A Different Perspective

Only when I visited places like Naples, Bangkok and New York, while I picked up my old profession as a ship’s chef on traditional cruise ships, I realised how much I missed the Amsterdam Red Light District. Compared to other communities of hookers, pimps and gangsters, Amsterdam was so peaceful and relaxed. Only then I understood why Police Commissioner Toorenaar was so proud of “his” city, “his” criminals.  

I talked with him on the day I left to Jakarta, for another trip. He said, “Jack, we need guys like you here. Don’t be a stranger.” 

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” I said. 

 About a year later I visited New York. I always envied the rock stars for their life style, so while I was there and while I could afford it, I wanted to stay at the Chelsea Hotel. But within a couple of weeks I ran out of money, and I needed a job. With the help of a friend I ended up as some kind of social worker for the worst heroin junkies; in Black Harlem, of all places. 

I had a mentor for two weeks. After that I was on my own. My job was to persuade heroin junkies to get a shower and a free meal, but to be able to do that, I had to go where they were, I had to live where they lived, and I had to win their trust.  

One of my difficulties was that I was the only white guy in the neighbourhood. Not even black taxi drivers would take you to Black Harlem in those days. It was a dangerous place.  

But quite soon I was able to win their trust, and not only theirs, but also the trust of “normal” people in the area. All of a sudden I didn’t have to pay for my coffee or my bread; it was on the house.  

I did that job for four months. I went back to Holland when a friend told me that the Dutch Ministry of Justice was looking for people with experience in the field of “easily accessible social services”, something completely new in Holland. I had my experience in the Red Light District, and also some experience in Black Harlem, in an experiment that was actually a form of “easily accessible social services” avant la lettre, so I thought my chances to get the job were pretty good. 

Despite my street experience, I needed a formal training, but I was told I could study on the job; the ministry would pay for it. So I was hired as a “project manager” of the Directorate of Probation Services of the Ministry of Justice. My task would be setting up easily accessible walk-in centres in the biggest cities of the Netherlands, starting with Amsterdam.  

Since I still had my house in the Amsterdam Red Light District, this more or less meant that I would be working on my doorstep.  

It was a crazy situation: I would be studying in the Social Academy as a freshman, only to lecture a class of graduates a couple of hours later, in the same Academy, as a guest lecturer, specialised in easily accessible social services.  

Because of my extraordinary experience and work situation, I graduated within three years, but I wanted to learn more, so I studied psychology, criminology, and criminal law, at the expenses of the Ministry of Justice.  

Within the Ministry I was the odd man out. I was always dressed in denim jacket and jeans, and I was the only one who refused to wear a tie. Being the odd man out had its advantages, i.e. I never had to show my ID card, because all the security guards knew who I was. They probably thought I was doing undercover work. How exiting!  

Finding suitable staff and training them proved to be extremely difficult. There were plenty of middle class housewives who wanted to help “these poor people”, but they were not the material I was looking for. I was looking for tough people, who would be able to relate with criminal junkies, on a basis of mutual understanding and respect, without letting themselves being manipulated by their clients. So some of my staff were ex policemen, ex prison guards, or ex psychiatric nurses, while others came from families in which criminal behaviour and the use of drugs wasn’t anything exceptional. The skills of these people complemented each other.  

My staff wasn’t directly hired by the Ministry of Justice, but by private foundations, which were subsidised by several ministries. They had budgets to work with, which enabled them to hire and train staff, rent or buy buildings, and organise activities and educational projects. 

One of the main problems with the majority of our clients was that they were involved with social services, child protection services, probation services, and that they were seeing professionals like barristers, psychiatrists, general practitioners, and pharmacists. All of these institutions and professionals were anything but easily accessible.  

So we needed to build an integrated social services model, tailored to the conditions of our clients, which meant that we would have all these specialists in the house. If a client needed to see social services, for instance, he could just talk to the social services delegate in the walk-in centre, and if he needed to see a barrister, he would always find one in the walk-in centre. All our social workers were sworn in as probation officers, which meant that they could visit their clients in prison at all times, while their reports to the court were as valid as those of traditional probation services. It was an unprecedented situation and it took the courts, prisons, and other institutions months to years before they were used to it and accept it, but to our clients we were heroes.  

