Feminism and Prostitution: My Experiences in the Red Light District

Ahh, good ole’ prostitution. The oldest profession in the world.

I’ve been working on this article for about two weeks (sorry for the delay in posts, friends) because it’s an issue I consider to be really important. The conversation I’m trying to have here goes much beyond the scope of what can be contained in a single blog post, but I’ll do my best to shrink it down into less than 1500 words.

feminism and prostitution

There are 40 million prostitutes working in the world right now (source). The average age a female begins work in the sex industry is 12 years old (source). There’s a LOT of money involved–the sex industry in Atlanta, Georgia alone has a net worth of $290 million (source).

And just for the sake of this article, let me personally define and distinguish:

Prostitution is when a woman over the age of 18 actively chooses to receive compensation for sex or sexual acts.

Sex trafficking is the illegal, immoral act of soliciting sex or sexual acts from a person under the age of 18, no matter the circumstances, in exchange for money; and a person over the age of 18 against his or her will. These people are often kidnapped and sold into the international sex trade, and are forced to interact with clients day in and day out–giving most, if not all, their earnings to a pimp.

So basically, I’m using the term “prostitution” to strictly mean a legal adult who consensually trades sex for money. Anything else is illegal, counts as sexual assault, and should be treated as such. I do realize that there’s a lot of discrepancy about the vocabulary surrounding the sex industry in academia, and I want to be cautious about this. One cannot always tell when the term “prostitution” refers to a woman who has chosen the sex industry, because it’s often used interchangeably with “sex trafficking”.

The question I’m posing, then, is this:

Is it more feminist to support women who choose the sex industry, or more feminist to help “these women” choose a different career path?

Or, even worse, if you support women who work in the sex industry, are you in turn supporting the notion that women can be commodified? 

I went on a date this fall, and I was musing with the guy about the future. I jokingly recall saying, “I could literally do anything with my life. I could like, even be a stripper,” and he responded by saying, “Oh, you’re not one of those girls.”

I remember thinking so clearly Those girls?! I’m sorry, but what are those girls like, and what do they have that I don’t?! Confidence? Self-sufficiency? I’m sorry, but where can I get some of that??

There’s still a significant underlying stigma against women who work in the sex industry. So, is it more feminist to support these women, or to help them move away from what many see as a degrading industry?

I’ve considered this question for years.

I’ve been on both sides of the argument.

To outline some specific arguments I’ve seen, heard, or personally held:

1.On one hand, women are over-sexualized. This is not a debatable topic, really–it’s just fact. Walk around any mall: there are gigantic advertisements plastered on every window, highlighting women’s chests. There’s the idea that nursing mothers shouldn’t breastfeed in public (an entirely different debate). In Hollywood, women are often portrayed with tight outfits, and in positions below men, such as a secretary or assistant instead of the boss.

2. Women are marginalized in societies all over the world, as they have been throughout history. One way that women find power and money is through the sex industry. Sometimes, women are driven to the sex industry for no other reason than she can make a lot of money quickly–for herself, for a child, for school… for any number of reasons. Verily Mag has a great article on this.

3. We’ve also seen statistics that show that when prostitution is legal, sex trafficking rises, as well.

On the other hand, there is a big movement fighting against the stigma surrounding sex workers, for the exact reasons listed above. A lot of times, women actively choose the sex industry, in any avenue–pornography, camming, prostitution, creating “private Snapchats”, etc. It’s an empowerment thing, at the core: women capitalize on the market that’s there anyway. It’s motivated from self-confidence and a drive to succeed, not self-loathing and as a last resort.

Numerous news sources have written pieces on the empowerment of prostitution, including the Economist and the Huffington Post (not including the countless more). I particularly love the article from the Huffington Post, because it’s written by a prostitute.

When women choose the sex industry, are they playing into the societal undercurrent that they are sex objects and nothing more?

It’s a complicated question. So, let’s back up.

When I arrived in Amsterdam, I was completely taken by the quaint cobblestone streets, the breathtaking canals, and hundreds of bicyclists, ringing their bells about two seconds before you’ll get demolished in their wake.


I did the Sandeman’s free walking tour that I’ve done in almost every city I’ve visited, where we passed a lot of historical monuments, learned about why the houses sink, and the awesome progressiveness of the city. (It was the first place to legalize gay marriage–all the way back in 2001! Plus, I’ve never seen so many vegan food shops in my life. And marijuana “coffee shops”.)

I paid for a tour of the Red Light District that night, because I’d heard it was ~spooky~.

Okay, maybe spooky isn’t the right word.

I’d heard about the Red Light District for years. Sex trafficking and the international demand for sex workers has always been an interest of mine, and I’d always associated the Red Light District with a) child sex trafficking; b) sad, lonely, poor women; and c) gross men.

