Thursday, July 2, 2009

“Oppression Disguised as Liberation”

Prostitution is often called “the oldest profession in the world” and in Amsterdam, this profession is still going strong.

Today, countless numbers of men and women are embarking on planes, not just to see the house where Anne Frank lived or to visit the Picasso Museum, but to take a stroll through the red light district.

For those women who choose to become prostitutes and feel content and empowered by their line of work, I respect their decision. However, this blog is not about them.

For the thousands of women who are forced into prostitution due to economic, social and physical pressures, their occupation should be considered more as evidence of poverty and desperation than as an actual choice. Therefore, it’s important to ask why this profession, especially in Amsterdam, is so readily accepted and supported (financially and socially) by both men and women.

It gets personal for me. During my study abroad in Senegal, I became friends with a female bartender at a local bar. She called me Jennaba, wore bright clothing and shared “blue lagoons” with me after work. It wasn’t until three months later that I discovered she was a prostitute. A French soldier told me that in exchange for sex, he paid for her rent, food and clothes. He bragged that he was “helping” my friend, failing to mention why the exchange of sex was fundamental to aid a woman in poverty. I never asked my friend why she did this. I already knew her answer; in a country where women are prevented (and often stigmatized) for escaping abusive marriages, going to school, obtaining good-paying jobs and living independently, prostitution is necessary for survival.

Many might counter that, “This is Africa, not the developed world.” Yet, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs found in 2000, that over two thirds of the 30,000 prostitutes in Amsterdam come from Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, regions which fail to reflect the false sense of development and economic freedom Amsterdam provides. According to the National Center against Human Trafficking,

human trafficking in the Netherlands is on the rise (estimates range from 1000 to 7000 on a yearly basis).

So, I guess I’m confused as to how the red light district of Amsterdam has become the “new normal.”
While prostitutes who qualify for legal protection in Amsterdam might be better off, for those women who are not protected, and there are many, this legality creates a dangerous atmosphere of acceptance. Dutch authorities distinguish prostitution from sexual exploitation as "full consent to exploitation of the self," but I question how much of that consent is based on free-will. Isn’t Amsterdam just a bigger example of how the acceptance that providing money to prostitutes makes an oftentimes (economically, physically and socially) forced sexual relationship appropriate?

The majority of prostitutes in Amsterdam are either trafficked illegally or make the difficult choice to leave their impoverished countries in order to make a living. How can choice exist if there is only one option? One of my favorite quotes, from The West Wing, observes that, “Oppression isn’t ok just because it’s been institutionalized.” Instead of accepting legalized prostitution in Amsterdam as a matter of protection, choice and free will, let’s explore why many of these women are prostitutes in the first place and acknowledge that legality does not always mean justice.


Bibu said...

"Instead of accepting legalized prostitution in Amsterdam as a matter of protection, choice and free will, let’s explore why many of these women are prostitutes in the first place and acknowledge that legality does not always mean justice." So instead of accepting the legalization of sex work, we should continue to criminalize them and hop, skip n jump right over the issue of being a discriminated group of people and talk about the less visible human rights issues? Keep them unprotected and silenced while we who are less affected discuss the "why" of it all? Sex workers have legitimate voices that, without the legalization of their profession will continue to be unheard and if heard, largely dismissed. Legality is definitely not justice, but I think it makes justice more attainable.

Jenna said...
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Jenna said...

I think we approached the line I wrote, which you quoted with a differing definition of "acceptance." To me acceptance applies to those people who visit Amsterdam without any consideration of who these women are and why they made the decision to enter the profession that they did.

I agree with you that these women need to be protected (prostitution is legal in Senegal and therefore, my friend had access to healthcare and AIDS screenings). So, perhaps legality makes certain types of justices more attainable, but at the same time, it all too often fails to address the issues of poverty and trafikking.

What I am arguing is not that we should continue to allow these women to be a criminalized and descriminated group, but that all too often legality causes others to ignore or forget human rights issues which do need to be addressed.