So there I was, back in my neighbourhood, but in a different capacity. No longer was I the bartender of a pub frequented by pimps and prostitutes, a semi-criminal in the eyes of some, but an officer of the law instead. That meant I was “one of them”, that I had gone to “the other side”. It also meant that I myself saw things from a different perspective, but I still had my need of inclusion, I still wanted to be part of them, so I had to show them that they could trust me, like they – up to a point – trusted Police Commissioner Toorenaar.

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“I Do What I Do”

I Do What I Do 

“Well, take off your coat and start warming your hands 

because cold hands on my body make me shiver. 

It seems like winter, I left the heater on overnight. 

And it rains, I don’t like that either. 

Be a sweetie, don’t you want to stay a little longer? 

Then you just give me another hundred. 

Don’t worry, I’m not like those women 

Who promise a lot and do nothing 

That’s not my style.” 


“I do what I do 

And don’t ask me why 

I do what I do 

And maybe that’s stupid 

But I don’t ask you 

Why you’re doing it here, and not with your wife 

Come on! We do what we do.” 


“The other day I paid a trip for my mother 

Otherwise she would never have seen her own daughter 

Who went to Canada ten years ago, to stay there for life 

I like to see that pour soul happy 

And I went to buy clothes for my little sister 

She’s only twelve, that little girl 

I hope she won’t fall for it, like me 

Cause fellows are nothing but trouble.” 


“No, it’s not busy, you’re the second today 

You know, the end of the month, always quiet. 

But I’ve had enough for today 

Surely if you want something special 

What will it be? French, or watching pictures?  

Come on, be a good boy, or are you skinned already? 

Well, come here, and enjoy yourself for once.” 

This is my translation of a Dutch song, “Ik doe wat ik doe”, sung by Astrid Nijgh, written by her husband Lennaert Nijgh in 1973. The lyrics where inspired by a conversation Astrid and Lennaert had with a prostitute from Amsterdam.  

The song reached nr 6 in the Dutch Top 40 charts, and Astrid became famous overnight, she became the figure head of the gay community, and it became a song to fight wide spread hypocrisy, and stimulate tolerance. 

The song is still very popular in the Netherlands.

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Amsterdam, 1960

A Geographical and Sociological Survey 

Amsterdam, 1960. Amsterdam prostitution is as old as the city itself, and it was (and is) concentrated in the area close to the old port of the city, for obvious reasons. Until the 19th century Amsterdam was one of a few cities which allowed the existence of brothels, and prostitution was constricted to those brothels, huge hotel-like buildings near the old port.  

One of those brothels was Maison Weinthal, in which you could pick a woman you fancied, pay five guilders (a huge amount of money in those days), and have the time of your life. Maison Weinthal was a luxurious establishment, with a winter garden and a salon.  

In 1911 the Dutch Parliament forbade the existence of brothels, so all brothels were closed down. Prostitution became illegal and you could only have sex with a prostitute illegally, in a little backroom in one of the outskirts of the city centre. Taxi drivers and tobacconists could help you with addresses of prostitutes if you were looking for a good time. 

In the 1920s the city of Amsterdam started to ignore the 1911 law, and they tolerated prostitution in the area around the Oude Kerk (Old Church), with women presenting themselves in their windows. That was the start of the form of prostitution Amsterdam is now famous for. Some other cities, like Alkmaar, Arnhem and Groningen, followed suit.  

Three prostitutes were murdered in the Red Light District in the early 1960s: Magere Josje (Skinny Josephine), Finse Hennie (Finnish Henrietta), and Chinese Annie. Intensive police investigations were the results, as well as covering of these stories in the national newspapers. It was the first time that the people of Amsterdam and the rest of The Netherlands realised that the Red Light District of Amsterdam was a dangerous neighbourhood, with dodgy businesses, a blooming gangland, and a lot of crime. Of course, many people knew this already, but “decent” people weren’t supposed to know this, so they kept their mouths shut.  

Only the people who were actually living and working in the Red Light District knew that besides all this, it also was a nice little neighbourhood, where people would always help each other out, and everyone knew each other. The only people in uniform that were welcome in the neighbourhood, were the officers of the Salvation Army.  

