Immediately upon sharing with anyone that I was studying abroad in Amsterdam, I was met with many well-intentioned jokes about all of the fun that I would soon be having in the Red Light District. These jokes were in no way malicious, and certainly meant to be taken lightly, but the very existence of these jokes just goes to show how terribly misinformed most people are about sex work and sex workers in general. People tend to joke about things that make them uncomfortable, or things that they don’t fully understand, but my worry is that by joking about sex workers and the work that they do, people are not giving them the respect that they deserve.
Feminist ideas and opinions about sex work vary drastically. Radical feminists believe that sex work is the most basic form of male oppression, and that in a non-sexist world, sex work would not exist at all. I have never been able to get behind that idea. Even long before I started thinking about the Red Light District, I have always been a fan of enabling women to make their own choices, knowing that they are doing so freely, actively, and rationally. I recently had the privilege of going on a guided tour with a current sex worker in the Red Light District, and her perspective really challenged stigmas (stigmas that I had) surrounding sex work. She really stressed the importance of discourse with the people actually working in the industry, advocating for a greater emphasis on learning about their needs, concerns, expectations instead of operating on the assumption that these women are always victims.
I want to stress that I am by no means saying that the Red Light District is a perfect system, or that every woman who does sex work does so enthusiastically. All I am saying is that as feminists, we owe it to these women to give them the respect that they deserve- and that means educating ourselves on the work that they do.
Whatever your views are on sex work, I hope that by reading this article, you at least have a better general understanding of the Red Light District, and understand how much agency these workers actually have in all of this. Everyone assumes that these women are always passive victims, without knowing anything about their lives. Victimization was touched on time and time again throughout my tour with the sex worker. I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was tired of questions and comments like, “How could anyone choose to do this of their own accord, they must be forced into sex work” or “Banning sex work will protect women…” Just like those jokes I mentioned earlier, these comments are well-intentioned, but they come from a severely misinformed perspective! These women have reiterated over and over again that they don’t want to be saved. They do this work for many different reasons; some do it to pay for college, others do it to feed their children, others because – get this- they like sex! Whatever their reason for getting into this line of work is, they want better benefits, safer working conditions, ect. But you know what they don’t want, they don’t want to be saved because most of them aren’t victims like everyone always assumes.
Sex workers in the Red Light District have way more agency than most people think. For one, sex workers in the Red Light District are entrepreneurs by law; they rent out their own window, they set their own hours, and they fix their own prices. The door that they work in only opens from the inside, meaning that they never have to open the door if they don’t want to. Sex workers truly can be as selective as they want to be, only allowing customers that they feel comfortable with to enter. Adding to their agency, every window has a panic button which can be pressed whenever the sex worker feels uncomfortable. It’s also interesting to note that the button doesn’t get pressed a lot becuase in the words of the sex worker herself “most of the people who come in are painfully normal.” If there ever is a problem, the sex workers can feel safe going to the police because sex work is legal in the Netherlands. The fact that sex work is legal means that it can be regulated, adding to the safety and protection of the sex workers.
So many people joke about the Red Light District as if it were a laughing matter, and doing so really diminishes the respect of the sex workers. The next time people joke about sex work, be that person who steps up informs the crowd that sex work is work, and everyone should treat it as such. Of course there are problems with the Red Light District, problems having to do with whether or not the women involved really have complete and total agency. I hope that this article has a least made you a bit more knowledgeable about how the district operates, more understanding of women doing this work, but the main take away I want to leave you with is the idea of sex as work. Sex work should be respected in the same way that other work is, and that means not diminishing or questioning one’s right to do it.