Maybe it was just that prostitutes were already on my mind, but the clicking of my heels seemed especially loud in the Red Light District today. Ten minutes ago, I was still recovering from a sweaty all-nighter with a last-minute reading response. My last load of laundry had mysteriously left my clothes smelling like crotch. I hadn’t shaved in over a week. The dim classroom made me feel like what I was: an overtired college student reeking of sleep deprivation.
In the Red Light District, that overtired college student looked like a prostitute. The fear started with the sound of those shoes, but then I thought, maybe my jacket too, and maybe my eyes. A promoter in a long black trenchcoat outside of Casa Rosso (bringing you live sex shows since 1969) gave me a nod and a jolly “Hoi!” I responded as I always would, with a chipper “Good morning!” Only afterwards did I realize what things looked like. I started to get whispers, whistles and catcalls. I tried to walk lightly, avoid men’s glances. Even on an early Wednesday afternoon, I felt the stigma of a woman walking alone in heels, the centuries-old cultural weight of my boots’ click-click-click on a cobblestone street.
Amsterdam’s Red Light District is so central and spread-out that you pass through it on your way to just about anywhere. A girl my age walking by is probably a student returning from class at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. That was certainly the case for me.
Of course, I also happened to be looking for a prostitute.
Even though I’d only been awake for a few hours, I’d already talked to one prostitute that day: a guest speaker in my class on the Local and Global Complexity of Prostitution. The woman was the founder and director of the Stichting Geisha, a foundation that works to secure better working conditions for sex workers in the Netherlands. “I loved my job,” she’d told us. “I was an S&M mistress for twenty years. I love to figure out what turns people on. Men would tell me what they liked and I got to be creative with that.”
It can be hard to believe that a prostitute could enjoy her job. Even my fairly liberal classmates were incredulous, though they heard it straight from the mouth of somebody who knows more about prostitution than any of them ever will. “I just have trouble believing that she’s not a victim,” one girl said in the discussion section later.
I get it. The thought of sex as a full-time job isn’t appealing to me either. But anybody that’s worked full-time knows that few things can be fun when you do them full-time. Prostitution certainly comes with a wide array of occupational hazards, but so does any job. Millions of people across the country pursue careers they don’t enjoy, just for the money. What makes prostitution so different, other than the stigma it permanently imprints on him or her?
The money’s certainly different: I paid 50 euro to talk to the second sex worker I met today, way more than most people in the world can make in 20 minutes. After wandering through the De Wallen distrcit, I finally passed to the other side of a red window and walked up the narrow staircase to the room where she works.
That’s about where things got boring.
I’d imagined a prostitute’s room to look like a sleazy motel, with mirrors on the ceiling, red velvet curtains, and old wooden shutters over the window. But the bed didn’t even have sheets. There was a mirror, a small table where she tossed my 50-Euro bill, and a change of clothes hanging on the wall. When we sat at the table, she (let’s call her Ashley) hugged her knees to her chest and started talking with such little hesitation that I knew she’d been through this a few times before: “It’s not a bad job. I like it. It’s 50 euro for twenty minutes. But it’s not twenty minutes fucking obviously; it’s five minutes undressing, five minutes sucking….”
It’s not that Ashley was boring. She was just normal. We ended up talking about her country, Bulgaria, and where the best vacation spots are there. When my time was up, she gave me three kisses on the cheek and a hug. It felt like meeting an aunt I haven’t seen since infancy.
After a month in Amsterdam, I’m still struck by how normal and real the girls in the red light windows are. Seeing them makes me wonder why people have such low regard for prostitutes. It’s easy to understand why forced sex trafficking is bad; nobody likes exploitation and rape. But in countries like the Netherlands, where women do have the legal freedom to choose prostitution over cleaning houses, why do we still treat sex workers like pariahs? Why is prostitution a career so hated that both men and women use “whore” as the ultimate insult for a girl? How is prostitution different than any other kind of service a person can sell?
I don’t have an answer. I am inclined to believe it has to do with the ancient morality attached to a woman’s vagina—the vag is a sacred organ and anyone willing to give it up too easily must be the very definition of social degradation. People just don’t feel that a prostitute can be anything but a victim. I can’t help but question whether most of us really believe that women have agency over their own bodies.
I could be wrong. After all, a few years ago, I too would have assumed that all prostitutes are victims, beggars, or junkies. They were a different type of person than I was.
But today in Amsterdam, I walked past the Bulldog Coffeeshop and questioned what it would mean to bring my Yale education here. What if prostitution made me happier than the popular post-grad plan of going into investment banking or consulting? It’s okay if that thought makes you uncomfortable. It’s just important to should ask yourself why it does.
Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, a draft of this view was published in WEEKEND without prior approval of the author. The News sincerely regrets this error.