In the 1960s the rooms of the prostitutes looked like ordinary Dutch living rooms. The only difference was the red lamp near the windows. All the prostitutes were Dutch; most of them came from the countryside, after they had given birth to a child without being married. Being a single mum was a real sin in those days, especially when you were not living in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. It brought shame on your family, social services in the countryside weren’t equipped to help you, so you had to move to one of the big cities, where no-one knew you, or your family.  

If a prostitute would only show a glimpse of a cleavage, she would be arrested by the police, who had a special vice squad to deal with these matters. Every prostitute was registered.  

Prostitutes and their “pimps” worked in the neighbourhood, lived in the neighbourhood, and spent their money in the neighbourhood, because that was the only place they were accepted as normal human beings.  

The sexual revolution that followed a couple of years later, brought about many changes. Prostitution was more accepted, and many foreign tourists visited the Red Light District. Prostitution was no longer a priority of the police. Nearly one third of the population of Surinam at that time emigrated to the Netherlands in the years leading up to independence in 1975, as many people feared that the new country would fare worse under independence than it did as an overseas colony of the Netherlands. As a result, the first Surinam prostitutes and pimps started to populate the neighbourhood in the 1960s. They were followed by Chileneans, Dominicans, Antilleans, Columbians, Thais, Ecuadorians, etc. The Eastern Europeans came after the Soviet Union was dissolved. Nowadays only 10% of the Amsterdam prostitutes are Dutch, while at least 70% are from Russia, Poland, Romania, and other Eastern European countries.  

The Chinese people arrived around 1900. They lived in the Binnen Bantammerstraat area. Most of them were seafarers, in particular stokers, and they were very popular with the Dutch steamship companies, because they worked for 70% of the wages of a Dutch sailor. Between contracts, they resided in Chinese boarding houses. Resourceful laid-off seamen began to sell peanut biscuits on the streets in 1931. In 1928, the first Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands was opened in the Binnen Bantammerstraat. The owner was Ng Ho Yong, who had exchanged his boarding house for the restaurant business. His eatery “Kong Hing” became a great success, and was visited by Josephine Baker and many other famous people. 

The typical Chinese institutions that in the 1960s could be found in the Binnen Bantammerstraat and its surroundings were eight Chinese restaurants for Dutch people, four gambling houses, two opium dens, several boarding houses, three unique neighbourhood cafes, a hairdresser specialising in Chinese hairstyles, two Indonesian grocers, three clubhouses for various ethnic groups of Chinese, and four Chinese restaurants for Chinese people.  

In the 1970s Amsterdam Chinatown was still a closed world, where non-Chinese people had no access to. These were years of great upheaval in Amsterdam, and not just for the Chinese community. The group grew enormously, but the “old fashioned” Chinese community continued to exist. New problems rapidly emerged in society as a whole. Heroin, for example, reared its ugly head at this time. For many years, the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, which had already been irreparably damaged by the loss of its Jewish population during the Second World War, looked like a bombsite due to the demolition work that had taken place for the construction of the metro system. During these years the Chinese moved out of the Binnen Bantammerstraat, and Chinatown spread to other parts of the neighbourhood, like the Zeedijk, where a Chinese temple was built in 2000. The Fo Guang Shan He Hua Temple is the biggest traditional Chinese Buddhist temple in Europe.  

Amsterdam Red Light District and Chinatown

The Red Light District of Amsterdam is divided in two parts: De Wallen (The Walls), and Chinatown.

The northern border of the neighbourhood is the Zeedijk (Sea Dyke). To the south the neighbourhood is bordered by the Nieuwmarkt (New Market), which is also the border between the old Jewish area and the Red Light District. The eastern border of the neighbourhood is the Gelderse Kade (Gelrian Quay), although in the 1960s Chinatown stretched all the way to the end of the Binnen Bantammerstraat, where you could find the most Chinese restaurants. The western border of the Red Light District is the Warmoesstraat, in those days (in)famous for its police station.  

De Wallen are called that way because they refer to the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. These are the canals people visit when they want to go “window shopping”, or to visit one of the many sex clubs.

Arriving from Canada 

Amsterdam, 1960. I am 9 years old and I just arrived from St. Catherine’s, Ontario, where I used to live with my mother and stepfather. Both of them were Dutch, so I knew the language. I’ve come to live with my biological father’s family, actually with one of his brothers’ family, because my stepfather had the habit to beat me up ever since I was a toddler.  

