Sex, Burlesque & Red Lights

We just finished up travel week for my core course class, Prostitution and the Sex Trade in Europe, where we spent six days together in Amsterdam learning first hand about pretty much any form of sex work you can think of. From a live sex show, to exploring the infamous red light district, to meeting with various different sex workers, our week was certainly eye opening, educational, and shocking.

It almost doesn’t feel right to write about this- my grandma is about to read a blog post of mine where I talk about the two hours I spent analyzing award winning feminist porn! But a huge part of this class is questioning and challenging what makes this form of work so taboo, and getting more comfortable talking about what I’m learning is a big step towards normalizing this form of work that’s been around for centuries.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. No, not every sex worker is addicted to drugs. Yes, many sex workers have families. No, most sex workers (in The Netherlands at least) are not being trafficked. Yes, many men, women, and non-binary people choose to to be a sex worker because they enjoy the work and it empowers them- but at the same time, there are also many that are just in it for the money. Have more questions about the industry? Send them to me here! I can answer them in a future blog post.

Now let’s get into this week!

Thursday

We started our day off at the airport in Copenhagen at around 10 am, plenty of time to sleep in and do some last minute packing before all taking off for Amsterdam. We arrived at our hotel, got settled, and took a group trip to the Anne Frank museum as our one DIS sponsored non-class-related activity. Photos weren’t allowed, but the experience was very eye opening.

On our way, a few of us went to a free cheese museum. It was pretty small, but we got to try 10+ cheeses and it made for some fun photos!

Next, we went to our first group meal at a nice restaurant close to our later evening plans. My favorite part of this entire trip was bonding with everyone in my class, my professor, and our tour leader. I said it so many times on the trip, but every person in my class is so fun to be around and is so easy to talk to, and these big group meals were a perfect opportunity to sit by someone I haven’t talked to as much. At this particular meal, my professor, a few classmates and I bonded over American food, the poorly drawn cats Twitter account, and things to do in Copenhagen. It’s safe to say the wine the restaurant served us made our next activity feel a little less strange.

Casa Rosso is Amsterdam’s most famous, most ‘feminist’, live sex show. Attendance was technically a optional, incase anyone was understandably too uncomfortable to go to a show where live sex was performed and choreographed to music.

I’m not going to pretend this experience was super profound or interesting to me. I was pretty uncomfortable! Many of my classmates noted how they’d expected a little more passion to be shown in the show, and were shocked to learn it was supposed to be a ‘feminist’ show, when the experience felt very much catered towards the male gaze. Most of the women were altered physically to look more like a ‘typical attractive woman’, and the acts performed certainly didn’t match any desire I’ve ever had.

We later learned the people that performed in this show are couples in real life, and one presenter we talked to stressed to us the importance of a sex worker differentiating between ‘work sex’ and ‘fun sex’. This partially explained the lack of passion we saw in the sex performance, as well as the knowledge that these people perform their routine like seven times a night, every night that they’re working.

This is a very popular tourist destination! I promise our professor and tour leader weren’t just taking us to a crazy, underground, sketchy sex performance. We also noticed many single men in the crowd, a few couples (some of which got intimate with each other during the performance), and various other groups of people. You could come and go as you pleased during the hour long show that repeats itself from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., so I left after five segments.

Will I go back? Probably not. Did it get me thinking about something I’d never thought about before and open my eyes to the gender norms and racism found in sex work that’s supposed to benefit the general public? I guess so! I’m excited to discuss this as a whole class next week.

Friday

After an impressive hotel breakfast, we walked to our first presenter of the week.

Jennifer Lyon Bell is an award winning feminist porn director and creator of Blue Artichoke Films, and honestly ended up being my favorite presenter of the week! You often only hear about the problems the porn industry creates, but Jennifer spoke about how she recognizes these issues and tries to combat and overcome them in her work. She also took time to discuss the changes in the industry, recognized when her past work didn’t accurately represent non-binary people and people with disabilities, and noted different challenges she’d had with kinks and exploitation.

We watched many different trailers and behind the scenes clips, and it was so interesting and comforting to see the actors discussing boundaries, what would make the experience better for them, and what would likely happen with their bodies during. I could’ve completely misinterpreted this, but to me, the label of ‘feminist porn’ mostly felt like a way of labelling porn for the female gaze instead of the male gaze, but also is very focused on not exploiting anyone involved in the process. She is very passionate about having a mostly queer and/or female crew, and said that although she isn’t against cis men working on her set, she does a rigorous interviewing process that weeds out the ‘creeps’- AKA the people that aren’t in it for the art and are in it to see some sex. This, according to her, generally tends to weed out the men from her crews.

