The Girl in the Red Light District Window


Nieuwmarkt is warm. It’s 11 am and already the temperature here is creeping up beyond 22 degrees. The market has served us well. Coffee, fresh juice general buzziness,  and we wander, as tourists do, heading off the market to the cooler side streets. Laughing at the English boys in the café – beer & joints already started, shirts off, noisy, preening.

And to my left, in a window at street level, is a girl.

Dressed only in black underwear with pink edging, we are eye to eye. Almost. She is tiny. 5ft 2 perhaps. I tower over her.

What I notice is this: she is so young. Her belly is drum-taut and pierced with a pink stud which matches her underwear. Her long light brown hair spills over her shoulders. Her skin is brown-perhaps-fake-tanned. She is pretty, maybe even beautiful. She is so young…..

And I look away.  I hadn’t expected her. At 11 in the morning on a hot sunny day. I am… Shocked, horrified, curious, baffled, angry…. My mind goes straight to what she is there to do… the men to be touched and pleasured…the strangers who will have intimate access to her … the cold hard reality of money-for-sex.

The silver haired American couple wandering in the opposite direction see her too. The woman comments “I guess she got the early shift today”…. And it’s so banal….. so strangely normal but completely abnormal….. I’m unsteady for a second. Like the world has just backflipped on me.

I look again for a moment  and the Girl looks…what? Bored? Resigned?  Dead behind the eyes? Ready for business? What Is that look?

I wonder if I am a prude? Naïve? This lack-of-coolness with what is before me.. surely I just need to get with it…. But I am not alright with this. It leaves me cold and strangely scared…the world I live in does not allow for young girls in windows selling their precious selves to strangers…. And yet I’m face to face with that very reality. What the Hell is going on?

As I walk away, I want to talk to this girl.. Ask her how did she end up here? No…I don’t want to ask her how she ended up because that would mean this is the end…I want to ask how she has come to be here. In street window on a bright  Friday morning, opposite half naked English teenagers who are goading each other to have a go; looking out at elderly Americans and a curvy Scottish Woman who can’t quite meet her eye…

All day she flitted in and out of my mind.  I find myself wondering if she is a self-employed, gloriously empowered, strong, sassy woman who has chosen this as a means to some other end? Or is she pimped, trafficked passport taken, a powerless victim, voiceless and forced here? Is she educated? Cared for? Loved?  In Love?  What does she think of her body? What does she think of others’ bodies? Does she enjoy sex? Where does she live? What are her dreams?

And later, back at the hotel, I google Red Light District and mostly, sites talk about the sex trade & the history… but I can’t find the answers to the questions above…other than that, since 2000, the girls have to pay taxes…

36 hours on and I’ve made no more sense of it all…and we’re heading back to Nieuwmarket tonight  to a restaurant that has come highly recommended….How. Very. Odd.
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6 thoughts on “The Girl in the Red Light District Window

  1. Great piece of writing, Julie. Reminds me vividly of the questions I had when I was staying in a B&B near there a couple of years ago. I ended up speaking to a couple of the prostitutes about how / why, etc. They said that they were doing it to pay for their education, and had come to the Netherlands because they knew they could do it more safely there. They weren’t keen to talk much, though, as they were working.

    It all became more surreal to me after those conversations; they talked about it like it was just another Saturday job. It felt to me like they were gambling away part of their humanity. I’m sure they all have their reasons, some more sordid than others.

  2. Thank you Martyn…
    I’m glad someone commented…it felt weird posting this one – felt quite challenging, both personally & not really a fuchsia blue post…. like I was slagging off Amsterdam or raising something that couldn’t be solved…. so after posting this, it was still on my mind over dinner….

    My Mother-in-Law had spent some time in Hamburg talking to women there about some of their experiences. She raised the point about safety and the business side of things… I guess in some ways it’s not the girls in the windows, the visible, that should most be on my mind…..
    I too talked about the how inhumane it seemed. Zoo-like…

    A deeply weird experience

    • Well i for one am glad you posted. I think it’s too easy to live life without ever noticing the underbellies of the communities within which we live. It’s one of the things I enjoy about living in Glasgow; it’s all pretty obvious.

      I personally find hiding the darker sides of our communities much harder to deal with. There’s every bit as much prostitution in Edinburgh, for example; it’s just well hidden.

  3. Well-written and heartfelt. Authenticity is perhaps showing all sides of your interests and so it sits well with your other pieces. With a Dutch background, I sometimes question the visitors who latch on to the girls and the drugs, and wonder myself as you and Martyn do about which is better – so overt or out of sight, out of mind. If there is a better. I like your careful avoidance of ‘end up’, a very positive orientation. I’ll be there myself tomorrow, no, tonight now, perhaps ironically, for a cultural awareness course. In a webinar today, John Whitmore talked about coaches asking themselves tough questions – looks like you’ve already started.

    • Encouraging comments Julian, thank you loads. I’ve been thinking about the Cultural Awareness piece… my experience of Amsterdam is usually work related, so my cultural experience latterly has been of friendly, forthright, relaxed, professional people. Staying out of town, close to the finance district, it’s quiet, canals, good restaurants & fab for running in the mornings. RLD was noisy, none-too-friendly feeling and not sure I’d feel safe running there in case some big bouncer thought I was up to no good….Not sure of my point here other than I had a sense of worlds colliding.
      What I didn’t see was a massive cultural mix of girls. My perception was of girls from South East Asia and those who I had pegged as Eastern European ( no real evidence for this, based on prior knowledge and a whack of assumptions on my part). ANyway – enjoy Amsterdam & I look forward to catching you later this month….

  4. Very thought provoking I heard recently that there are more people in slavery now that prior to its ‘abolition’. And I think more slaves today than the total of slaves during the historical period we mostly think of as having been the age of slavery. I believe the largest category is sex slavery often linked to domestic (or household) slavery. Clearly in the UK where we have no licensing more of those involved in the Sex industry will be slaves.

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