I’m delighted to be in Amsterdam. My new home is in the old Jewish Quarter, south-east of the Red Light District. A lot of children in my new school are living in the Red Light District, and after school I hang out where they hang out.  

Although my school mates are quite familiar with it, I know nothing about prostitution and prostitutes, but they seem to be nice women, and after a while I’m helping them, getting them meatballs from the snack bar, so they can stay in their windows and not miss out on clients, or going to the sanitary store for a gross of condoms, for which I’m richly rewarded (25 cents, sometimes even 50 cents).  

Pretty soon I’m one of the local kids, and I know what’s going on in the neighbourhood. I know most of the prostitutes and their partners, and I even know the local gangsters and police detectives. When the police were looking for Haring Arie (Herring Adrian), a well known gangster, Blonde Mien (Blonde Mina) asked me to look if the coast was clear. Parijse Leen (Parisian Lena) was still prostituting, even after she bought a pub in the Zeedijk. When asked by a journalist how long a woman can be a prostitute, she replied, “As long as a woman isn’t stitched up down there, she can be a prostitute. I have been doing it for more than 20 years, and I would want it any other way. Once you’re a prostitute, wild horses couldn’t drag you away from it. The main attraction, the only attraction actually, is the money.” 

Frits Van De Wereld (Frits from the World – his first pub was called De Wereld, meaning The World) was another famous gangster from the Red Light District, just like Zwarte Jopie (Black Jopie). Frits Van De Wereld and Zwarte Jopie made a fortune smuggling and selling cannabis, and invested their capital in nightclubs and sex clubs.  

Mercedes 300 SL - Almost the same car as Katy's dad's

In those days I had a severe crush on one of my classmates, Katy Black. She lived in the Gelderse Kade, where her parents owned a whore house with three windows. Besides being the madam, Katy’s mother used to work as a prostitute herself, when business was slow. Katy’s father was the proud owner of a 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, the most beautiful sports car ever made. In public he behaved like a typical pimp, but at home he was a loving father, with a great sense of humour. I came home with Katy after school, on a daily basis, and soon I became a friend of the family. 

Katy had an older brother, Pete, who was an interior decorator. When asked if he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps, Pete replied, “No way, I like having a normal life.” 

“But Pete, just like your father you could have a beautiful car, a whore house in Amsterdam, a villa in Spain!” 

“I live in a normal neighbourhood,” said Pete, “and I’m respected by normal people, everywhere I go. My family is only respected in the Red Light District, and in the gangster circles of Sitges. That world is too small for me.” 

So I spent a significant part of my time in the Red Light District when I was a kid. But I also was part of my family. My father was a neuro-surgeon; his three brothers and my grandfather were high ranking army officers. I certainly wasn’t brought up in a laissez-faire manner, quite to the contrary, I must say. My uncle Morris and my auntie Helen, who I lived with, had two children of their own, Michael and Elizabeth, and when he introduced us to visitors, uncle Morris would say, “This is my son Michael, the future Defence Minister, this is my nephew Jack, a future barrister, and this is my daughter Elizabeth, who will once marry a prince.” The expectations towards us boys were high, but in those days girls weren’t really supposed to pursue a serious career of their own.

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Thin Lines

The Thin Line Between Prostitutes And Other Women 

Okay, so a prostitute is a woman who offers sexual or affectionate services in exchange for money. How many clients should a woman have before you can categorize her as prostitute? A hundred a month, two a day, or one for a lifetime?  

And how much money does she need to earn before you can call her a prostitute? 5,000 a month? 50 bucks a day? Or would you consider three pints of lager and a bag of crisps as payment?  

Is the beautiful girl who marries a 95 year old multi-millionaire a prostitute or not?  

There is joke about a millionaire who meets a beautiful woman at a party. He asks her, “Would you have sex with me for one dollar?” 

“One dollar?!?” she says. “What do you think I am?” 

“I know exactly what you are,” replies the millionaire, “we just need to come to an agreement about the price.” 

Some professional football players are plain ugly, and pretty thick too. Yet they earn a lot of money, and there are always beautiful girls hanging out in the places they frequent. This is called groupie culture. Our plain ugly football player will have no difficulty in finding himself an absolutely stunning woman. So clearly it’s not the physical attraction that is motivating her to share his bed and possibly become his partner. She was there for a reason, even before she met him. She is one of so many one-client prostitutes, and it’s premeditated prostitution.  

