see some hot cocks,” I realize. Unsurprisingly, as far as I can see, there are no men in any of the windows. There are not a lot of places to see near naked men on the street or the display of male bodies. In all fairness, that could be because it’s late and we’re already Sunday/Monday. Maybe we missed something. I doubt it, though, and it raises an interesting question about the visibility of women’s bodies in culture. I don’t have a problem with the display of women’s bodies in the Red Light District, nor with sex work, but I do think the way the way the women are displayed is totally problematic and tied to histories of consumer culture, women, the gaze, advertising, and even slavery.
Women are to be looked at and the absence of naked men in the Red Light District proves exactly that. But this is something we already know. You’re far more likely to see a pair of tits in a movie than you are to see a nice huge erect cock before the film has to be rated NC-17 or XXX. In this exchange of bodies and sex, who is in charge?