Amsterdam's Prostitution Information Center
By Kathryn Lemmon
We were a diverse group assembled that warm Friday evening for a tour of Amsterdam's Red Light District; a mother and daughter from South Africa, a youngish couple from Scotland, a service man on leave from Morocco, plus a smattering of Canadians and Americans. Our common denominator was curiosity.
We decided an organized tour would reveal more about this unusual place than we could glean on our own. Even more intriguing, the brochure mentioned the tour would stop at the Prostitution Information Center... now that did catch our eye.
As darkness fell, the red neon lights reflected across the murky canal, as they have for decades, beckoning all comers with a promise of perfectly legal nightly ecstasy, or, for many tourists, glimpses of the forbidden.
We passed the windows, where the scantily-dressed girls sit displaying their wares, oblivious to the stares, gawks and comments of those on the other side. And all the while, we were regaled with lurid, scintillating tales of the district’s famous madams and mysteries.Toward the end of our tour, we made our way to a nondescript little building, just steps away from window women.
Prostitution Information Center was engraved on the front glass window as if it were nothing more extraordinary than an accountant’s office.
"Sex Education Center"
Considering this was Amsterdam, perhaps it was nothing unusual, but for us non-Dutch, the sign might as well have read, "Sex Education Center!"
According to our guide, Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute, founded the Prostitution Information Center in 1994 to provide support and information to prostitutes and the public. We quietly filed in. I can't speak for the others, but I was feeling awkward.
Wasn’t this off-limits? Illicit? Illegal? The corn-fed, conservative Hoosiers from my home state of Indiana would certainly look askance at this! But here, prostitution, like marijuana and hashish, is perfectly legal, quite well organized, government regulated and even socially acceptable.
Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas, anymore!Mary Ann (Mirjam), our hostess, offered drinks of beer, wine or juice. Since there were only a few seats, most people stood. Still, I wouldn't say we looked like a relaxed group.
The guys looked nervously over their shoulders or unconsciously flipped through some of the many pamphlets they had picked up upon entering, and the women tried not to stare in fascination. Mary Ann proceeded to discuss "the business," as she called it. Her talk was casual, yet informative. The center was meant for everyone, she explained, the girls themselves, their clients, the public, or anyone with questions.
Though prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about it, and there are dangers for the girls. We learned of the special alarm systems devised for the girls’ protection, the typical work schedules and how they rent their small rooms.
The average time spent in this occupation is about seven years and most of the girls range in age from 18 to 26. The founder herself worked as prostitute from the age of 16 to 21, and quit, in her words, "because I feel different now about sex and relationships than a couple of years ago …but there are plenty of people, who like me, have made a well considered choice to work in prostitution, and they deserve our respect.
"One small room in the back was set-up as a replica of a working prostitute's room. It was tiny, just a twin bed, porcelain sink and barely room for a chair. We all dutifully poked our heads in, as if looking at some exotic animal on display. But a short question and answer session made it even more clear to us that the Prostitution Information Center, and "the business" itself are, in practice, no more exotic than an accountant’s office.
Twenty minutes quickly passed and our visit was over. The young man from Morocco bought a T-shirt from the gift shop rack next to the condoms, fridge magnets, and other souvenirs, we finished our drinks and filed out again.
As we walked back, the word "attitudes" kept sticking in my head. Whether it's marijuana or prostitution, the Dutch have a straightforward, no-nonsense attitude. I found this both strangely refreshing and disturbing at the same time. Though we are all the same under the skin, our attitudes can make a world of difference.
The Center is open
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 11:30 am — 7:30pm. There is no entrance fee, but donations are expected and needed. The Center also publishes a magazine for tourists and "businesswomen," a free newspaper for prostitutes and an instruction book for prostitutes, which can be purchased, along with other souvenirs like T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, at the PIC.
Mariska’s father, who is an artist, has paintings and drawings of prostitutes for sale and has created a 2-meter high caricature of a prostitute, with a cutaway face, so you can stand behind it and be photographed as "woman of the evening." A nice souvenir to take home with you! All proceeds help support the Center’s ongoing educational efforts.
On Sunday mornings, Mariska leads a guided tour of the Red Light District and reveals more about the business. You can even get a behind-the-scenes look at a peep-show. Study groups are also welcome.
Our tour was arranged through Lindbergh Excursions, 26 Damrak, Amsterdam.
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