Generally one could say that it’s a form of prostitution if the prospect of wealth was there before any other attraction, or, to put it differently, that the attraction is a result of the prospect of wealth.  

The Thin Line Between Moral and Immoral Behaviour 

Most of us know this emotion: you’re reading a book or watching a movie, and the subject is a perfect crime. Some people rob a bank or a train, they manage to get millions of pounds, no-one gets hurt, and in the end they get away with it, living the life of Brian in a warm country. To many people this brings a smile to their faces.  

Recently, in 2009, we have seen bank managers and dodgy investors do the same thing, only this time it were billions, not millions, and people got hurt, because their actions had (and still have) severe consequences for the economy. Surely this doesn’t bring a smile to people’s faces.  

The main difference is that the bank robbers are considered to be criminals, and I won’t deny that they are, while the bank managers who managed to secure their billions are considered to be respected businessmen. That doesn’t seem to be right.  

 Many “decent” people think that prostitution is immoral. Many “decent” people think that people who do not think that prostitution is immoral, can’t be decent people. I do not agree with them.  

Most prostitutes I have talked with are decent, loving, caring people, although they have been hurt and their perspective of men in general is coloured by that. That’s why they feel safe with homosexual men, because their stories are rather similar. Many homosexual men, especially the more feminine ones, also have a history of abuse, of not being accepted by the communities they come from. Many homosexual men with such a history came to Amsterdam, where they found that they were completely accepted in the Red Light District, especially by the women.  

The thin line between moral and immoral behaviour seems to be defined by the law and the Bible. But, as I have explained before, people in the Red Light District have their own “laws”. The laws and the Bible of the “decent” people are not theirs. First of all, they experience day in, day out that the so called “decent” people aren’t that decent at all. Second, the so called “decent” people were the ones who put them into institutions when they were innocent children, dragged them away from their parents, tried to indoctrinate them with their laws and their bibles, and then fucked them when they were most fragile.  

The only reason why people in the Red Light District might behave as law abiding citizens, is that they’re not keen to go to prison. They had enough of that. But it’s certainly not because they accept the laws of the “decent” people. How can these laws be right when bank managers and other financial tycoons get away with stealing billions, while others are sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread?  

Some years ago I had a conversation with a judge about the motives of the court to send juvenile delinquents home, or not. 

He said, “Well, first of all it’s about prevention. If a juvenile delinquent has a nice home to come to, with decent, caring parents, living in a decent neighbourhood, the chances that this juvenile delinquent, if you can call him that, will be properly spoken to, are quite realistic. If, however, the juvenile delinquent would be returning to a home or a neighbourhood in which criminal activities are the order of the day, it’s realistic to suggest that he would only be told off for being so stupid to get nicked, so in that case it would be a wise decision to send him to prison.” 

I asked him about the danger that such a juvenile delinquent might learn a lot in prison about committing crimes and not getting nicked, and that by sending him to prison, and letting the kid from a “better” background walk free, his ideas about justice probably become distorted, and rightfully so.  

“Let’s not forget,” the judge replied, “that applying the law is also about retribution. When a crime is committed, people want the court to satisfy the public by punishing the criminal.” 

“So why not punish the juvenile delinquent with the “better” background?” I asked. “Would the public in the “better” neighbourhood not want to see a criminal in their midst to be temporarily taken away from that neighbourhood and spend time in prison?” 

“When I’m saying retribution, I’m not just talking about retribution to the juvenile delinquent personally, but also to the community he is part of, the community that obviously tolerates criminal activities, to let them know that we will not accept criminal behaviour,” said the judge. 

So the people in the Red Light District are probably right when they think that it’s all about “us”, the “decent” people, the establishment, against “them”, the scum. 

“Do you think you’re a decent person?” I asked the judge. He looked bewildered. “Yes, I think I am,” he replied. “I hope I am. It’s not for me to judge.” 

It’s not for me to judge. This is not exactly an existentialist point of view. The Biblical idea of “it’s not for me to judge” means that you will be judged (by God) when you die, so you will be punished for whatever you’ve done wrong while you were alive. Boy, that’s an easy way out! So while you’re alive there’s no need to doubt the justness of your thoughts or your actions. As long as you stick to the law and the Bible, you’re safe.  