She mentioned that, when hiring her cast, she finds it very important that the actors are comfortable with each other. Many actors and actresses have a ‘no’ list- or a list of people they definitely don’t want to work with. After taking note of this, she generally will have the actors meet to ensure there’s chemistry and that they’re comfortable with each other.

Apparently, her technique works, because she’s won many awards worldwide for the films she’s created.

After another group meal, we went to the Red Light Secrets- Museum of Prostitution. This museum is found in an old brothel right on De Wallen, the main street of the red light district in Amsterdam. This experience taught us all about how the district works.

Basically, a person has to have legal documents to work in The Netherlands just like anyone else, and then has to rent out a window (that’s actually a door with a big window on it!) that they’d like to work in. The average client pays 50 euros for as long as it takes, but the average amount of time a client takes is seven minutes. 50 euros normally pays for about 20 minutes though, and if you want/need longer, you have to pay more. Anything other than your basic intercourse is more- this includes kissing, licking, foreplay, all that good stuff. A person will stand in their window (that actually does have a red light in it), and if someone wants to come in, they can get the attention of the person inside the window. They open their window/door, negotiate terms, the sex worker will generally get a smell of them to gage how drunk they are (‘whiskey dick’ often gets blamed on the sex worker, not the drunk guy who physically can’t finish the act), always put on a condom (it’s illegal not to), and do the deed. The sex worker generally keeps cleaning supplies in their room to clean up the buyer beforehand and to clean up afterwards.

There are no cis men in any of the windows. Women, non-binary people, and transgender people are all found in the windows, and there are a few areas that have more people of Latin descent or Asian descent. We asked one of the presenters why this was, and they stated it’s really not a form of racism or segregation- people really just want to work with and around people who speak their language. You have to speak enough English to negotiate terms with the buyer, but this generally doesn’t mean one has to be fluent.

The ins and outs of the red light district could be its own blog post! This was just a quick run down, but again, if you have any questions, just ask!

After a little bit of down time at the hotel, a few classmates and I headed to the Heineken experience! Going to breweries is one of my family’s favorite things to do together, so going to this commercialized, fun experience/beer making simulation was one of my favorite things about the trip. As you went through the building, you got to experience *being* the Heineken beer as it got brewed and bottled. It was pretty silly, but I had fun!

The night ended with a big group of my classmates and I getting conveyer belt sushi. Delicious and fun!

Saturday

We started our day Saturday at the Prostitution Information Center in the red light district. This is where anyone can go to learn about how the district works, where sex workers can go to get any type of assistance, and where many organizers act as voices in the community and in politics for sex workers in Amsterdam. The city wants to limit sex work, especially as such a big thing in the middle of the city, and these people are trying to combat that!

The woman we talked to is currently a sex worker that specializes in working with people with disabilities. She mentioned that although people are mentally or physically handicapped, they still have wants and desires, and she assists them with those!

It was interesting to learn about what this all can mean, and how many people just want a specific fantasy lived out or to lay in bed and cuddle. Her clientele is generally older men that otherwise find a lot of difficulty fulfilling any of these desires, so it was pretty interesting to learn all the different types of ‘sex work’ she does, even if actual sex isn’t involved.

We had most of the rest of the day on our own until we met up at BonTon, a ‘high class’ sex club that has a full bar, strippers, and sex workers. The woman we met with is a former sex worker and current employee of the club that focuses on giving presentations like the one she gave us. To me, it seems ‘high class’ really just means expensive. The club did look pretty fancy compared to a lot of other places we’d looked at, but uses the same general process. A person discusses what they want, pays for what they want, and then they go do what they want. If they decide they want more, they have to pay for more. Additionally, the employees are only allowed to drink if it’s champagne purchased for them by the buyers, and this champagne is no cheaper than 200 euros- generally much more expensive than that.

This specific sex club has strippers downstairs that often attract wealthier men and bachelor and bachelorette parties. The price of entry is generally too high for someone with the economic status I have- basically, you can’t really enter this club without spending hundreds of dollars.

We ventured upstairs to look at all of the bedrooms available to buyers, some of which included beds that filled the whole room, bathtubs, a walk in shower, and/or various sex toys. It was pretty interesting! The look of the place looked pretty much just like I’d expected a high class sex club would look.

Afterwards, some friends and I went back for more conveyer belt sushi. Just as delicious the second time.

Sunday

We started our day off with a conversation with a former male sex worker and current advocate for sex workers rights in The Netherlands.

