Saturday morning, March 15th, I realized that sometime on the ride back to the hostel in Amsterdam the previous day I had lost my public transportation card. I had to buy a new one that morning at Bijlner ArenA before the day’s events. It took 20 minutes and the help of the station worker to figure out the machine. That day we explored the city, ate a lot, and took lots of pictures. By early evening, we were exhausted from our gallivanting, so we set out to get back to our hostel.
It took us nearly an hour to figure out how to get home, because we had somehow ended up in a strange part of town, and we kept getting confused and getting on the wrong trams. We finally realized all we had to do was get on the nearest tram going to Central Station and ride the subway to Bijlner ArenA. When we finally made it, we were starving, so we stopped at a grocery store called Lidl on the walk from Bijlner to the hostel to pick up some snacks. This experience confused me for a few reasons. The first was that as soon as we walked in, we were being stared down by everyone in the store, like we were aliens from another planet. The second was because my pint of ice cream, chocolate bar, and package of dried fruit totaled only 4,50€. And third was that even at a grocery store I couldn’t pay with my credit card. When we arrived back to our room, we finally realized what we had done. We had just bought our goodies from a store meant for the poor. Is that unethical? Do we get a free pass for ignorance? Nevertheless, we felt bad, like we had stolen candy from a baby or something.
After a nap and a little bit of homework, we decided to make the night a cultural one. And we started at the Amsterdam Sex Museum. The museum was founded in the 1990s and includes multiple small rooms each with a different theme. One of the rooms I remember showed the history of the Red Light District. Another displayed ancient fertility artifacts. And another displayed rare photographs while tracing the development of the popularity of various sexual position and fetishes, especially in the pornography industry. It was interesting, but I wish that the museum hadn’t been as humorous about the subject as it was. In multiple rooms I was greeted with naked mannequins popping out at me showing me their junk; and in others, speaker systems would resound with sex noises. Even I (and I consider myself much more liberal than the average American) felt quite awkward at times, but I guess that is a result of stark cultural differences. Maybe our culture takes sex a little bit too seriously. Maybe this one takes it too lightly. All a matter of perception. Isn’t that the definition of culture?
Our next stop was the Red Light District. It was teeming with people walking shoulder to shoulder. It’s a wonder no one got pushed into the canal. The prostitutes in the illuminated windows were kind of a shock to see, locking eyes with men passing by and enticing them by dancing, touching themselves, licking their lips, and mouthing things to them. If you feel uncomfortable reading this, I’m sure you can only imagine how we must’ve felt, four twenty year old girls just slapped in the face by it. The amount of men walking through the District that night (which I’m sure happens every night of the week) was probably what repulsed me the most. The prostitutes themselves didn’t really bother me that much, but seeing all those men made me ask myself a lot of hard questions. I wondered how many college guys our age come to Amsterdam with the express purpose of partaking in this. And I wondered how many guys that night were just looking, tourists like us, and how many were actually partaking.
As we walked, I had to do a double take as we passed one of the windows. In it stood a girl that was super blonde and tan with the same sort of leathery facial features that we had noticed on our roommate the first day. I didn’t want to stare, and it was dark and crowded, and we passed by kind of fast, so maybe it wasn’t her, but it sure looked pretty Amsterdam close, and that would explain a lot of our unanswered questions about her.
The girls were pretty traumatized when we got out of there, but I am really glad we went. You can’t do Amsterdam right without seeing the Red Light District. I was slightly surprised that I wasn’t as grossed out as the other girls were. I’ve only ever heard that it is bad and wrong to have sex for money. I’ve only ever known the stigmatization of the profession. But now I am asking myself why. Is it just another dogma passed down for centuries by prudish religious institutions?
In ancient times, pagan cultures employed prostitutes because they believed imitating the fertility rituals of the gods in the heavens would bring about a prosperous growing season. Even in Amsterdam, the Red Light District “De Wallen” functioned as a center for both prostitution and migrant populations even before medieval times. In late medieval times, married men and priests were forbidden from entering the area, and in 1578, a Protestant city board deemed fornication punishable, forcing sex workers underground. In the 18th century wealthy men would employ the services of these underground prostitutes in gambling houses, and in 1811, the ban on prostitution was lifted and sex workers given permits and mandatory health checks on a regular basis. In the early 20th century, many religious institutions fought to end the tolerance of prostitution in Amsterdam, but the only result was a ban on brothels and pimping.
Today, sex workers pay taxes and contribute to society. They have benefits and are taken care of by the government. Organizations like the Prostitution Information Center have been founded by sex workers to increase awareness and education about the profession and to promote tolerance to end their stigmatization around the world. The services of sex workers are regulated under the government to keep them healthy.
I continually asked myself after this experience why it is so stigmatized all over the world, especially in the US, and I could only come up with a couple possibilities:
1) In poorer countries where it is illegal but tolerated, many women are forced into prostitution. They are either trafficked or it becomes their only way to provide for themselves or their families. Women in situations like this are often already marginalized as members of their society, so the industry is not safe for them, even if it is legal. Here is where the practice becomes degrading. The women involved have no rights, and they are at the mercy of the men and pimps they serve for survival.
2) In wealthy countries where prostitution is illegal, it has often been this way for decades or even centuries due to religious influence and stigmatization. If you compare these nations with Holland, you will find that in both, women tend to have equal rights. The difference is that in Holland, women who do this don’t feel like objects. They choose this path and they feel empowered by it.
We finally made it back to the hostel around 1:30am after another public transportation struggle. We had to wait thirty minutes for a tram to take us to Central Station so we could take the subway home, but when we finally got to the subway station, we had to wait another 30 minutes for the first train to Bijlner ArenA. Our roommate was not home when we got back.
Sunday morning, we woke up in time to shower and pack in order to get to Bijlner ArenA before 7am. We planned to catch an early subway train so we could arrive at Central Station by 7:45am. However, when we got to Bijlner, we were informed that the first Sunday morning train doesn’t arrive until 7:23. So we waited on the platform for over thirty minutes worried that we would miss our train home. Luckily, the subway train arrived at Bijlner on time and still got us to Central Station before 7:45. We were able to make this first train, but we missed our connection in Frankfurt because of a number of annoying circumstances.
First, our train from Amsterdam to Frankfurt arrived in Frankfurt late. Luckily, the train out of Frankfurt going to Vienna was delayed, but our first conductor gave us the wrong platform number. There was no train to Vienna waiting for us when we got there. So like smart travelers, we referred to the information screen displaying the train numbers, times, and platforms, but the train we were supposed to take to Vienna did not have a platform listed. So we waited and waited, and finally a platform number popped up on the screen. However, when we looked over to the platform we were supposed to have been on, we saw our train rolling away. It literally had been only seconds ago that the platform number was posted.
We got on the next train we saw going towards Salzburg, and in Salzburg, we finally got on a train headed to Vienna. But, we couldn’t find a seat anywhere in coach, so we ended up stealing the only available seats we could find in first class. One of my classmates and I were able to evade the ticket checker, but he noticed that our other two classmates were not supposed to be there, so he kicked them out of first class. They ended up having to stand in an exit hallway for the remainder of the trip.
We had never been happier to see Vienna.