This is not at all what I learned from my tour guide, from my research, and from my firsthand experiences there. Mostly.

First of all, the Red Light District is not a dirty, dark, back alleyway with drunk men stumbling around and spitting on the ground, with lingerie-clad women standing on the corner, soliciting their services (this is really what I was picturing).

It’s actually a really popular tourist neighborhood, filled with bars and restaurants and nightclubs, as well as little cafes and disco bars. There’s a huge church. It’s on one of the canals. It stretches quite a few blocks. It’s very well populated with men and women out for a beer or pizza. Honestly, if I didn’t already know it was the Red Light District, I probably wouldn’t have recognized it as any different at first glance.

There are, however, the distinguishing marks that truly make it the “Red Light” district: the “Sex Palace”–a small neon building where a 2 euro coin will give you a one-minute window (literally) view into a couple having sex, the countless sex toy and lingerie stores, the countless full-body windows with a red fluorescent light above them (or blue, indicating a transsexual). And of course, the ubiquitous women standing in the windows they’ve rented for 150 euros for their eight-hour shift, wearing glowing white lingerie under the blacklights. Some women work the audience and wink as you walk by, or seductively lean against the window and beckon with a “come hither” motion of their fingers. Some also scroll Instagram while casually smoking a cigarette, just waiting for a customer.

Just depends on your preference, I suppose.

The women typically wear lingerie, although some wear costumes (think policewoman or nurse). They all had on heavy makeup and had styled their hair.

To use the services of a prostitute, one just has to go up to the window and knock. Negotiations follow, and you’re either invited in, or not.

At first glance, it might be a little uncomfortable. It’s a bit shocking, actually. I tried to steel myself to be insensitive, but I couldn’t. As a young woman, my first instinct was to feel pity. I learned that in order to be a prostitute in Amsterdam, you have to be 21 years of age (18 to be a customer), and I’m 21. Theoretically, these women are my age. And they’re all someone’s daughter!

Then I asked myself… why?

I know we’ve all had these thoughts at one time or another.

Why should we “feel bad” for these women? It’s a long-held sentiment: women are to be pitied if they work in the sex industry. But just because it’s not something you’d do, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I learned that the women who work in the Red Light District are all part of a union, meaning they receive workers’ rights and other benefits. There is a standard price–50 euros for fifteen minutes (and of course there are better packages available for purchase). Each room is equipped with a panic button that contacts the police the moment something shady starts happening. The women have come up with their own system of support to let other workers know about the “bad guys”. They pay taxes. Pimps are illegal–each woman works for herself and herself only. Photographs aren’t allowed, which is why this post is pretty bland in the visual department. It’s really a great web of support that Amsterdam has cultivated.

So, my argument is this: if a woman chooses, freely and without persuasion, to work in the sex industry, why not fully support her? Sex work is work.

I argue that if sex is normalized, the sexualization of women will decrease.

If conversations about sex and the sex industry are not forbidden, sexual assault will decrease, unplanned pregnancies and STDs will decrease, and healthy attitudes about sex will increase.

A t-shirt I purchased from a non-profit organization located in the heart of the Red Light District, supporting women who work in the sex industry.

Humor me: say we honor women in such a way that they can choose their industry of work. If you believe sex work is wrong, but we continue to empower women to choose their careers, wouldn’t more women begin to choose paths other than sex if they believe they have access to better careers (assuming this frame of mind believes that sex workers only choose this industry because they believe they don’t have any other paths)?

Sex is always in our face–advertisements, on television, on the streets. We might as well begin to normalize it.

Then again, when prostitution is legalized, sex trafficking increases. I can’t help but wonder, though, if we normalized prostitution and empowered women to choose the sex industry; if we more heavily regulated the profession; if it weren’t such a taboo topic… if sex trafficking would decrease as a result.

Just something to chew on.

Sex is always in our face–advertisements, on television, on the streets. We might as well begin to normalize it.

Moral of the story:

Just because you don’t see it as moral, as confidence-boosting, as fulfilling… doesn’t mean others don’t. Your truth is not everyone’s.

Again, this topic is so much broader and deeper than can be covered in a single discussion. Thanks for bearing with me.

What are your opinions? It’s certainly a difficult topic. It has many, many sides. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

tess (1)


2 thoughts on “Feminism and Prostitution: My Experiences in the Red Light District”

  1. Nice article. But here goes my views…

    Amsterdam/Holland is a First world country where every worker (including a hooker) is ensured with their rights. This may not be the case in Asia or Africa (where more than 70% population of the world lives), where prostitution is often linked with Crime, Drugs or trafficking. Perhaps, only less than 5% sex workers would have chosen it by themselves.

    Nevertheless, in the First world zone (as it is safe), I guess we have arrived a point where any girl or guy has a free choice to be a part time stripper and it means nothing more!


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