Walking down the dimly lit alleys, getting puffs of mind-dulling Moroccan weed as one passes Amsterdam coffee shops, window shopping adult stores, stealing glances inside brothels, tasting pale lagers at the many bars overlooking the canals, being invited by bouncers to walk into a peep show ….that’s a night anywhere in old Amsterdam Centrum. But at The Wallen, the Red Light District, there is something else: about 250 shop windows behind which approximately 6000 prostitutes from all over the world, especially Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia (in that order) entice passersby with gyrating hips, lacy underwear, whips, feathers, and the promise of a disease-free encounter.
Of course I was curious.
Of course I had to go.
Of course I felt compelled to see with my own eyes this flesh market set against the backdrop of 14th century buildings and history. This is what I found. That legalizing prostitution in the Netherlands has not eliminated the existence of pimps nor has it been a deterrent for human traffickers. As we walked down the canal, an African man followed us, offered the both of us first, later my husband alone, anything my husband wanted: the best night of his life, the man assured him. And as we walked down the red-lit window cabins, some girls offered threesomes, invited us both to the back of their painfully sad workplace we could see from the street: behind her tiny cabin and separated by a curtain was a cement bed with a thin mattress. Rolls of toilet paper piled up against the wall. My heart sank.
Down the same block we found a beautiful young girl: porcelain skin, black shiny hair, fake eye lashes, diminutive black leather bikini, and a set of glossy eyes deep, blue and high. She struggled to stand up. She swayed her body and blinked heavily as if commanding herself to remain on her feet. I felt a feral desire to run inside and give her some water, ask her what was wrong with her and what the hell she’d smoked, inhaled or injected to make her look this sick. But she was on the clock and she smiled a jagged smiled, licked her lips and dispatched me with an obscene gesture. By now, I was a lot less curious, less interested, more disgusted. Less the tourist and more the woman. I thought these were free sex workers, women who had chosen to use their bodies as their livelihood, adult women who had made educated decisions about the risks inherent to selling their bodies. Some of them were old and seemed cunningly savvy, like old dogs who knew every corner of their neighborhood. Some were less attractive than others, some overweight, some black, some Latinas, some ridiculously gorgeous with perfect bodies, others out of shape and warped with stretch marks, moles, scars, life. Then there was the school girl. She seemed to be just out of Amsterdam Middle School: pony tails, goofy reading glasses, flat chest and bony legs. She was impossibly young. Too young to be a legal prostitute. I squeezed my husband’s hand and he squeezed me back. She has to be of legal age, he said as if he could read my mind. But she was there in front of us, looking like she could use my help to finish her homework, like the never-before-kissed girl I once was, younger than my daughter, younger than everyone around us in The Wallen. I wanted to walk inside and save her, from herself, from her Johns, from predatory eyes, from Amsterdam’s jaws. Instead I hid my face from her behind my husband’s shoulder, I asked her to forgive me for not doing anything, and we walked away until the night devoured me whole.