Amsterdam’s Red Light District (1)
Prostitution. The act of selling sex. There is no doubt that the sex industry makes millions every year, whether or not it takes place in the formal, or informal, system. There is also no doubt that prostitution has been around almost as long as humans themselves.
Last week, I was lucky enough to visit Amsterdam with friends as a gift for my twentieth birthday. It was an eye-opening experience as it exposed me to a country with very different legislation on areas such as the sales of alcohol and ‘soft’ drugs (it is legal, and even encouraged, to smoke marijuana in the thousands of “coffee shops” which are spread throughout the city). Aside from relaxed laws on cannabis, the other significantly different element to the Netherlands from its other European counterparts is that prostitution is completely legal. It is also legal to own a brothel.
Walking through the red light district was a very strange experience, with scantily-clad women standing behind glass-panelled doors with the red light above them, waiting for their next customer. At first, I felt sickened by the idea that passing men were essentially ‘window shopping’ for women to sleep with. However, when I saw women looking jaded, doing their nails, or talking on the phone and laughing, it hit me… They’re just bored at work. I have to admit that at my restaurant, when we have no customers at my work and there are no tasks to do, and everything is clean, I do the same. I go out for a cigarette. I text my friends. It just made me realise how normal this was for them. They are selling their service just as I sell mine as a waitress. This made me think, why would prostitution illegal? These women are smiling, laughing, they are not covered in bruises. They are well-dressed (for what they are wearing)- they do not look impoverished. Of course, relatively few people in the Netherlands are, with a Human Development Index of 0.910 in 2011 (2), the third highest in the world. Still, the business in the Netherlands, as I knew, was regulated, and condom use was mandatory. I even saw a ‘condomerie’ with humorous hand-crafted condoms. Condom use here is such a given that an arts and crafts business for it can flourish. Finally, I thought that these women must be making a LOT of money. It makes up 5% of the Netherlands economy (3).There will always be a want and need for sex, and this industry fills that niche perfectly.
Of course, this situation and system is not replicated in every other country in the world. What about sex workers in other countries? In developing countries? There is a very large sex industry in India. British former journalist, Sarah Harris, spent months in Southern India filming the lives of “victims of sex trafficking”, in a film called ‘Prostitutes of God’.
Despite being made illegal in 1988, Southern India’s ‘devadasi’ system continues to thrive. This system, which dates back to the sixth century, involves a dedication ceremony which ‘marries’ girls to the fertility goddess Yellamma. To begin with, these girls would perform rituals and dances, looking after the temples they lived in. The devadasi became less respectable over time, ‘“Many ended up becoming the mistress of a particular ‘patron’ – often a royal, or nobleman – as well as serving in the temple”’ (5) With the introduction of Christianity through colonialism, temples lost their authority, so the women lived elsewhere instead, continuing to sell their services. “’Today, although there are still many women called devadasi, and who have been dedicated to the goddess, a lot of them are essentially prostitutes.”’ Says Harris (6)
The goddess Yellamma
‘“When the devadasi become older and can’t attract the same business, they end up trafficking, and taking girls from the small villages to big cities like Bangalore, where they set up brothels. Most of the girls chosen are illiterate agricultural workers, who go because they think they’ll make more money as devadasi than if they work on the land.”’ (8)
The film shows Harris interviewing some devadasi, and learning what their experiences and daily lives are like. Online, there are several pieces with anecdotal evidence from women describing their horrifying experiences as devadasi– being beaten or raped as young girls ‘the devadasi tradition dictated that her virginity was sold to the highest bidder and when [the devadasi girl] had a daughter at 14 she was sent to work in the red light district in Mumbai.’ (9)
Organisations such as FREEDOM FIRM and RESCUE FOUNDATION carry out raids on brothels. ‘Using hidden cameras, our investigators identify the minor victims as well as the brothel keepers, pimps, and traffickers, document the crime, and then submit this information to the police. With assistance from Freedom Firm, the police raid the brothels and rescue the girls, who are then placed in aftercare. The police arrest the perpetrators and file criminal complaints against them.’ (10)
This seems like a very worthwhile cause, saving children’s livelihoods, giving them a chance to recuperate and lead a normal life following their ‘freedom’. However, the procedure above is described by the company itself. Of course, the prostitution of children should be condemned and punished, but on hearing from some of the older devadasi themselves, it is clear to see that the situation is not just a case of a rich, white benefactor ‘rescuing’ abused children. Harris’ film caused great retaliation and fury from the people it featured and ‘exposed’, who were not even given a form of consent to legitimise them being filmed.
The video shows how the people were portrayed in a bad light according to them, with Harris telling the British public things which are not true in their opinion.
“I told you [Sarah] I am a woman in sex work and you have defamed me as a brothel owner” (12)
“My mother used her money from sex work to raise me” (13) Despite everything, the film even shows community atmosphere. Child prostitution aside (this is NOT the same as prostitution which is consensual sex between two adults), this work is a livelihood for many women. It is their own choice. How is this any different to the red light district in Amsterdam? If these people want to earn money by selling their services just like a tailor or a personal trainer might, should charities be allowed to step in and stop them?
“Who Will Rescue Us from Those Who Wish to Rescue Us Against Our Will?”
There is a difference between sex trafficking and prostitution. There should be stricter laws on child prostitution, but when they have reached adulthood, women should be able to make their own decisions about the service they want to sell, whether it be a labourer, or a store clerk, or a prostitute. Organisations such as rescue foundation, despite having good intentions (and good results by saving underage children), often impact badly on the communities they so wish to help, infantilising people by assuming they cannot make decisions for themselves.
People do suffer in the sex industry but perhaps if prostitution was decriminalised, and the sex workers are given rights globally, then there will be less abuse and illegal trafficking. Like in Amsterdam, stricter regulations would mean certified sex workers, who are then protected more by the governments, and checked for diseases, reducing the spread of sexual infections. Because each worker would be certified, it would make it harder to introduce workers who were not, i.e trafficked women, or children. I believe that a reform in worldwide legislation regarding prostitution will ultimately mean that there will be no need for ‘rescue’.
3- Daley, S. (2001). New Rights for Dutch Prostitutes, but No Gain. New York Times. August 12, 2002: A1 and 4
8 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatlife/8008562/Indias-prostitutes-of-God.html#