Wandering around Amsterdam’s Red Light District with a friend two weekends ago, I couldn’t help but notice that the girl in each neon window had taken Sting’s advice very literally; she didn’t have to wear that dress tonight. Fair enough. That in itself hardly shocked me, since we now live in a world where all you have to do is switch on a TV or scroll far enough down a newsfeed to see a fully naked woman (not pointing any fingers, Miley). If anything, I was surprised that they all seemed to be wearing underwear. And I took no issue in seeing a few semi-dressed girls; it was just like being on a very thong-heavy beach.
I would also like to point out that I am not inherently against prostitution. It’s known as ‘the world’s oldest profession’ for a reason: people will always need sex. If one consenting adult can cash in on fulfilling the sexual needs of another, I don’t necessarily see anything immoral in the transaction.
So, what’s my beef with Amsterdam then? Surely it’s a haven for liberated females; a place where gender equality has been so firmly achieved that women can feel empowered enough to put themselves on display and profit from meaningless sex.
As I walked around the Red Light District, there was one feeling that made me extremely uncomfortable. I realised that, watching a group of ‘lads’ egging each other on to be the first to venture into a shop, I felt out of place as I stood by them. Frankly, I felt that my distinct lack of penis meant that my natural place in this street was behind a window, shaved to within an inch of my life and donning a pair of sexy secretary glasses. The assumption here seemed to be that the window’s audience was always going to be a heterosexual* male and, despite curiously trying to catch the eye of several girls, I was ignored by every one of them. Whether we’re making the very hopeful supposition that every one of those girls has eagerly chosen to be there, the more realistic idea that most of them just need the money, or of course the stark reality that many are there as a result of trafficking – does it make a difference to the way these women are viewed? Does it change the circumstance of the gaze through which she is seen, if there’s a significant bracket of men looking for the same thing?
(*Of course, a blue-lit window will often provide its customer with a pre-op transgender woman. Clearly Amsterdam doesn’t have a problem with gay sex, provided that it looks like nice, normal straight sex on the surface.)
The problem with Amsterdam’s sex industry for me was its one-sidedness. It seems to uphold the ridiculous taboo that men are the only gender with a sex drive. Personally, the idea of paying someone forty Euros for twenty minutes of no-kissing, hands-here-but-not-here sex doesn’t really appeal, but that’s because I’m a wildly hopeless romantic, and not because of my gender. The fact that Amsterdam only seemed to (openly) cater for heterosexual male needs implied something darker about society’s views on sex: apparently, straight men are the only human beings who sex is actually for. Apparently, a woman’s role is to please, to be the object of desire. Apparently, sex is something that a man enjoys, and that a woman complies with. For me, living in the twenty-first century, they seem like worrying messages to be blazoning across a city in bright, neon red.