Museums can be dedicated to a single thing like kites – or a ton of things, like most natural history museums are. But Amsterdam is unique when it comes to museums – from one dedicated to cats to the house where Anne Frank stayed, the city has it all!
However, the most fascinating might be the Museum of Prostitution. If you are wondering what a museum could tell about the world’s oldest profession that movies haven’t already, you'll be surprised.
Previously a brothel, the ‘Red Light Secrets’ museum stands pretty in the middle of the famous Red Light District or De Wallen. By the harbour, it is where sailors once came looking for entertainment. The audio tour by a former sex worker Inga welcomes every person as they make their way into the plush red décor of the museum’s ground floor. A documentary on the district plays on the big screen while you make your way into the cozy rooms with subdued lighting.
Secrets of the Trade
Plastered on the walls are posters that tell you of things not usually known about prostitution; how much a prostitute pays as rent, what issues she faces with different clients and how she deprives herself and her child (mostly) due to her line of work.
The museum throws light on the ‘windows’ of Amsterdam – tall glass boxes with red lighting where the sex workers stand and seduce their potential clients. Research from 2010 says that Amsterdam has 6,750 prostitutes – with 1090 to 3380 in windows and around 820 in private clubs.
One gets to know the difference between a brothel and a window too; customers at the windows pay a fixed price, so prostitutes keep the sessions as short as possible. Customers in a brothel pay per hour so their visits are made more erotic and enjoyable. Amsterdam has about 15 legal brothels and around 400 windows.
Pretty Woman may have had a pretty ending but truth is, violent clients are common, both physically and psychologically. A lot of prostitutes have an alarm button and there is great solidarity among colleagues.
In fact, some sex workers decide to become an SM (sado-masochistic role play) mistress – which is all about bondage, humiliation, teasing and mind-games because there is little sex involved and such clients do not change their preferred sex worker frequently.
The Red Light District contains more than 300 rental rooms (by landlords who ascertain paperwork and whether a woman is being forced into the trade) – and a single room can bring upto 300 euros a day, making the landlord’s income a handsome one. Everyday, the Wallen sees around 2,000 men visit – most of whom are loyal customers or tourists.
The rooms of the museum are kept the way they were while it was a brothel, so one gets to see beds, bathtubs and props of loud colours, curtains that are frilly or jangle and sex toys galore.
Some of the rooms even have testimonies of sex workers who rented or owned the space for long durations:
Anna from Poland rented one such room for seven years and worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day sometimes. She had about 25,000 clients in total and earned over a million, sometimes 150 euros an hour. But she saved none of it as everything went to the man who bought her to Amsterdam on the pretext of getting her a hotel job. He was aggressive and took her passport and lived off her income, but was arrested for trafficking a few years later. Anna still works as a prostitute and wants to return to Poland once she has enough.
Eva, according to her testimony, came to the profession to earn some money and ended up enjoying it on most days. In three years’ time though, she wants to join a law firm.
Interactive and Personal
Quirky as it gets, there is memorabilia in the form of stuff left by clients during their visits too – from spectacles, medicine bottles to even dentures! Women can sit on stools and pretend they are at the windows – while men glance, stare and leer at them through an interactive video installation. And if that isn’t enough, there are notes left by tourists where they share secrets of the sexual kind, making it abundantly clear that fantasies are not just lived inside brothels.
So, even if one visits Amsterdam for the legal weed or the canals, taking a trip to De Wallen to know about this much misinterpreted profession should definitely be on the cards.
Only, one must abide by the inscription on the statue of ‘Belle’ at the square that reads, “Respect sex workers all over the world”. One shouldn’t need telling, but then, the message is powerful and reaches home.
(Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist with several national and international media houses like The Wire, Bust and The Swaddle. She previously reported for the Times of India. She is the author of the book 'Your Truth, My Truth (https://www.amazon.in/dp/B076NXZFX8)'. You can follow her at @tweetruna.)