On the Red Light District…

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Before the adventure of this semester actually began, my research group and I were working hard to develop a plan to investigate Human Sex Trafficking in Europe. For several reasons, this has NOT been easy! Narrowing down our topic enough so that it is specific enough that we can actually do research has been difficult, finding past research on sex trafficking has been extremely difficult, and not letting our emotions effect our decision making has been nearly impossible. However, the rewards of our efforts are starting to pay off. We are starting to get into the loop of anti-sex trafficking contacts in Europe, we have had several extremely educational experiences, and we almost have a plan outline for the rest of the semester!

We have learned a tremendous amount about this degrading and absolutely unnecessary industry. Below is an essay I wrote about an experience I had related to this project… I would love to hear your thoughts!! If you find this as upsetting as I have I encourage you to find out more! www.polarisproject.org is a great site to start!

On the Red-Light District

Sitting at a brewery under the most famous windmill in Amsterdam, the “De Gooier,” my stomach begins to feel nauseous. It built slowly at first, but increased with intensity as the minutes passed by. After taking only two or three sips of the locally brewed amber ale, I decide to give it away and head back to the far side of the city to the cramped and dirty hostel I was residing at for my stay in The Netherlands.

Upon arriving at the hostel, I grabbed a heavier jacket and anxiously wasted an hour pacing the floor and conversing with my roommates. Then, almost robotically, at 6:45pmI exited the hostel, took a left unto Frans van Mierisntraat and caught the number 10 tram to the city center.

Stepping off of the tram, I felt my stomach twirling so violently that it felt like food poisoning could be a possible diagnosis. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I am NOT comfortable with this situation I am about to enter into! Is this really an undergraduate research project? I really hope this helps me to make a positive difference in the world around me, but does not scar me too much by doing so.”  I walked up the street, praying for strength and scanning the old brick buildings for where my group and I were supposed to be meeting Saskia, a friendly twenty-two year old Canadian native that now lives in Amsterdam so that she can work for a non-governmental organization called “Not for Sale.”

Finally, we found the trendy, upscale bar on the left. All of us took a deep breath and slowly walked into the excessively loud bar where we were immediately greeted by a slightly pale, long brown-haired woman, who was roughly five and a half foot tall , had Ray Ban glasses and a contagious smile. She prompted us to have a seat and quickly told us that she needed a moment to finalize what she was currently working on and then we could begin talking. As she finished responding to a couple e-mails, I tried to recall the conversations we had the day before at her office on the edge of the Red-Light district and halfway succeeded. I remembered looking out her office window at the Oude Kerk (the oldest church in Amsterdam) and all of the window-based prostitution directly surrounding it from all sides. I remembered the conversation that we had about how she lived off of tea and cigarettes and how she was attempting to cut her caffeine and nicotine addictions for lent. I certainly remembered our in-depth conversations about how Human Sex Trafficking in the city was slowly changing shape into a much more complex and difficult issue.  Unsurprising for a city known for its abundant lust and tolerated cannabis.

Saskia then interrupted my thoughts by swiftly closing her laptop with a thud and asking the group if we had any questions to ask her before she took us on a tour of the Red-Light district. My head filled with all kinds of different questions. How many people are directly involved in prostitution in Amsterdam? What kind of safety precautions are there for the women? Of all the legal prostitutes in the city, how many of them are considered “trafficked”?

Someone asked if women were ever allowed out of their “situation” if they decided it was no longer a life style they could live?

Saskia explained how almost all of the women, some of whom were in their sixties, had “lover boys” who were essentially pimps. Each girl reports to her lover boy before and after each “transaction” and almost all of the lover boys use physiological and/or emotional abuse to convince the girls that prostitution is their only viable option. Not only do the lover boys use mental warfare as a tool to “keep business going,” but they also sometimes physically threaten the women and their families (although this is starting to happen less). With all of this in consideration, Saskia had some good and bad news for us. The good news: lover boys were starting to let the women go much more freely than they ever had in the past. The bad news: by allowing the women to leave much more freely than they had the opportunity to in the past, it is much more difficult to actually convict someone of human trafficking charges, even though it was still happening. The worse news: even when women leave the industry to try to better their lives, a vast majority of them end up being trafficked at least one more time in their life. This is seemingly due to the fact that when women are subjected to this horrendous abuse day-after-day it reduces the occupational opportunities the girls are prepared to enter into. Many of these girls do not even finish high school before entering into the world of trafficking, and I could imagine that trying to leave a trafficking “situation” without a high school diploma would be incredible difficult, especially in such a competitive economic market.

