'If My Sister Did This, I Would Be Very Angry'
Den Haag, Monday. I share my Easyjet flight from Luton airport to Amsterdam with two groups of young male sex tourists, loudly bragging about how pissed, stoned, wasted, and fucked they were last time they visited De Wallen, the window brothel area of Amsterdam.
I rush to get to to Den Haag, to attend a conference entitled: ‘Men who buy sex - What is their responsibility?’ My friend and colleague Fiona is giving the keynote speech at the event. Fiona was pimped into prostitution aged 15, escaped the sex trade 11 years later, and for the past 20 years since has been involved in the campaign to eradicate the international sex industry. Most of the delegates are sympathetic to the arguments that sex buyers should be held accountable and that legalisation of pimping and brothel owning has been a disaster. But one woman, sitting at the back of the room, showed her disagreement and displeasure as regularly as she was able to.
Amsterdam, Tuesday. Fiona and I visit the so-called red light district of De Wallen. We pass several tour guides and stop at one group, being led by a young hipster, who is speaking of the legal sex trade with very little real knowledge. The group laugh at the tour guide’s jokes about how they would ‘all look at prostitutes together’ if they booked his evening walk around the red light district. I ask about trafficking and abuse, but he simply trotted out the party line in response.
Close by on the Oudekerksplein is the statue of Bella, which was unveiled in 2007. It bears the inscription, ‘Respect sex workers all over the world’, carved into a plaque below the bronze figure. Belle was designed at the initiative of Mariska Majoor of the Prostitution Information Centre (PIC).
A decade ago Thomas Cook, Britain's longest running tour operator, launched nighttime tours around Amsterdam's red light district. The excursions included a talk about the 'system' from a woman who had previously worked in legal prostitution, and was open to children of any age. In fact, Thomas Cook offered free tickets for children under the age of three.
The press release from the company described how the two-hour tour, leaving at 8pm, would take visitors 'deep into the famous red light district, offering a fascinating insight into the oldest profession in the world!’ Part of the income that Mariska Majoor has relied on in recent years has come from guided tours.
'Begin with a drink at a prostitute information centre where a former prostitute will explain the system and answer any questions you may have. Then head for the Wallen (red light district) and see for yourself,’ read the leaflet. I have called Thomas Cook to ask if they still run the tours (it received a number of complaints from feminist and human rights organisations back in 2005) but have been unable to get a clear response.
Fiona and I move on to one of the narrow streets in which the window brothels are situated, and see two young men approach one of the doors. As one steps inside, the other leans back against the wall to smoke a cigarette. We approach him and ask if he would be happy to talk to us on the record, and to be filmed for this website. He agrees.
Alex started paying for sex when he was 12 years old. “It is so normal here in Amsterdam,” he tells us. “In America you have it, in England you have it, but here it is different because it is legal.”
“I come here once a month, if I can afford it. I do have girlfriends, and I stay faithful to them. I only get charged 20 EU, because I know all the girls and I am a local, but the tourists pay 50. For everything.”
“If my sister did this or my mother, I would be very angry.”
“Most of the women have pimps or lover boys (pimps that pose as boyfriends), but who is going to do anything if they are unhappy? Nobody will.
As we are interviewing Alex, Fiona spots the woman who had been sitting at the back at the Den Haag conference. She is standing in the doorway of the PIC, taking photographs of us. Fiona asks her to stop and asks why she is doing so. At that moment, the woman calls over Alex and tells him we are bad people, and that we, “Have no respect for men who pay for sex”. Then she speaks to Alex in Dutch, and suddenly he becomes very agitated and asks me to delete his interview, which I do.
We later bump into the two young men, and we ask Alex why he changed his mind about the interview.
I could tell that Fiona was shaken by what she had seen in De Wallen, and, despite having lived the life for 11 years, was shocked at how bad legalisation is for the women, and for the wider community.
At a nearby cafe we see groups of young men who are obviously gearing themselves up for a jaunt around the red light area. I speak to two American tourists who seemed to be unimpressed with the idea of paying for sex, but their views, formed mainly from information they had read on a blog about legalised prostitution in the Netherlands, were that this system is safer for the women than any other.
Tomorrow I will be speaking to the women in the window brothels about their experiences.
Title Photo Credit: Leon Petrosyan, 2013