Window prostitution: exploitation or emancipation?

by Paola Pirovano 

Berna Meijer, researcher at the Prostitution Information Center in Amsterdam, talks about one of the world’s most famous neighborhoods

The legendary Red Light District of Amsterdam is a must-do tourist attraction for anybody goes to the Dutch capital. Every day hundreds of people stroll along the two oldest canals in the city to watch at the famous window brothels and sex shops.

Apart from the customers, few people know exactly what is going on behind the red curtains. Many stories has been shaping the reputation of the most scandalous neighborhood in Holland, but not all of them are true.

The Red Light District is not only about transgression though. There are some exploitation cases, and there is of course the eternal debate on women’s dignity.

Prostitution had been regulated since 1811 in the neighbourhood, and the Netherlands are the first country in the world to have legalized sex working as a regular profession in 2000.

The Prostitution Information Center (PIC) is situated in the very heart of the Red Light District, behind the historical Oude Kerk. Its contribution to a better understanding of sex working is fundamental to build social acceptance of the prostitution, as the law alone is not enough.

Founded in 1994 by Mariska Majoor, a former sex worker and public personality for years, the PIC has, above all, an informative function for the girls dealing with practical issues related to the profession. But it’s also open to responding to clients, students or simply curious.

Berna Meijer has been involved in the PIC for 16 years, she’s an expert in Dutch prostitution and a graduate of Prostitution History.

She’s confronted everyday to the most shocking questions, and she cannot be more aware of the misinformation about the neighborhood.

For example, it is not true that there is a Blue Light District where transsexual prostitutes work. There are some streets where you can find them, but the blue light – which is said to indicate the presence of a transsexual – is actually used in all windows to create a contrast with the red one. The idea that prostitutes are marginal individuals, without any contact with society, is also false: according to Berna, most of them have a stable relationship.

Why someone decide to work in the sex industry? There are many different reasons, as are the personal stories behind, but a key factor in this job is that you can earn quite a lot of money in a relative short time.

For a standard rate of 50 euros for a maximum of 15 minutes, some professionals receive up to 25 customers per day. Men pay 50 euros for an orgasm, and some professionals can do the job in just few minutes, the expert says.

Is this the reason why there are no men working in the windows? Berna can’t really answer to this question, but she assumes that the Red Light District model does not work for male prostitution targeting female audience, although there have already been some experiences in this sense.
Prostitution in Amsterdam is a peculiar situation, which is not limited to windows because it is legal in all respects. The windows are actually the consequence of the prohibitionism’s period. At the beginning of the twentieth century, this activity was illegal and the prostitutes used to wait for customers at the window or at the door, apparently busy in everyday activities.
No lingerie allowed or ladies winking at the potential costumers. There were some hidden signs – like an object or a plant – to indicate the true nature of the business going on inside the building.

Only gradually, after the war, the sex workers became more explicit, until 2000 when prostitution was legalized at national level.
This new legislation has brought some benefits for the sex workers, who don’t have to hide anymore. They enjoy special forms of protection: all windows are equipped with an alarm, the neighborhood is monitored with an extensive camera system and the police is there to ensure their safety, not to arrest them.

The problem, however, remain the prejudice against sex workers: mentality, unlike the bans, is harder to change.


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