Three weeks into the program and instead of going to Venice, my friend Katie (also doing Temple Rome) and I set off for the “Venice of the North,” also known as Amsterdam. There, we met with one of our best friends from Duke and had an unbelievable weekend.
When I arrived in Amsterdam, I was pleasantly surprised by how efficiently everything works! Unlike Italy, the Netherlands is definitely not ten years behind the States. The subway, trams, and buses are easy to use; the metro cards have chips in them; there is a prominent international presence; the canals are picturesque; and the architecture is reminiscent of the Dutch Renaissance. Unfortunately, all of this wonder is buried underneath the tourist temptation of legal marijuana and De Wallen (the red-light district of Amsterdam). While I have no problem with either one of those things, it is regrettable that drugs and sex overshadow, instead of complement, the aforementioned charming qualities of this city on water.
We went to the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Albert Cuypmarkt, Jordaan, and the historic center. However, since I was in Amsterdam for the first time, there was no way I was going to miss an experience of a lifetime: walking around De Wallen at night.
I was more shocked than anything else.
A red glow hangs over the streets. Glass doors showcase women dressed in barely-there bikinis. The flow of men in the streets ebbs as they walk in and out of the glass doors. If I walked by a glass door whose curtains were drawn or one in which only a stool stood, I knew the prostitute had acquired commission. Despite this eerie atmosphere, De Wallen, filled with tourists just there for the show, still feels relatively safe.
Five years ago, the city council of Amsterdam, concerned about trafficking and pimping in the area, force closed 51 prostitution windows with the aim of developing the area with fashion designers and other upscale businesses. This reduction cut the total number of windows in De Wallen by one third. Mariska Majoor of the Prostitution Information Center and many representatives of De Rode Draad (a sex worker rights group) have criticized the decision, claiming it would not reduce crime, but instead lead to higher rent and more competition for the remaining windows. I am no supporter of gang violence, sex trafficking, or pimps, but I feel the city council should have built a stronger relationship with sex worker representatives in order to facilitate the best transition from an area marked by crime to one of legitimate, consenting sexual activities. I have no problem with the legalization of prostitution. In my opinion, what happens between consenting adults should not be the government’s business. In many cases, prostitution is the only form of viable income for a woman to support herself and her family. Furthermore, women should have the freedom to be in control of their own bodies. In the United States, 49 out of 50 states have classified prostitution as a misdemeanor. Legal in many counties in Nevada, the women are not forced to be prostitutes, but do it of their own free will. Condom use is mandatory. Consequently, statistics shows that there has not been a single case of HIV contracted because of a legal prostitute. As far as sexually transmitted diseases are concerned, research in Nevada indicates that one has a higher probability of contracting STD’s from a girlfriend or wife than from a legal prostitute. Amsterdam could use such an example to control their red light district, keeping the prostitution trade alive, but making it a safer place for their women.