This man had the wildest life story- starting off life in South Africa with his family, leaving because they didn’t accept his sexuality, moving to London to be a sex worker, falling in love with one of his coworkers, moving in with one of his clients, moving to The Netherlands to work at one of the most popular male brothels (that no longer exists! You can’t find any male brothels in The Netherlands anymore (which was shocking to me)), and now working for the sex workers union of Amsterdam called PROUD on the side of his other job.

The most important takeaway of this conversation for me was the discussion about the sex workers union. A few classmates and I had read a little bit about the union and were honestly a little shocked to learn about its existence. Not only is sex work completely legal in The Netherlands, but they also have a union to fight for their rights in society and the government?!

That’s the goal of PROUD, but the man we talked to said the union is falling a part a little bit as of late. This is not out of lack of necessity or passion, but because of a variety of communication issues between members and leaders. The battle for sex workers’ rights in Amsterdam continues to get worse because as I mentioned before, the city doesn’t really like the way the red light district makes them look. Another presenter we had mentioned some sex workers would leave work one night and come back to find their windows occupied by something else the following day- being put out of work with absolutely no warning. This has also created a lot of tension in the union, and all of these factors put together has led to it basically falling apart. This does not even remotely take away from the fact that a great amount of people are actively fighting for the rights of sex workers and the existence of the red light district the way it currently is!

After another group lunch and some free time, we all met up at an underground Burlesque club (all Burlesque clubs are ‘underground’) for a group class.

This was probably my favorite part of the whole trip.

In my head, Burlesque is fishnet tights, corsets, sexy cell block tango vibes, and I was completely wrong to think this! Although the performances often involve a little bit of nudity, it’s generally not full nudity. There’s multiple different types: diva, goofy, childish, goddess, ‘gender bender’, and dominatrix were all types our instructor taught us about, but it seemed to me that it can be pretty much anything you want it to be. The art form started in America in the early 1900s and attracts people of all types that are just looking for a fun evening out.

The class taught us about all of the forms, and gave us the opportunity to dress up in some typical Burlesque outfits to dance it out together. It felt a little weird to be dancing in that way, but it was so fun to be able to completely let loose and laugh together after a week of such serious topics. To celebrate it being Halloween, our professor bought us all makeup, glitter, and hair spray to make the experience even more fun and to fully get into character.

We divided into two groups to create our own Burlesque routines to perform together- it was so fun to work together on coordinating a dance while also looking around at everyone essentially having a two hour adult dress up party.

It was the perfect bonding experience, and I wish we could do more!

I want to get this photo framed. I seriously cannot look at it and not smile. We were having so much fun! I think this photo was supposed to be me being a singer and everyone else pretending they were at a rock concert?

I ended the evening with a few classmates at a Mexican restaurant which, not surprisingly, was amazing!

Monday

Our Monday started with an educational lecture on the sex working industry in a university setting. Basically, it was just supposed to answer any final questions we had surrounding our trip. I didn’t take too much new information away from it, but I’m sure others in my class did!

I spent the day relaxing in the hotel and walking around Amsterdam before heading to our final group meal.

I know I’ve said it before, but these group meals together were just amazing. Conversation flowed so easily with whoever I sat down next to, and it never felt like anyone was excluded in any section of the tables. The food was absolutely outstanding at this meal as well!

A random selfie I forced my section of the table to take :’)

Tuesday

We didn’t do much on Tuesday other than relax and prepare to leave for our flight home later in the day. We all met in the lobby of the hotel for coffee and snacks before departing for the airport.

Many in the class were leaving from Amsterdam to go elsewhere in Europe- a few headed to Dublin, a few to Nice, France, one to London- I know many others hand plans to travel later in the week.

I actually spent an extra night in Amsterdam with plans to fly out to Naples, Italy on Wednesday! I’m actually writing this post from the common area of my hostel in Naples, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it!

I’m going to link my contact page once again, because I really encourage everyone to ask me any question you have. I know this subject is one people don’t talk about or even think about very often, but this class has been so educational and eye opening for me, and my trip to Amsterdam really taught me so much more. I am by no means an expert after my three months in this class, but I think I’ve learned more than I’ve ever learned in a class before and I would love to share this knowledge with anyone that cares to hear about it.

Additionally, if you want more ~live~ updates on what I’m up to here in Europe, feel free to look and at any of my social media pages I have linked here!

I’m off to go eat some pasta and gelato! Bye for now. Here’s a few more random Amsterdam photos to tide you over.

Published by hawkelki

Hi! My name is Ellie Hawkins, and I’m currently a senior at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. I’m studying abroad at DIS Copenhagen for the Fall 2021 semester and am so excited for all I will get to experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: