Amsterdam's dark side
They stand there in window after window, bathed in flattering red light and wearing only bras and panties.
Many will stare boldly out at you. One or two will even open the door and wish you a cheery "good evening" as you wander by.
They are the "window" prostitutes in Amsterdam's notorious Red Light district — a maze of narrow alleys, lined with sex shops, theatres offering live sex shows and coffee shops where pot is openly smoked and sold.
The district is an immense draw for tourists — as big an attraction as Amsterdam's wonderful museums and canals. But it has come under increasing scrutiny of late, following reports of extensive, forced prostitution by criminal gangs.
"You have a lot of organizations in Russia or in other countries, trafficking these women in Holland," says Yogita Homma, a former prostitute who now works at the Prostitute Information Centre in the heart of the Red Light district.
"If a girl needs help, we will help her but with these large organizations, girls are afraid to talk or to go to the police because they think something will happen to them or their families. These aren't very nice people. If they find out that you blather, they will get you."
Dutch authorities launched a campaign to fight forced prostitution early this year, leading to calls for the red light districts — the city has three of them, with a total of 450 windows — to be shut down.
Led by Mariska Majoor, founder of the centre, the prostitutes responded to the adverse publicity by holding an "open day" allowing the public to peek inside their places of work and talking to people about their lives and working conditions.
The Red Light district is 700 years old, we learned on a recent nighttime walking tour — called "Dark Amsterdam" — led by a sprightly 69-year-old former mechanical engineer named Kees Nave.
Amsterdam was a fishing village that grew into a major port and the brothels, distilleries and churches came into existence to cater to the various spiritual and bodily needs of the merchant seamen.
"The sailors are gone," said Nave, "but the pubs and the ladies are still here."
About a dozen of us have signed up for the walk, conducted in English.
Most of the group is middle-aged although there are three younger women. And although the Red Light district is comparatively safe, being part of a group does bring a certain level of comfort.
The walk starts near Amsterdam's Centraal Station where subway extensions costing 1.5 billion euros ($2.1 billion Cdn.) are underway.
"The sex trade in Holland is worth 1.6 billion euros ($2.2 billion Cdn.)," Nave notes.
"Don't complain that you haven't seen any prostitutes yet," he tells us. "By the end of the evening, you will be bored with them. And don't take photos because it makes them very angry. If you do, do it sneakily."
One of the first stops is the Prins Hendrik Hotel where the great American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker met an untimely end in 1988 after tumbling from an upstairs window.
Precisely how he fell is a mystery but Nave believes he was on drugs. "He thought he could fly," he says succinctly. "He couldn't."
We stop near the Oude Kerke (old church) in the Red Light district to view another mystery.
Nave points out a little sculpture set into the cobbles.
It shows a hand fondling a breast and is one of five bronze and iron statues that have appeared throughout the city during the last 15 years.
The artist is a local doctor and city officials know who he is but his identity remains a secret.
"The church was not very happy when the sculpture appeared," Nave says.
He mentions a live-sex theatre with large neon ads outside. "They say, `We have a family show. We show you how to make families.'"
The walk takes us past window after window en route to the Prostitute Information Centre. There we are offered refreshments and the chance to chat with Homma, who was a sex worker for about six months.
Prostitution was legalized in Holland in October, 2000, and you have to be at least 18 and a citizen of a European Union country to be a prostitute. After looking at your passport, landlords charge between 80 and 135 euros ($110 to $190 Cdn.) for a "window." There are two shifts a day, of eight to 12 hours each.
"You pay a little extra for a night shift because there are more potential customers outside," Homma says.
A session costs 35 to 50 euros ($50 to $70 Cdn.) and lasts 15 minutes, she says. "And that's enough. It is quick."
That "fee" is good for two basic forms of sex (Homma herself uses more graphic language). "If you want more, you pay extra."
If this doesn't turn your crank, you can go to a club where you pay by the hour, (around 100 euros — $140 Cdn.), have a drink and even gamble. Or you can go to a private house. Then there are escort agencies who will send a prostitute to your hotel or your house.
"The last two ways are working at home and working on the street. These are the most dangerous because nobody is watching you. Nobody sees what happens if you get into a car with somebody. You never know. You can only pray that everything goes well."
The windows, on the other hand, have a button that sets off an alarm outside.
One area of the district is for transsexuals and transgendered but all the clients are male-only. Are there any men-for-women windows?
"No, it wouldn't work," Homma replies, laughing. "We are women — we can get sex for free. Guys are lining up."
Homma says that there are no epidemics or health problems in the district, even though testing is not mandatory.
"There are government STD clinics everywhere. They are anonymous and free of charge and people who take this profession seriously will attend those."
The prostitutes themselves fall into three groups, Homma says.
The professional sex workers are in it for the money, perhaps to pay debts or to buy a expensive house or car; addicts who need to support their drug habit; and women who have been forced into it by organized crime.
Homma, whose family came to Amsterdam from India when she was one, was 18 when she became a prostitute.
"I was a rebellious teen. I have great parents. We weren't poor and I had a great home with lots of love. I wanted my own money, my independence.
What did her parents think?
"My father practically killed me," she says.
He is still unhappy about his daughter working at the centre (she is now studying to be a social worker).
"He doesn't have any peace with it. My mother is more okay with it, because I have quit."
It is important that women know what they are getting into, Homma says.
"It is not all pretty and nice and having a lot of money, it is also hard work.
"If you don't enjoy sex, you cannot do this work. And if you cannot separate sex and love from each other, you won't last a day doing this."
She quit because "I came to a different point in my life" but she has no regrets.
"I learned a lot of things and saw a lot of things. I had good experiences and some bad experiences."
It did change her view of the opposite sex for a while — "I began to see them as potential customers.
And now? "I love men. But if I have to be really honest ... I have a daughter and if she said, `Well, mom, I have become a sex worker, I would say NO!'"