Life is so much more difficult if you have a conscience…

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Who Are These Women, And Why Are They Doing It?

It is safe to say that most of these women became prostitutes because they needed the money, either to survive or to maintain or pursue a certain lifestyle. When I was living and working in the Red Light District, I talked with many prostitutes, and because they trusted me I was able to learn something about their backgrounds and their lives. Most prostitutes (and their partners, for that matter) came from broken homes with a poor social background, and most of them grew up in institutional/correctional facilities. This was after WWII, when child protection services and juvenile courts in The Netherlands were eager to take children out of their social environments, especially when the parents (or just one of them) had a history of alcohol abuse or domestic violence. 

Nowadays the authorities are more careful when it comes to take children away from their parents, because they realise that this is not necessarily good for a child’s development as a stable human being, especially if neither the child nor its parents want to be separated from each other.  

All of these institutions were Christian, and most children who stayed there experienced these institutions as a prison. A Christian prison, with Christian wardens and Christian values, so utterly different from the world they were coming from. Some children became “decent” Christians, with a respectable job and a respectable family, usually because they suffered from some form of Stockholm Syndrome.  

As soon as they were 16 years old, the children were allowed to leave the institutions. Usually they were estranged from their families, a lot of them were forced by their parents to find a job and bring the money home, only allowed to keep some pocket money for themselves.  

The freedom they experienced was immense: no longer were they forced to pray and wash their hands before meals, no longer were they forced to wash the dishes, no longer were they restricted to stay in the village for just one hour, no longer were they forced to go to sleep at 7, 8, or 9pm. Many of these children couldn’t deal with this sudden freedom, and many started to do (almost) anything that God forbade. The Christian values were the values of their enemies, their capturers. And surely, even children with a “normal” childhood tend to rebel against their parents when they grow up, so one can imagine the intensity of dislike of the institutionalised children against their Christian prison guards, with whom they had nothing in common. 

 Being footloose and fancy-free after so many years of prison, being dragged from one institution to another, many children decided to live life to the max. And to be able to do that, they needed money. So boys resorted to petty crime and girls went into prostitution.  

No, not every prostitute I know spent her childhood in an institution, but I have never met a prostitute who had a happy childhood, and if they spent their childhood with their parents, it was either too many rules or a complete lack of rules that made them feel unloved.  

 It shouldn’t be a surprise that many people in the Red Light District are not exactly models of law abiding citizens. The only reason to stay on the right side of the law is to stay out of prison. But they don’t share the values of typical law abiding citizens, because these are the values of their Christian capturers, the loveless, self-righteous and ever so “decent” people who took them away from their parents. And every prostitute in the world can tell you her stories about so-called decent people, clients of her who are highly respected in society, but with very peculiar and often twisted sexual needs. That is the other side of “decency”, the side that is only known to prostitutes.  

Touching the subject of “decent” people: I shouldn’t forget to mention that at least 30% of the prostitutes I talked with, were sexually abused in their childhood, usually by a relative or men they thought they could trust, like a neighbour, or a friend of the family. 

 Nowadays the sexual industry in the Red Light District has its own professional security guards, and prostitutes are protected by the police. However, this is a rather new development. Prostitution has always been a dangerous profession, and many prostitutes are still relying on a protector for their safety. Some of these protectors are typical pimps, but in the days before police and security protection a prostitute was usually protected by her partner.  

Professional prostitutes don’t kiss on the lips. That is a golden rule. Why? Because you kiss with your partner, not with clients. Mainly for the same reason they don’t have sex without a condom, unless it’s your partner you’re having sex with.  

A healthy relationship of a prostitute and her partner consists of three elements, a conditio sine qua non: love, respect, and most of all trust. It is impossible for a prostitute to have a relationship with a jealous partner. It’s comparable with a nurse, who will touch a client’s penis to clean it, but there’s no passion involved, and the nurse’s partner knows this. Besides, professional prostitutes are great actresses.  

I have seen many healthy relationships of prostitutes and their partners, and in general, in the privacy of their homes, they are quite bourgeois. Their appearance in the Red Light District, as part of the Red Light community, is something different altogether.  

