Everything is Broken: Part 1
Everything is broken: Part 1 – Prostitution and tourism in the red light district
Sometimes I struggle to blog because I have nothing to say. Other times I struggle to blog because I have too much to say, and I can’t figure out how to say it all. I am definitely in the too much to say boat at the moment. So I have decided to break this into a three part series to try and document all the things going through my mind in the last few weeks.
Prostitution and tourism in the red light district.
As it grows darker, the red light shines brighter. Scores of tourists crowd the narrow streets, gawking at all types of women (and some men), dressed in lingerie, flashing smiles and knocking on the window, beckoning us in. A little voice behind me exclaims, “Mummy, mummy, I saw TWO ladies in the window.” I turn and see a girl of about 7 walking with her family, gazing in fascination. Tour groups walk through and hear how the legalisation of prostitution in Holland has sexually empowered people and created a safer environment for those who choose prostitution. As it gets later, families clear out, and the streets become full of men, clients looking to find pleasure in the beds behind the door.
But what about the girl who doesn’t have a choice? Do any tourists hear about her?
Do any men buying 15 minutes of satisfaction wonder what goes on when the light goes off?
I am so angry at the sex industry right now. Angry and sad.
Angry with Sex Trafficking, Exploitation, Prostitution, Pornography, Sexual Abuse… all of it. It is all connected, and it’s making me angry. Sad because sometimes you wonder if we can really make a difference.
Since moving to Amsterdam people have asked what I do for a job, when I explain that I work against Human Trafficking they say things like, “Oh that’s really bad, but I guess that doesn’t involve girls in the red light district.” Or, “Since the prostitution is legal here there must not be that many trafficked girls.”
But research by local NGO’s report that upwards of 70% of the girls working behind the windows here in Amsterdam are foreigners, mostly from Eastern Europe.
One girl whose story I recently heard had been brought to Amsterdam from Eastern Europe to help her pay off a debt she owed a man in her village. What she didn’t know is that the man was actually a trafficker. She worked as a prostitute in Amsterdam’s red light district for several months, not realizing that she was not free to leave. Reality hit when she tried to visit her 1-year-old son. The trafficker beat her badly. She was brave and testified against the man in her home country. He was jailed and she was free. Or so she thought.
Just a few weeks ago service providers here in the city saw this girl back behind the window. They asked why she had returned to Amsterdam. It turns out that her trafficker paid a bribe and got out of jail. He returned to her family to collect on her debt, and thus she is now back behind the window. Working ‘by choice’ to keep her family safe while her young son grows up without his mother.
I was so saddened after I heard this story, and that night when I got on my bike and cycled home through the red light district I passed a row of windows where I know Eastern European girls are working. I watched one man exit the brothel, and I felt this anger and sadness rise up in me. I wanted to stop the man and tell him the story of this girl who was trafficked. I was sad because the girl he had just been with could have been her, I was sad because I didn’t know if he would care. And I am sad right now, because I know someone will read what I just wrote and still write it off as not being legit, they will still say trafficking is not a problem in Amsterdam.
Lately I feel like every stranger I sit beside in a café or bar I end up talking with them about sex. Usually it starts with discussing sex trafficking, and than it moves to the red light district, and usually at that point they genuinely want me to know that since prostitution will never go away it is better to regulate it. So then we discuss laws, and if there is any hope in working against something that has always been around. Eventually we end off simply discussing freedom of choice, specifically regarding sex.
World views, morality, religion, culture all become factors in the conversation.
Most people really want me to know that while human trafficking is bad, prostitution is a necessary evil. But when I see families walking through the district with their little children, and hear the stories of men who come specifically to Amsterdam to partake in the lust and excitement it has to offer, I wonder why people are so set to defend this system which feels like exploitation on display. Why are we so afraid to admit that things are broken and no law or regulation that encourages sex tourism is able to curb sex trafficking?
People ask why a trafficking victim doesn’t just ask for help or leave. But in the example I used above, sometimes a girl doesn’t even realize she is trafficked until it is to late. Sometimes she won’t admit she is trafficked to protect her family, or even herself. Many of the girls here in Amsterdam originally are from Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, where economic conditions and the aftermath of the soviet union’s cold clutches still leave many families in a cycle of systemic poverty. Often the main trafficker, the big boss, remains behind while the girls and a ‘bodyguard’ are sent to Western Europe, this makes prosecuting Human Traffickers difficult. Then even when a trafficker is prosecuted, the danger is not over.
Last week in Romania a trafficker was released from prison. He sought revenge on four victims who had testified against him. He killed all four.
Four girls dead.
Another trafficker (Saban B.) sentenced here in the Netherlands had been involved in the prostitution of 120 women. He subjected the victims to forced abortion, forced breast enlargement, and violent means of control. He also had them tattooed to identify them as his property. After his conviction, Saban B. was temporarily released from prison, and escaped back to his home country of Turkey. For the victims of this trafficking ring, knowing that their trafficker escaped must have been an incredibly traumatic experience.
This weekend I got to hang out with some really great MEN, men who walked with me in the red light district and saw past the lights and glamour and lust, and instead asked the why and how.
Why is our sexuality so broken that we need to pay for pleasure even if its at the cost of the life and dignity of someone else? Is there any hope for real freedom when everything feels so broken?
My friends this weekend looked at those in the window and thought of their daughters and their wives and their sisters, and as we walked and talked they were moved with the reality of sex trafficking on display.
It made me wonder, what if every john or potential client looked at the window and asked the question why? Would he be willing to give up using prostitutes if he thought it would prevent the exploitation of just 1 person? If he would stop buying sex to prevent the rape of just 1 victim?
I don’t know. What I do know is that things are not the way there were meant to be, everything is broken…
Watched this band this weekend at a festival here. This song is so lovely, made me cry.