dressember #16 – prostitution and human trafficking in amsterdam

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Human trafficking, particularly the trafficking of women and children for sexual services – has spoken volumes to me ever since I first read about how Middle Eastern women are being purchased for sex. The fact that something precious to a woman and which can be bought for a mere sum of money is, for lack of a more politically correct word – just completely crazy and nuts because I just don’t understand how there can be a legions of people around the world so large who see women only as a tool for sex that a trade is set up to facilitate that.

The most publicized and well known types of human trafficking most of us are familiar with include forced labour and sex trafficking or prostitution in Asia. Women from countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, India, Cambodia and Myanmar are used for sex and men & children forced to slave in factories for little to no pay. Each time I hear of human and sex trafficking I usually think of victims from Asia because it is these countries that have received the highest amount of media coverage.  However, the purpose of this dressember post is to also bring attention a group of individuals who live in a place where prostituion is legal, where women provide sexual services in a place that attracts hundreds and thousands of tourists each year and therefore gives the impression that such a trade is not prostitution, but a tourist attraction and that the women are assumed to be working there by their own volition.

Amsterdam is famous for its booming sex industry. It has many streets, particularly those in the Red Light District, that are  lined with sex clubs and exotic dancers performing dance routines in glass windows. Men and women from all over the world come not just to see the the city for its van Gogh museum, cobblestone streets and lovely water canals, but because of its easily attainable sexual services and also to gawk, catcall and whistle at women dancing to music against red-hued windows.

Prostitution was legalized in Amsterdam in 2000, with many different types of prostituition. There are prostitutes who work in a brothel, a club (“private house”), as escorts, in windows or on the streets. Approximately 70-80% of prostitutes in Amsterdam are not European citizens. Rather, they primarily come from countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, such as Romania, Hungary, Bosnia, Albania and Romania due to the fall of Communism. Due to disempowering circumstances such as poverty and lack of education, many become vulnerable to sex trafficking. Most prostitutes will tell you they weren’t forced to come to Netherlands to work. Why would they risk antagonizing the middle-men(pimps) that brought them here when they have hungry mouths to feed at home? Rather, they have been coaxed by pimps or by men who claim to love them into going to Amsterdam to work proper jobs or even as dancers. However, they find themselves in mounds of financial trouble when they have debts to pay for their passports, flights, visas, food, housing etc – amenities typically paid for by the pimps or brothel owners. In this way, they are coerced into becoming prostitutes to settle these payments and will continue doing the same work to send money home.

The type of prostitution most famous is Amsterdam are its window prostitutes in the Red Light District. Prostitutes dance in large contained glass windows with red lights hanging across the windows and they attempt to catch the attention of men. Passers-by would watch these dancers and would be whistling at them, catcalling them and urging them on. Some men take the bait, and the window doors would open. A man, and sometimes more would enter,  the red curtains would be drawn shut and a price would be negotiated for sex. I don’t know if this is true but I’ve read that the basic cost of sex with a prostitute, no matter how beautiful she is, is €50. This is how these women have to earn money to live.

The United Nations definition of human trafficking is this: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”

According to research conducted by the International Labor Organization in 2010, it is estimated that approximately 9000 people have been trafficked into sexual exploitation into The Netherlands. Many women from other European countries are lured into Netherlands under pretences of better prospects yet find themselves working in brothels or dancing in windows and giving sex to men for money.

Of course the Amsterdam City Council has begun to gain insight into the impact of prostitution and has taken efforts to reduce the number of brothels. However, prostitution is still a soaring trade in Amsterdam and both locals and tourists alike contribute to this industry, thinking that all prostitutes working there are doing so by their own volition. Some are, but many are not.

I’ll be honest here. Like many budding travelers wanting to see the world, to visit the Red Light District in Amsterdam is in my bucket list. Just like how you can’t go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower, going on a walking tour of the Red Light District seems like a must-do for tourists. To not do so seems like a traveler’s crime. Of course now after reading up about prostituiton in Amsterdam and writing this post, it seems strange to be wanting to pay traveler’s tribute to a place where a percentage of women have been coerced into performing dance routines for the purpose of attracting men and getting paid for sex. The first time I watched that YouTube video, I started wondering what I myself would do if I were one of the passers-by who happened to have been there and watching something like that. I’d be pretty guilty I think. It’ll be a long while before I get to travel to Europe and so for now, I take comfort in the fact that Amsterdam has lots of offer that will be a visual feast for all plagued by wanderlust. 

Dressember is a global movement and call for women around the world to wear a dress each day of the month of December to raise awareness about the prevalence of human trafficking. By wearing a dress for the purpose of this campaign, women are reminded that the fact they can wear a dress means that they can live in a society where they are free to express their femininity, are free to make their own choices and free to lead their own lifestyles, and at the same time, understand that there hundreds and thousands of women around the world who do not have the luxury of doing that. Instead, they are being exploited for being a woman.

Anyway, as I mentioned, this post today is for the women trapped in prostitution in Amsterdam, so no overtly fancy pictures of myself in a dress to showcase. Amsterdam is beautiful, its charming and its quaint, but it has its also shady areas that many of us forget exist. Dressember encourages you to wear a dress everyday to raise awareness but forget about its true purpose: its less about showcasing your style, but more on being thankful that you can live in a society where you can live as a free-spirited adventuress and taking part in a global initiative to help those who are unable to live a free life. 

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(P.S. WordPress is being mean. I recorded a video clip explaining what Dressember was with the full intention of putting it up here but it wouldn’t let me. Bummer.)

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