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Red lights glow atop glass doorways. When a light is turned on it means there’s a girl behind the door, waiting, posing, preening. If you glance down an alley and there are neon lights glowing, it might be worth your time to turn in for a look. If not, keep walking. There are approximately four hundred girls, ripe for the picking, just as they are looking to pick their next customer.
You might try to pretend it won’t be you. Many people pass through De Wallen and don’t end up paying for sex – locals who bicycle through in the day, women dolled up for a hen night, groups of tourists who cannot help but point and stare. Couples walk briskly, women clinging to their men, their glance darting between the prostitutes and their partners, an unspoken question in the air – Would you rather fuck her or me? There are families, friends, and cautious individuals who studiously avoid the gaze of the girls in the windows. (That last one was me.)
Then there are the people that cannot resist, or don’t bother trying. Groups of boys, barely men, baby fat not yet melted off cheeks and bellies, descending on Amsterdam for weekends of stag night fun.
Mostly from the UK, said one of the staff at the hostel I stayed in, with a wry smile and an apologetic sigh. They make such a big deal out of paying for sex – leering at every door before stopping at one, a whole lot of jostling, before finally one of them, possibly the groom to-be, gets shoved towards the pouting girl.
Negotiations start when she opens the door – just a sliver, enough for the men to step up and slouch on the door frame while talking to her, posturing for the prostitute as much as for their friends.
Rates start at 50 Euros for a 15-minute “Suck and Fuck”, according to both the guide on my city tour a few days before, and the Museum of Prostitution, conveniently located in the red light district as well. Customers can pay extra to customise the session, but as the average session lasts just six minutes, it seems that few do.
Often the men are just making enquiries – they chat up a girl, and then walk away. In one alley, two girls stand behind the same door, and I watch a man ask them about price, and then pull a ten euro note out of his otherwise-empty wallet. This is all I have, he gestures with a laugh, and she mimes letting him put it down her panties. He keeps his 10 euros.
It is the world’s oldest profession, and it takes place in virtually every country in the world. Amsterdam, which thrived during the 1700s as a trading port, had no shortage of customers – sailors stumbling off cargo vessels and into the arms of a lady.
But although many Dutch turned a blind eye to the working girls, they faced resistance from many corners of society over the years, including Protestant and Christian city councils, and associations such as the Dutch Union for increasing moral consciousness.
Still, the Dutch government legalised prostitution across the country in 2000, a practical take since none of the previous movements has succeeded in removing the trade, only forcing it underground. Willing buyer, willing seller.
I learn all this at the Museum of Prostitution, a two-storey building in the middle of the red light district that is meant to shed light on the trade. I learn that while the working girls are willing sellers, it is a harsh business. I learn that while photography of the girls is not allowed, many will steal a quick shot anyway.
A prostitute rents a window and the adjoining room called a peeskarmer, at about 150 Euros for an eight-hour shift. It forces her to be tight-fisted with her time – the more johns she can service, the more money she will keep.
In the museum, a helpful list of “Top Ten Tips” highlights best practices of the trade. Girls, for instance, should engage potential customers, tapping on windows or beckoning with a finger to entice the undecided. It sounds tacky, but later I see it in action everywhere – the jutting of a hip, the splaying of legs, with her thumbs hooked tantalisingly in the waistband of low-cut lingerie bottoms, posing like a cover girl on a men’s magazine.
I learn that approximately 70% of working girls in De Wallen have husbands or boyfriends, though it is not mentioned how many of these are pimps. I learn that many girls will not kiss a John.
I learn what the peeskarmers look like from the inside, something I am infinitely curious about. The rooms are spartan – white tiled floors, a thin single mattress on a tired bed frame. Sinks, or other available surfaces, are laden with an array of moisturisers, makeup, perfume, hairspray – all her camouflage for a working night.
Photographer Tess Juungblut, who used to live in De Wallen, shot a series of rooms while they were unused during the day, photographs displayed in a museum exhibit. In the same way, I peer into the empty windows, wondering about the alternate lives behind the dark red curtains.
By ten-thirty on a Thursday night, many rooms already have their curtains drawn. The process is swift – once a girl and her customer agree on the price, she ushers him in swiftly and draws the curtain, one swift motion to obscure them from prying eyes on the pavement.
He will want to last, but he rarely can. One evening, while having dinner at a cafe in the red light district, I watch a customer amble up to a door. He looks like he is in his thirties, but trying to dress younger – light blue shirt, black jeans, baseball cap, sneakers. Same put-on machismo as all the others, same affected swagger. She welcomes him like she has been waiting.
Four minutes and fifty-five seconds later he is out, a stupid happy smile spreading through his cheeks and crinkling the corners of his eyes. Testosterone spent, he looks much younger, dopey with oxytocin, suddenly docile and benign.
For a prostitute, there is more to worry about than the bottom line – it is a dangerous profession, and though things like regulation has made it safer, inside a peeskarmer it is just a working girl wearing very little, and a customer that likely regards her as very little.
The aggression grows as the night wears on. Saturday nights on De Wallen are aggressive, boozy and boorish, and well before midnight there are people stumbling over themselves, having to be helped along by friends, cursing and swearing in the process. I shuffle along slowly behind a herd of people, mostly men.
One man approaches me from behind, leans in close to my ear and mutters something; his accent is harsh and foreign but I unmistakably hear “cock”, loud and clear enough to unnerve me. Of course he immediately darts into the crowd with the cowardice of a bully, but half a second later I hear a group of girls shouting at him. Presumably he has harassed them too. But even they, in a group, cannot do anything; I am alone and angry, but even more helpless. At the very least he has wisely not touched me.
Something – or someone – else does. I am walking down an alley when something brushes lightly against my butt. I turn around, there is a short man in a black baseball cap standing behind me, but his eyes don’t meet mine. In these crowded streets there is no way to tell if this was accidental or not, but given where we are, I am inclined to assume the worst. Still, what can I do, beyond issuing him a hard, angry stare?
When obnoxious tourists choose to ignore the no-photography signs in the glass windows and snap a furtive shot of the prostitutes, what can they do besides bang on the window and flip the bird?
I look at the crowd around me and know instinctively I cannot rely on them. The same crowd that haggles over the price of a woman, that slurs on their doorstep with alcohol-laden breath, that comes here for a quick fuck but can’t hold their horses long enough to enjoy it.
For all the flesh in this red light district, I should not be surprised that it is so devoid of love.