In the Red Light District the partner of a prostitute is a macho man, or acts like one, and his woman wants him to play that part. There’s some sort of competition between prostitutes, which expresses itself in the car your man drives, the clothes he wears and the money he spends in the pub. The more expensive the car and the clothes, the more money he spends in the pub, the higher the position of the prostitute in the social hierarchy of the Red Light District. It has always been that way and it will maybe always be that way, but there’s a new form of prostitute’s partner emerging: the casual type.  

Ryan Malloy from Eastenders, played by Neil McDermott, is the prototype of the modern “pimp”. One day beard, casual clothes, no fancy car, no fancy clothes, no big spender behaviour. He’s a free spirit, not necessarily monogamous, not necessarily law abiding, and intriguing. And at home he cooks and washes the dishes. But that’s not something he wants the Red Light District to know.

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Prostitution – The Moral Question


Prostitution in Amsterdam - Photo copyright Jack Vanderwyk

My youngest daughters were 9 and 12 when one day we passed the Red Light District on our way home. Prostitutes where sitting in the red lighted windows, showing their merchandise. The girls were curious and asked, “Mum, what are these women doing there?” My wife explained that these were prostitutes, women that go to bed with men, for money.  

Francesca, the youngest, said to her sister, “I don’t ever want to become a prostitute. Do you, Maria?” 

“Me neither,” said Maria.  

 Mind you, the girls didn’t have any moral objections against prostitutes. The profession just didn’t appeal to them.  

 A lot of people believe that prostitution is immoral, but that simple fact doesn’t make it true.  

I would like to draw the line with exploitation. As soon as a prostitute is exploited, as soon as she is a prostitute against her will, prostitution is immoral, and certainly (should be) illegal. Of course this statement includes all minors.

This raises another question: if a prostitute is a drug addict, is she prostituting herself out of free will? Or does her addiction force her to prostitute herself, and is it therefore immoral? No, no way would she be happy if the police would forbid her to be a prostitute, because she’s an addict and desperately needs the money to buy drugs. Yes, very likely she would find illegal means to get money, like shoplifting or breaking and entering.  

For twelve years I worked in special probation services, with serious drug addicts, many of them being prostitutes. I saw these emaciated women work the streets of New York and Amsterdam, and I knew they were much cheaper than healthy prostitutes. At first I thought they were just attracting men who can’t afford to pay for a healthy prostitute, but the contrary proved to be true. I saw them being picked up by men in very expensive cars, “respectable” businessmen, and then I realised that it was all about power.  

These wealthy men didn’t want to go to healthy, proud, confident prostitutes, because a healthy, proud, confident prostitute has the power. She calls the shots. These men were specifically looking for weak women, who needed their money badly, and would do anything for it. These men wanted to be in power.  

Besides being a political colleague, Tom was my GP. A wonderful doctor and a wonderful human being. I was devastated when national TV reported that this well known politician was a regular visitor of heroin prostitutes in the industrial zones of the city. Not as a GP but as a client. Happily married Tom didn’t fit the description of the typical client of heroin prostitutes. He wasn’t after power, he didn’t even have a car. He was just too decent.  

“Jack, all I can say is that it’s not what you think. You have to trust me,” said Tom when I asked him about this matter. I trusted Tom, but not enough, I admit, to let it rest.  

Until this incident, Tom was a very popular GP in the posh south centre of Amsterdam. A lot of his posh patients were powerful, demanding women. To make matters worse, his wife was a powerful, demanding woman.  

One day I met an ex-client, Nicole, who still was working the streets in the industrial zones. “Have you heard the story about this politician?” I asked semi-discreetly.  

“You mean Tom,” she said. “He’s a darling. All he wants is to complain about his bossy wife and his bossy clients. He has never actually touched any of us.” 

So yes, I guess it was all about power. Or, in this case, the lack of it. And I remembered the stories of the prostitutes I grew up with. I remembered them saying that a significant part of their job was listening, being a social worker, without any sexuality involved. And I believe them.  

 Some people use the term “prostituted women” to convey the idea that prostitution is something done to women, not something that can be chosen. Although this may be true in several cases, I strongly oppose to this opinion. During my life in the Red Light District I have met many prostitutes who were perfectly happy with their lives and their profession. Surely, if they would win a big prize in the lottery, they would stop being a prostitute. (Most healthy prostitutes play the lottery, for that matter.) I love to write, but I would stop doing it as soon as I would be a millionaire. Does that mean that writing is something done to writers, not something that can be chosen? 

