You don’t have to put on the red light* (*you’re fair game anyway)

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.

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13 Responses to You don’t have to put on the red light* (*you’re fair game anyway)

  1. Sweets says:

    Fantastic post. I am so sorry that happened to you, and you’re so right: it’s never about sex. It’s about power and control and asserting your place in the hierarchy. Being female in no way means we’re there for the taking. Thanks for speaking up so thoughtfully, righteously, and bravely.

  2. astrid says:

    Co-signing on everything Sweets said.

  3. sama says:

    Nice post and I agree.

    Similar experience here in Norhern Europe: years ago prostitutes started to walk on a short lane in an industrial area every evening in our city. Men went crazy and began cruising that area day and night in their cars. Local women dressed whatever way and walking during daytime even several blocks away started to get “proposals”.

    I saw men stop a woman who was carrying a shopping bag and holding her small child by the hand in the afternoon. I was a student then wearing tennis shoes and ripped jeans – yes, once a car laso stopped for me, at noon on a Sunday.

    It was strange doing one’s Master’s at the University to become a serious academic researcher and have these people try to buy me as a piece of meat.

    And there the problem lies, this kind of behaviour intimidates women and makes them insecure, not only in walking around freely in their neighbourhoods but in the society in general. Young women today are so intimidated by the woman-hating they encounter on the internet that they withdraw from many activities on-line and some become fearful to speak up in public (at schools, universities, working places) fearing that they will be criticized for their looks when expressing their opinions on any topic.

    Did you follow up on Oxford professor Mary Beard’s case? She was on tv commenting on immigration issues and was later attacked on the internet mainly based on her looks, she got death threats and all. Very scary stuff.

  4. Great post. You raise a lot of very good points.

    I would like to point out that the PC term is “sex worker.” “Prostitute” denotes objectification, whereas “sex work” can cover all manner of jobs in the sex industry and legitimizes it as a profession for those who choose it (and doesn’t shame those who are forced into it.)

    The whole attitude that society has towards sex work is all messed up. Sex workers do not sell their bodies. They sell services they provide with their bodies. It’s like saying a masseuse sells their hands each time they give someone a massage. But many (most?) of society thinks that in buying the services of a sex worker, one is buying the right to do whatever they want with the sex worker. That’s not sex, that’s slavery. And very few challenge this assumption because the subject is so taboo.

    If people gave more thought to sex workers as workers in a legitimate industry, rather than products, life would probably be very different for the average woman. Sigh.

    • (I know a bit about this stuff because I was going to write my thesis on sex work in Taiwan, but then I dropped out. Nevertheless! Here are some cool articles I sourced:

      http://www.amrc.org.hk/asian_labour_update_article/sex_workers/sex_work_in_taiwan
      http://sex.ncu.edu.tw/members/Ho/paper/Self-Empowerment_&_Professionalism.pdf

      Cheers!)

    • Of course you’re totally right. I confess I was upset when I wrote this, and I definitely didn’t choose my words carefully enough. I will amend my post, I think. It’s important to get it right.

      I’m so interested to hear about your thesis (abandoned or not!). With the Red Light District on my doorstep (literally) I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Even though people assume it’s safe because it’s legal, there’s a lot of trafficking and grooming that happens here (and of course, choice is an interesting concept when the deck is so stacked against you. But that could be me being presumptuous and judgemental and an ass).

      One of the oddest things for me are the visitors. Even weirder than the creepy men who stalk up and down and heckle women, are the non-sex tourists. In the freezing cold, peeping through their parker jackets, eating FEBO – they gape abstractly through the windows as if they were at the zoo. I can’t reconcile what they’re doing with what they’re seeing – what are they thinking as they watch the near naked woman text on her phone, or drink a coffee, or wave at men passing by. Are they seeing people, or is it the same as penguins, or a piece of art?

      Thanks so much for the comment. Excuse my ramble – as you can tell I’ve been thinking a lot about it but my thoughts aren’t all well formed yet…

  5. Fee says:

    I moved to Italy as part of my ERASMUS year for university in 2007. I too, found myself receiving much unwanted attention – the result of which got ramped up to being the victim of two assaults. I was followed home repeatedly, had single and groups of men trying to bundle me in their cars and when finally I went to the police, I was told that “you’re English, you’re asking for it”. I’d like to note that I lived in jeans, hoodies and steel toe-cap boots for self-protection. Even in summer.

    The reputation that British women have abroad is something that I am incredibly passionate about. Although both the UK and Italy are part of the EU, the cultural divides are massive, and it was a price that I paid. I watched some other British girls on my course behaving in exactly the same manner that they would at home, and it terrified me.

    Whether or not the attention is justified (in whoever’s eyes) it is not acceptable. There needs to be a greater awareness raised and more support offered.

    I’m truly sorry to hear of your encounter.

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  7. Courteney says:

    I am in the states and have encountered similar situations walking home from work, usually from groups of large men in SUVs, its terrifying and it can be frustrating when all you want to do is be at home, safe and warm. It angers me sometimes that women cannot feel safe in their own neighborhoods. If I want to take a walk somewhere I shouldn’t have to feel as if I may be picked up by a predator. I agree that something needs to change.

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