While researching my book, ‘Amsterdam… The Essence’, I decided to avoid the cliché’s of drugs and prostitution, and made it my mission to tell the city’s true story in the words of the creative people who shape it. I interviewed artists, musicians, authors, a historian, a tattoo artist and a comedian in search of the city’s essence.
And yet… the Red Light District (RLD) is such an icon of Amsterdam’s liberal identity that it felt impossible to avoid it. By chance, I discovered Mariska Majoor, former sex worker and founder of the Prostitution Information Centre. She runs information talks for thousands of visitors per year, explaining the truth of the most famous sex industry in the world.
“Many assume the RLD was created for the tourist industry; they often don’t realise that it’s the most ancient part of the city, over 800 years old. In those early days, this was just a tiny harbour town and, naturally, every port has to deal with horny sailors.
There have always been dancing houses and bars where sex workers picked up guys; the city was already renowned for that hundreds of years ago. I explain to tourists that this is how Amsterdam started: it began with the old church, around which they started to build a village, and bars automatically sprang up around the harbour. It all developed together to become what it is today.
These days, the authorities want to make a lot of changes and supposedly ‘clean the area up’; some even imagine the council will close it. But the RLD simply is Amsterdam. If you wipe prostitution out then Amsterdam will never be the same.”
Mariska mentioned that various research papers had been published, claiming that a large number of the workers are trafficked.
“We can’t say that trafficking doesn’t happen; but it’s not true or fair to pretend, that all the girls here are victims and all the owners of the establishments are criminals.
Safety is a major reason why girls work legally here and not illegally elsewhere. They can refuse a customer, they can go to the police if they are in trouble. All rooms have very loud alarms. The girls don’t have to work in dangerous circumstances on the street; they don’t have to step into a car with someone they don’t know and deal with the possible consequences.”
As our interview progressed, Mariska spoke the words that struck deep fear into me.
“David, if you really want to understand prostitution, you should come and sit in a window for an evening. Then you will see the worker’s side of the story for yourself.”
Terribly sorry, I thought, but I’m an Englishman – and you want me to sit in a window as a prostitute? I hoped she was joking, but Mariska is serious about true representation of this area. This was no joke.
So one cold October night, I bid farewell to my girlfriend – I’m just off to the Red Light District, dear – and arrive at Mariska’s office next to the Oude Kerk. She casually points at a stool in the middle of a window decorated as a classic prostitute’s window; fluorescant light, red feathers, lurid curtains and a selection of chains and battery-powered items strewn on the window sill. I assume the position.
Reactions from the potential customers are a combination of mild bemusement and utter disbelief – not to mention disappointment. As I watch the punters glancing up and shuffling away, it becomes clear that there are stories on both sides of the glass, and Mariska begins to coach me on assessing the passers by.
“Sitting here, you can see every side of a person’s character. For example, if someone is aggressive, I can’t see it on the street. If I see them from here, I know it immediately. The way people react if they see a window prostitute is like the mask is falling down.
People say you have to be really careful with customers because anything can happen. But if you sit here and watch them, without their masks, and if you look them in the eyes in combination with the body language, you can see if you can trust them or not, how they are as a customer.”
I complete the evening’s experience with a question, as one lady actually seems to consider knocking at my window. “What the hell do I say if she asks how much?”
Mariska smiles at my discomfort and replies, “Just tell them it costs 50 Euros for massage and a few compliments!
David Beckett, The Essence
A full interview with Mariska Majoor can be found in David Beckett’s book, ‘Amsterdam… The Essence’. Meet Mariska at the PIC: Enge Kerksteeg 3, 1012 GV Amsterdam, or visit her website www.pic-amsterdam.com