When I say that I spent a week in Amsterdam during my semester abroad, most people respond with something along the lines of, “Oh! So did you see the Red Light district?” coupled with wide eyes and giggles. I spent the week in Amsterdam with my Prostitution and the Sex Trade class. We met with NGOs, government organizations, and former sex workers to discuss the status of sex work within the Netherlands. I definitely saw the Red Light district.
This week-long trip to Amsterdam with my Prostitution and the Sex Trade class was the reason I chose to study abroad at the Danish Institute of Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. As a women’s and gender studies minor at Georgetown, the idea of studying prostitution in countries were it is legal was exciting. I had never engaged with prostitution academically, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to study the issue through a lens of legality. My Prostitution and the Sex Trade course included a three-day intensive study in our home base of Copenhagen, where prostitution is legal, a three-day trip to Sweden, where prostitution is legal but the client is criminalized, and this week-long trip to Amsterdam, where brothels, as well as prostitution, is legal.
The Red Light district of Amsterdam cannot be ignored. Centrally located around the city’s oldest church, the Red Light district demands that you notice the sex work happening all around you. Whether it’s the beckoning of the dolled-up women in the windows, the neon lights advertising sex shows, or rainbow-colored condoms hanging in the windows of the Condomerie, sex permeates the atmosphere of Amsterdam. The Red Light district is both a neighborhood which celebrates sex and pleasure and one who’s glitter and lipstick camouflages exploitation and human trafficking.
The majority of our class discussions and my own personal musings come back to this question – can you separate freely chosen sex work versus the trafficking of human beings for the purposes of sexual exploitation? Can sex work even be chosen, or do the economic motivators limit the agency of this choice? How can we, or should we even, aid the Eastern European girls in the windows whose boyfriends would legally qualify as pimps? How do we stop the human rights violation of trafficking while allowing individuals to sell sex if that is what they so chose? Is sex work just another form of labor, or is there something about sex which makes it inherently different? These are questions I have spent my semester abroad contemplating, questions that activists and lawmakers have spent their whole careers thinking about, without coming to an obvious conclusion.
Learning about the sex industry in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands has made my ignorance about the sex trade in the United States glaring apparent. I know prostitution is illegal in the majority of the United States, but it still exists. Criminalizing the prostitute herself (or himself, but most often herself) does nothing but create a cycle of criminality. Marring these women with a criminal record does the opposite of helping them exit the sex industry, but instead, makes getting a job in another profession near impossible. Is the Nordic model, or the criminalization of the customer, the solution for the United States? Criminalizing the men who purchase sex rather than the women themselves is a step in the right direction, yet I worry that the Nordic model merely plays lip-service to the ideal of eradicating prostitution rather than enacting real change. I find myself leaning towards supporting the legalization of prostitution, yet fear that legalization would encourage sex traffickers to do their business in that country. The more I study prostitution and the sex trade, the more I come to appreciate the complexity and nuances of this issue, and the more I recognize that anyone who has a simple solution isn’t thinking hard enough.