For two years I ran a bar in the Amsterdam Red Light District, for a friend whose wife died and who was in a clinic, recovering from alcoholism. This bar was visited by many prostitutes, who trusted me and shared their misery with me. I have seen them come, and I have seen them go. Some of them never returned. A lot of them did return, though. At first just for one afternoon a week, to get some “real” money for Christmas presents. Then for two afternoons a week, because nice clothes and shoes are so expensive. Then for four afternoons a week, because they needed a new car, a fancy one, and the bank wouldn’t give them a loan. Then full time, because the kids were going to university and you want to give them the best you can.  

In these cases the women had a choice. Not the choice between poverty and wealth, but the choice between an average income and wealth. Some of the women who made that choice explained to me that if you are used to relative wealth, so you hardly ever have to economise, it’s very hard to get used to a life in which you have to economise, and that it’s very hard to resist that one client who will give you the money for those $400 boots in return for an hour of your time. The problem is, some women just can’t have enough shoes or handbags. And there’s another thing: some (probably most) women love to be adored, and when a client picks you out of ten or a thousand other prostitutes, you must be special. At least to that client.  

Several years ago almost 80% of the prostitutes in Amsterdam were illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe and South America. Today most of them are still there, being legalised in the mean time, and they provide an income for their families abroad. In fact, there is no difference between their male compatriots, who are working as plasterers, bricklayers, and carpenters. In fact, in that respect, nothing has changed in the last 700 years.

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European Prostitution Compared to the U.K.

In 2003 it was estimated that in Amsterdam, one woman in 35 was working as a prostitute, compared to one in 55 in Zurich, and one in 300 in London. In 1839, in London, a city of two million inhabitants at the time, there were around 80,000 prostitutes, according to The Independent.  

How can we explain this huge difference between London and other European cities? 

Figures from the World Health Organisation show that 39 per cent of girls in Britain have underage sex, and 34 per cent of boys, the highest rates in Europe. And these figures don’t mention all the people who have sex legally. It looks like the sexual revolution in the U.K. has proceeded faster than in any other European country. 

When I was a young sailor, in the 1960s, sixteen years of age, I travelled the world. Well, we went to Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Greece, Germany, Scandinavia, and the U.K. My mates and I were always interested in short lasting sexual affairs, but in most of the countries mentioned above it was difficult to find girls who were willing to have a one night stand with us, unless they were prostitutes.  

However, we were always delighted to go to the U.K., because this meant that the probability of getting laid without paying for it was higher than 90%. Not only in London, where Barking was one of our favourite places to go out, but also in Grimsby, King’s Lynn, Middlesbrough, Great Yarmouth, Hull, Scunthorpe, Montrose, and Newport Haven, to name a few.  

The British sexual revolution started in the 1960s, only a few years before the Sun newspaper started to publish pictures of nude girls on their famous Page 3. And it was a long time before we heard of HIV and AIDS.  

Whenever I had a venereal disease, usually the clap, I went to a British clinic to get rid of it. Treatment was free and anonymous.  

“What’s your name, lad?” 


“And your first name?” 


“Okay Mr Bull, just take a seat in the waiting room and Dr Kishunsheng will call you when he’s ready.” 

It was a great time to be sixteen, and why would you pay for something you could get for free?  

Later I realised that we, the sailors, were second choice, maybe even third or fourth. The girls we met in the pubs around the docks were usually single mums, working in factories, looking for a better life. We chatted them up, bought them a couple of pints, took them to our cabins on the ship, had sex with them, and that was it. Sometimes I received a letter, or several letters, in which the girl I shagged once wrote me that she was in love with me, and that she was pregnant.  

But they to us, like we to them, were second choice. We weren’t however that desperate that we were willing to spend the rest of our lives with a woman that we picked up at the docks, a loose woman with a child, father unknown. For the time being it was good to be young, single, and sexually active. We enjoyed the British sexual revolution, and we enjoyed the fact that Britain’s got more Vicky Pollards than any other European country.  

Needless to say that our perspective was rather coloured, and that we were in the right place (the docks) at the right time (the sexual revolution). In the following years I visited the U.K. many times, not as a sailor but as an ordinary tourist, and instead of the docks I visited more cultural places of interest, and never I ran into British girls who were eager to spend the night with me. Such a pity…

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