Daily Diary

by racmccaf on 22 July 2010

Wednesday 7/21

What an interesting day on which to be assigned a daily diary entry. Our Wednesday activities mainly included a lecture on the de-stigmatization of prostitution by Jan Visser and a tour of the Red Light District by Mariska Majoor.

A main goal of Jan Visser’s (jvisser@rodedraad.nl) is to “give prostitutes a better place in society.” He explained some of the laws related to the sex industry.

Mariska Majoor & 'Belle'

It is a legal business in The Netherlands but it is not legal, however, to be a pimp or to force or exploit women into the role. A person must voluntarily be a sex worker. Prior to the year 2000, prostitution was only tolerated, but in 2000 when it gained legalization the government gained better control over the illegal trafficking, coercion, and associated crime including drug-related crime. He used some interesting comparisons that automatically reframed the concept of prostitution. The main one being prostitution seen as…

sexual violence or providing sexual services

and as

a social cancer or a social reality.

The first half of each, ‘sexual violence’ and ‘a social cancer,’ he claimed were feminist views that criminalize the people around these women and victimize the prostitutes themselves. The latter two, ‘providing sexual services’ and ‘a social reality’ acknowledge the reality of the situation: prostitution shouldn’t be there, but it IS there, we can’t get rid of it, so let’s regulate it.

He talked a little bit about issues of health claiming both the client and

"Respect sex workers all over the world"

sex worker parties are equally responsible for practicing safe sex.

Models for intervention he mentioned include

  1. prohibition – using much money and energy
  2. abolition – based on the abolition of slavery in the 19th century
  3. decriminalization – lessening the intensity of punishment
  4. legalization – acknowledging it as a part of the national economy

The process of cleaning up the Red Light District was also a comment that came up. My tour guide on Tuesday mentioned this when we walked on the outskirts of the district. He and Jan Visser explained that the city was slowly trying to buy up the windows in which prostitutes sell sex and convert some into high-end fashion shops and into other non-sex-work-related industries. This effort is counterproductive. The purpose of legalizing sex work was to allow room for regulation by bringing it into the open. But does bringing it into the open, I wonder, have to literally mean windows on the streets? Is it black and white? Or can there be a happy medium?

Nathaniel (& Max offering euros?)

Mariska Majoor’s tour of the Red Light District and her talk at the Prostitute Information Center (which she founded in 1994, the website is down, so check out wikipedia instead) was very honest. Mariska, an ex-prostitute, started the PIC to inform virtually any interested party (aspiring prostitutes, students like us, curious Dutch citizens, dumbfounded foreigners perhaps) on the sex work industry. Her goal was similar to Jan Visser’s in that she focuses on treating prostitutes not as victims but as workers in a Dutch industry. The bronze (I believe?) statue outside De Oude Kerk named Belle is a tangible example of Mariska’s personal involvement in supporting sex workers, as Mariska was the one who commissioned it. During her tour it wasn’t hard to notice her sensitivity for ‘the girls.’ When she spoke to us on bridges or street corners she remarked a few times that she wanted us to keep moving because of ‘the girls.’ She clearly explained their dislike for photography and urged us to smile at them, not to look with pity.

Even I had to catch myself…a few paragraphs up I wrote that a “prostitute sells themselves” and corrected it to a “prostitute sells sex.” I think there definitely is a stigma attached to something that, after Wednesday, I realize can be looked at with a much more neutral eye. The argument for prostitution destigmatization and respecting sex work as an economic industry overlooks an important detail: sex is a controversial matter. Publicized sex is a more controversial matter. I think it is a twist on a story of toleration because at no point will there be a consensus that sex should be exhibited this way.

One thing Jan Visser commented that struck me was in his description of sex work areas in other Dutch cities. I don’t recall the particular places but a couple he described as sort of glorified dentist office versions. These sex work…businesses? districts? outlets? are highly sanitized and are all-business. The layout of one he showed us a couple pictures of was a suburban-type mini strip mall with a courtyard. You know in America the nail salon, Thai restaurant, Laundromat, 711, dentist office combo. These areas had one way for the (male) clients to enter and exit the courtyard where they would select a prostitute and Jan Visser said, seeming to indicate undesirability, men feel like the ones on show. They’d walk in, be pressured to choose a prostitute and be watched all the while. I mean, who doesn’t feel stressed in an ice cream shop when there are several flavors you want and have not made your choice by the time the scooper asks if you are ready? Particularly if there is a line behind you. I found this interesting, given a primary characteristic of prostitution and sex work is bringing sex out into the open (which I don’t think is an unfair stigma of the industry). The situation of role reversal between men and women being on show elicited questions in me about the concept of the industry as a whole, not towards the stigma or legalization.

Call me crazy (or prude) but I found this experience rather bizarre. The idea of treating prostitutes as regular women electing a profession others potentially disagree with/do not approve of is something I buy. It’s the same age old story of toleration. With exceptions that fly under the radar of the government, Jan Visser and Mariska Majoor presented the concept in a way that showed its normalcy. That being said, I still felt like the idea of sex work is a little…amiss? An initial thought I had was that prostitution was a disgusting use of power by overly sexual men over women. But when you take the pimps, trafficking, exploitation, and coercion (mostly) out of the mix, I started to wonder if in fact this is not the case at all but that it is the women in power, using horny men to their advantage and reaping a profit from their sexual desires. And I’m pretty sure you could say that is just good business tactics. I was wondering if part of the prostitution assistance and destigmatization that is going on, at the PIC and elsewhere, is related to finding a way for prostitutes to move out of the sex work industry. I was somewhat disappointed not to hear a small discussion on the concept of sex work because I think many people would be able to wrap their heads around the concept of if there was an aspect that discussed helping women find and choose other options. Then again, maybe that is just me reinforcing the stigma that it is not a worthy profession.

The concept about the provision of resources to prostitutes, just as professionals in another industry, reminded me of a character in a book I just started. In Let the Great World Spin (don’t ask me what it’s about, I just started it and I’m still figuring that out), the character is an Irish priest who moved to New York City. He lives in a Red Light area of the Bronx and would leave the door of his apartment unlocked for prostitutes to use the bathroom. The way this arrangement was introduced in the book was when his brother walked through a mass of prostitutes on the street corner before entering the priest’s apartment. Later, when sitting on his couch, a prostitute enters the unit to go to the bathroom and the brother was appalled. When he approached his brother about it, the priest explained that he just wanted them to have a safe place to use a bathroom so they wouldn’t have to return home to their families dressed in such a way. Eventually the brother of the priest slowly began to understand the women were real people who deserved access to a restroom and respect as fellow human beings making a choice with which he may otherwise not agree.

And now, I leave you with this…


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