I recently celebrated the completion of my 100-page thesis with my spring break, the last of my undergraduate career. While my peers were partying all night in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Bermuda, I escaped with my roommate to the charm of the Low Countries. My trip to the Netherlands and Belgium was relaxing but busy—I visited Amsterdam, Brussels, and Bruges, in addition to a few other cities. I did many clichéd touristy things. I saw works by Van Gogh, Van Eyck, and Vermeer (two of my favorite paintings are his: "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "The Milkmaid"). I rode a bike along a canal through the Belgian countryside, passing cows, sheep, and windmills. I ate plenty of pancakes, waffles, Belgian chocolates, and Flemish fries.
Of course, if I were going to do all the things tourists do, I couldn’t visit Amsterdam without going to the Red Light District. The Netherlands is famous for its laissez-faire policies. There are “coffee shops” throughout the country where you can get a joint with your cup of coffee. Amsterdam’s Red Light District is the most notorious symbol of freedom-loving Holland. To locals, the Red Light District is just another industry. My guidebook calls the women "entrepreneurs," and they belong to a union and are loosely regulated by the government.
Despite warnings from other people, I visited the Red Light District at night, when the neon lights were shining and all the drug-sellers and sleazy men were out. I’m not sure what I expected, but part of me was disappointed. I had imagined everyone to be dressed as in Moulin Rouge, but was surprised to find that most were attractive young women wearing little more than bikinis. My roommate and I walked through trying to be as non-touristy as possible, and although we did not dare take any pictures, we sure didn’t blend in well with the scene.
The most amusing part of the night was when we walked past a sex show, only to have a bouncer yell at us, “Come on, girls, this will be educational!” I couldn’t help but laugh. This is the very same rhetoric used by the organizers of the Female Sexuality seminar and the Female Orgasms workshop at Harvard. (The syllabus of FemSex includes visits to strip clubs and porn viewing nights.) I wonder if they’d organize a trip to Amsterdam’s Red Light District for "educational purposes"if they could?
I left the Red Light District with a sense of sadness, and I have to say I felt sorry for the women there. It’s the most egregious display of the commercialization of sex, and no matter how much money these women are making, it can't make up for their lost dignity. If I could go into every shop and give them all the money in the world to stop, I would. I wish I had another way to convince them to give up that lifestyle.
Oh, I also saw a shirt in Belgium with the line “Vows are spoken to be broken.” How sad!
Needless to say, I prefer flower gardens and museums to the other "traditional" Amsterdam attractions.