This answer instantly made me recall a discussion I had with my group the week before arriving in Amsterdam about the real definition of “sex trafficking.” We also questioned how one could define what was human trafficking in a prostitution type situation. We tried to say that it was just being forced into prostitution, rather than it being free will, but there are many complications to this definition. Some women do it under their own free will, but only because they see it is the only way to support their family or because they cannot get another job. Would these people still be considered trafficked? I don’t think so, but if not, then where is the line? There seems to be a gray area between being “trafficked” and being in that industry for sheer survival.  This conversation made me realize how insanely complex and complicated the issue really is. I knew that sex trafficking is a $20 billon dollar a year industry, that holds over 27 million people in its tight and unforgiving grasp. I knew that Amsterdam is famous for its legalized and regulated prostitution. I knew that this was going to be a challenging night, but I had no idea how perplexing it would really be.

Saskia then again asked if we had any questions before heading out to the district, but we all reluctantly bit our tongues and refrained from asking any of the countless other questions we were currently think about.

Leaving the bar down a side alley towards the Red-Light district, I began to notice the skunk-like smell of cannabis (a very new smell for me) as we passed several “coffee shops” (the well-known places that are “allowed” to sell marijuana).  As we rounded a street corner, a tall black man bumped up against me and casually offered me cocaine through a fairly loud whisper. I took that offer as a sign of the moral environment I was about to enter into.

With the Oude Kerk back in sight, Saskia stopped us for a moment to let us gather our thoughts and informed us that we were about to see some very disturbing things.
We walked up to the next block and took a right down a small alleyway. The famous church on one side of the alley and four plumb African women in lingerie standing in front of full-length glass doors motioning for us to come over and talk to them on the other. I thought they looked “normal”, besides the lack of clothing. They even seemed happy. But how could they be? I assumed they were just acting, but I don’t think I could even act If I was in there, nearly naked, for the world to see. Maybe it is something that one can become callused to?

We kept walking down several similar alleyways as Saskia reaffirmed to us that not everyone there was trafficked, but many of them were. Instantly, I remembered reading an article that in 2009 a woman tried to make contact with every woman in the district and roughly three-fourths of them told her that they were being trafficked. This made me want to blame policy and the ignorance of the general public. I already knew that human trafficking was something that is taboo to talk about, and that I myself had been ignorant to the issue until starting a research project on the subject a few months prior to this experience, but after learning about sex trafficking I did not understand how anyone who knew  anything about it could be quiet.

Then Saskia said we were going to walk down another street that at first glance did not look any different from the others. As we took a right hand turned I noticed this one was different. What was happening? There were hundreds of people, mostly middle aged men, packed into this extremely narrow alley all staring at the glass windows that lined the entire path. Was this part of the same things? It sure was. Personally, this was a first for me. I have been very blessed to have had some amazing travel opportunities, even if on occasion they were a bit dangerous, but I had NEVER seen anything like this before. We slid through the crowds to get a better look at what was happening. We saw that the girls in the windows were dancing, smiling, and even laughing, although I was VERY careful not to look any of them in the eye. How could this seemingly happy life be that of a prostitute? Let alone a prostitute that was being trafficked? This is not what human trafficking was depicted as in the blockbuster movie “Taken” or the average American television show that depicts all prostitutes as uneducated drug addicts who just don’t care about life.

As we reached the end I was in totally shock!

We walked down another street and saw the same thing, but this time I did not look at the girl’s actions, but at the crowds of people. There were groups of teenagers (including girls), middle aged couples that appeared to be married, and even senior citizens peering into the windows. They were almost all doing one of two things: 1) staring with their jaws dropped out of amazement, or 2) laughing and making jokes about the girls and the place they were in. People were acting like they were at the circus watching a sideshow. It was disgusting! I knew that I was in the modern version of the biblical cities of Sodom or Gomorrah.

This made me furious! How could people do this? Even if the public did not know human trafficking was happening here, how could they be so “okay” with women selling sex? I was not okay. I felt my clipped fingernails furiously digging into my palms as my clenched fists got tighter and tighter. I think that making jokes about the situation may have been some people’s way of dealing with the discomfort of the harsh environment, but even that does not come close to justifying making such a disgusting and horrible thing into another dirty joke.

