Although Busts 4 Justice is generally UK/US focussed (as are many of my readers – hello), for nearly two years B4J HQ has been located in Amsterdam. It’s beautiful, bonkers; I’ve met some amazing people, cycled for miles through impossible pretty streets, had a lot of fun and learned so much since I’ve been here (except Dutch, embarrassingly). It’s so much more than I thought it would be: so much more than stoners and red lights. I love Amsterdam.
But I recently moved to the very center of the city, a heartbeat from the Amsterdam that most people know: the main drag of coffee shops and brothels. And though I love my house, the neighbourhood, my neighbours, the shops and the restaurants… amidst my ex-pat dream I have to be honest that I no longer feel safe walking home by myself. When I do, I am harassed by men (sometimes alone, sometimes in groups). Sometimes it’s gross but almost funny – last night I was asked if I wanted a job – but sometimes its… horrible.
Ten minutes ago, I was walking the 800m walk home from a work event to my apartment. It’s cold so I was walking fast – bundled up in my clothes and with my head bunched down in to my scarf. Either side of me nearly-naked girls were selling sex… but one man; stocky and a good couple of feet taller than me, chose instead to block my path, lean in and over me, and – my Dutch isn’t great, granted; but you can catch the drift in these situations – suggest something I’m pretty sure would cost you extra with the ladies behind the glass. I ducked him and sped home, quite shaken. No, nothing physically happened to me. But when a stranger – actually anyone – who physically could easily overpower you intimidates you like that, it’s upsetting. I was upset. I am upset.
This is the problem with normalising the sexual objectification of women. Let’s assume (because – don’t kid yourself, sex tourists – often it’s not the case even in Amsterdam) these women have chosen to offer sex as a commodity. That they are trading in sex isn’t the problem: it’s that people see them as objects for sex. There is no differentiation between the women behind the glass and any woman. All they know is that women can be objects: therefore, all women can be objects.
And let’s be real, what has been happening to me isn’t even about sex. We were flanked by six women in Hunkemoller beckoning men in – I was a ball of shivering wool clearly in a hurry to get home. If that man wanted sex, he could have had it easily. What that man wanted was to make me – someone, anyone – feel scared. Sex may be the message, but it’s certainly not the motive.
Amsterdam is an extreme situation, where the sex industry is overt and everywhere and expected. But honestly, what happened to me today – and what has increasingly happened to me since I moved to this neighbourhood – is no worse than what I regularly experienced when I lived in the UK. Where objectifying women is normal – on Page 3, in no-feelings-no-pleasure porn, in red-lit windows – it’s not just the women taking part who become objects. It’s all of us. We are all abstract, disposable, controllable, passive, there for someone else’s pleasure.
Campaigns like No More Page 3 are called hysterical or prudish for demanding an end to things that conspire to perpetuate this culture. But I can’t help but think that if those critics knew how it felt – knew how their sisters and daughters and mothers felt when someone twice their size felt entitled to corner them on a dark street – that they might think a little bit harder about how to end it.
Photo borrowed from outspokeonhealth.com
P.S To be clear, I’m not blaming Amsterdam’s sex workers for what happened: I think on balance sex workers are safer when it is legal (though it would be interesting to see what would happen if buying sex wasn’t….).
P.P.S 29.1.13 small edit to language inspired by Viva la Bravolution in the comments, for the reasons she eloquently (and rightfully) explains.