Amsterdam’s Red Light District is Actually a Rainbow?

Column by Ivy Jenn

Ivy Jenn - Matt Kartanata

Last fall, I studied abroad in Denmark through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad program, and also traveled to other places within Europe. While I was abroad, I befriended a sex store worker and had meaningful eye contact with a sex worker.
As the mecca of sex and drugs, I didn’t expect Amsterdam’s red light district to be so beautiful in the daytime. In the canal, smiling couples kayaked up and down the stream. The afternoon sunlight bounced off the water and made the entire street glow. A pair of round, blonde children skipped past me with their round, blonde dog. An elderly couple reclined on the bench, passing a chocolate-dipped waffle back and forth. Unlike Copenhagen, where I studied abroad, Amsterdam was more spacious. In Denmark, the buildings were snuggled next to one another but in Holland, there was room for trees, flowers and bushes to grow along the streets. Here, nature and concrete weren’t neatly segregated but shared a happy coexistence. Despite the cold, many of the flowers were still in bloom. The trees, however, had already begun their autumn sighs. The wind warmly ushered the leaves into a spiral dance in the air.
Just a few paces away from the idyll, a woman in leather lingerie and ripped fishnet stockings from behind a glass window beckoned to men on the outside. She was one of hundreds of sex workers. In Amsterdam, window-shopping has two meanings. Tourists from all over the world flock to the red light district to shop for women who overtly advertise sex from behind a neon-lit window. Three Dutch schoolgirls bicycled past the prostitutes without batting an eye, while I felt a palpable discomfort. When one of the prostitutes caught me staring, I immediately looked away. I didn’t remember her face, I only saw flesh. Is it out of shame that I could not sustain eye contact? Did I feel shame for her or for myself?
I ended up wandering into an erotic sex shop in the red light district that was the Costco of all sex-related needs, except without the samples. Every genre of pornography you could ever want or need was available in their library. Lanterns in the shape of dildos hung from corner to corner in a rainbow gradient. I must have been an obvious amateur because the owner immediately came over to help me. She seemed to be about my grandmother’s age but that was the only thing they had in common. The first thing that piqued my interest in her was the way she moved. She didn’t walk like us common folk, she glided like a majestic swan that could also kick your ass. She was a busty woman with big muscles and a hearty laugh. She also sported a pixie cut with neon red hair, which complemented the electric blue tunic she wore over lacy black stockings. She reminded me of my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Reid, except she had twice the cleavage and three times the attitude. We chatted for a bit and I told her that I was an American student traveling with my Prostitution and the Sex Trade class.
Nodding in approval, she said, “I’m glad to see young women like you getting an education. I know a few of the girls from down the street. They work in the windows to pay for school…”
“HEY! How many whores can you fuck at the same time with this?”
Waving a stapler-like contraption in one hand and a joint in the other, a portly man with a mullet donning a muscle shirt (I kid you not) gruffly interrupted our conversation. Ms. Reid, whose face had been cheerful up until now, twisted into a disapproving glare.
To find out what happens next, come back in two weeks for the rest of the story but if you don’t want to, it’s chill.

Photo by Matt Kartanata.