Then I started listening to the people around me, something that I had been neglecting to do. I heard a middle-aged man say “look at that piece of ass!” and a group of about six college-aged girls giggling after one of them said “so are we going to have some fun tonight? If you know what I mean.” I just could NOT understand…

Down the next street I made a commitment to myself to make eye-contact with one of the girls. I was not sure why I felt the need to do this. The only answer I could come up with was because it was so uncomfortable and that maybe if I built of the courage to look one of the girls in the eye it would make it more “real” than just an uncomfortable nightmare to try to forget about. So after several failed attempts I took a second to focus, unclench my fist, and remind myself that I was there to uncover the truth and share that truth with as many people as I could. I looked up and the first thing I saw was a tall, slender blonde girl who was smiling at a man walking by. My stomach turned. She looked as if she very well could have been from Eastern Europe (where Saskia said most of the trafficked victims were from).  She too seemed happy, but how could she be? Then it happened. She moved her focus to me. We made eye contactI froze. I did not know what to do or how to feel. What was I supposed to do? If I showed the emotion I felt, she would easily be able to see that I was, in some ways, judging her and her situation, but if I smiled I would just be another immoral ass-hole walking by. I decided to try and keep a straight face and just look away. Did I do the right thing? I am not sure. However, I am sure I will never forget her face covered in make-up with a seemingly sincere smile on her face. I will never forget her blue eyes attempting to judge whether I would be her next customer. I will never forget her red lipstick covering her pursed lips. I will never for her and the situation that she might be in…
This led me to start thinking about the societal acceptance of this business. I have no clue what her name is, what her “story” is, or even what nationality she is, but society deems it acceptable for me to buy her? She may not have been forced into that position, but there was a pretty good chance that she had. How could anyone take that risk, morals aside?

After another half an hour, Saskia started walking us back to her office. I was pleased to see that she was talking to Karli, the only girl in our group. I had not even considered about how horrifying it must feel to be there as a girl who knows that many of the women we had just seen were being trafficked. I had not thought of how disturbing it could be for Karli to be roughly the same age as many of those women. Was it just luck that Karli was born in the United States and that she herself was not being trafficked? What had these girls done to deserve this lifestyle? Absolutely nothing!!

Once we arrived, Saskia told us about how EVERYTIME she walks through the alleyways, especially at night; she becomes a complete emotional wreck.  I understood this; the part that I did not understand was how someone could not be a wreck after what we had just been through.
Saskia then prayed with us. She prayed for the women, for the lover boys, for the lost souls who were “window shopping”, for the city of Amsterdam, and for us… How did we deserve prayer after we saw what these women were going through? Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciated the prayer because I knew I was going to need strength to make it through the rest of the night, but I thought the women needed divine strength much more than I did. After the prayer ended I kept thinking about this. I finally came to the conclusion that we did need prayer. We needed to vividly remember those experiences, not in a lustful way, but a way that broke our hearts each time we thought about it. We needed a lifelong burden for those women, because not too many other people seemed to! I cannot help but think that at least a few of these women are holding onto hope that someday they will be able to get out of this wicked industry.

Soon after Saskia left, we just stood in a circle staring at each other. I started to tear up as I silently asked myself a million questions. Then I thought of that girls face again. I knew I was going to throw up. My stomach could not keep that thought down. Where was her family? What were her dreams as a child? How did she view life now? How did she end up in that window? Who determined her faith for her? What was going to happen to her once she got old and her body began to age? Would she even live that long due to the health concerns that come with prostitution?

As the group stood there staring at each other I tried to hold it together. I couldn’t. I started walking through all of my thoughts out loud hoping that someone would have answers. No one did. Then as we were talking, with the edge of the district to my back, I saw a camera flash. This normally would not have been something to push me past the tipping point, but I didn’t know what the picture was of, but I could just imagine people bragging about being there. I could imagine some immature teenage guy’s Facebook profile picture being him standing with the Red-Light district in the background and him being proud of that. I also thought the picture could have been from a tourist trying to foolishly take a picture of one of the girls, not knowing that was the only taboo.  I got angry again. Then I remembered what Saskia had said earlier, “Try to not be mad at the people, but at the situation, at the devil for making this situation tempting for some people.” After remembering this, I tried to not be mad at the guys in the street, at the lover boys standing casually off in the distance, and at the government for letting this happen, but it was really, really hard! I am still struggling with this.

As I thought I had just about become as broken as I could be for the night, I saw a mother with her two daughters go stop at the apartment beside us. One of the girls must have been less than a year old, and the other could not have more than five. My heart totally melted as I looked at the young girls while the mother unlocked the door. Then the older of the two girls turned and made eye contact with me. I froze. She was smiling from ear to ear; her bright blue eyes looked at me with curiosity. I started crying! I could only think about what her future might hold. She tilted her head at my awkward stare and started laughing so innocently at the tears on my face. Before I could even react she ran inside to her family… I will never forget her face!