Saturday, February 11, 2006

Abuses in prostitution

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This article is kindly donated by Kyer ( It's originally in Dutch.

Working in the Red Light District Is Not Romantic At All

Abuses in Prostitution

Trouw, December 12, 2005

by Dorien Pels

Is the Red Light District a 'cozy symbol of a tolerant city'? Amsterdam has to leave that idea behind very quickly, according to Karina Schaapman, council for the PvdA (comparable to British Labor Party). Because many prostitutes are either being oppressed or forced to work. The illegal circuit is entirely out of sight. By now, though, Schaapman is being taken seriously.

'Look, the women are gathered like cattle over here.' Karina Schaapman gives a guided tour of the Amsterdam Red Light District. She walks through an alley that is so narrow, that she can hardly maneuver alongside a wary customer. There are dozens of windows here, out of view of the tourists and the cozy facades at the canals. There are windows in the building too, three stories high. 'Customers know that they will find cheap young girls here.'

Schaapman takes pity on the prostitutes of Amsterdam. The atmosphere in the Red Light District has toughened, violent pimps rule. The girls change so often that the city council and the police often have no clue as to who they are, where they come from and whether they are working voluntarily or not. The window prostitutes offer themselves for clearance-prices. 'They get twenty-five euro. Just to pay the rent of the window they have to work five men daily.'

Four years ago Schaapman was asked by the PvdA to become councilwoman. She was brought to their attention by a lawsuit against the primary school of her four children. The judge ruled that the teaching was lacking and that the school had to provide extra lessons.

As councilwoman Schaapman was appointed at the post of education. Until her past came to haunt her, two years ago. When she was young, Schaapman herself had been in prostitution. 'In the schoolyard a father accosted me, he knew me from way back.' She realized that it would be only a matter of time before her past would become common knowledge and therefor she decided to write down the story of her youth. It became a book.

She confided in the Amsterdam PvdA alderman Rob Oudkerk, a good friend of hers. Everything was taken care of, and she was waiting for her book to get out at the end of January. 'Meanwhile I was busy to manage things at home.' Her children, by now all in or through college-preparation, didn't know about her past. Schaapman writes about the abuse at the hand of her father, about her time as a street prostitute and about her work in a brothel in the Red Light District. 'At the time I thought I wholeheartedly stood behind what I did. But I was disgusted by the work itself.'

At the beginning of January, just before her book would come out, alderman Oudkerk got himself in serious trouble. He had to resign because he had been visiting prostitutes at the Amsterdam tippelzone (streetwalking tolerance area). He had told so to a columnist. The tippelzone was about to be shut down at the time, because of the high amount of victims of trafficking, who were working there. Schaapman: 'I knew he visited prostitutes, we've had heated discussions over it. He thought that it was alright, I thought it wasn't. But the tippelzone is another, worse matter. That hit me by surprise as well. I am very angry about it. Particularly because he is still trying to justify it.'

Her book was a bit overlooked by the commotion surrounding Oudkerk, but was well-received nonetheless. Without problems she could continue her work at the council. That was that, she though.

But because of her coming-out Schaapman unwittingly became the contact person for everyone who had anything to do with prostitution. The many e-mails she received made her realize things were very wrong in the business.

'Should you take on an issue that is so close to your heart? I still find it difficult when I'm announced as a 'hands-on expert' instead of councilwoman. But I just couldn't but take it on.'

Together with fellow party member Amma Asante she investigated the abuses in prostitution and wrote it all down. This summer she published the memo 'Making the Invisible Visible'. Two other reports with alarming facts were published at the same time. One by criminologist Frank Bovenkerk, who estimates that the majority of women in the Red Light District are forced into prostitution.

Schaapman: 'In Particular Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute who runs an information center at De Wallen, rose up in arms. Supposedly we were exaggerating, no more than twenty percent was working behind the windows involuntarily. I have no idea where she got that number. But still, even if one in five prostitutes was forced into it, that seems to me sufficient to talk about huge abuse.'

Schaapman discovered furthermore that prostitution more often relocates to the escort-branch: via the Internet and newspapers prostitutes are being advertised. There is no way to get a true picture of what is going on there. 'But if in De Telegraaf (Daily Telegraph) a girl is on offer for fifty euro for an entire night, to be picked up in Amsterdam-West, you know something is very wrong.'

Next to better surveillance by the city and police, Schaapman wants a free and anonymous health service for prostitutes. Services are currently provided by some Christian organizations and some city nurses, who visit prostitutes but are not able to get to everybody. Moreover, this service is mostly geared towards women, while there are some thousands boy prostitutes.

But Schaapman's mission is fruitful. The city council shows willingness to get with the program. The council is adopting the recommendations from the memo 'Making the Visible Invisible' by Schaapman and Asante. Furthermore, mayor and elder men wrote that no longer they will be guided by the 'suggestion of romanticism' surrounding window prostitution, because this is 'false romanticism'. 'That is a really significant statement', according to Schaapman, who has been placed by her own party at an honorable fourth position for the next round of elections. 'Many people still regard de Wallen as a cozy symbol of a tolerant city.'

Meanwhile a lobby of Red Light District promoters has risen, guided by Mariska Majoor. 'She blames me for smearing prostitution, just because I've had negative experiences myself.'

'It is just unbelievable what kind or resistance this issue evokes. Even with women, particularly with women. If you fight prostitution, the amount of rapes will increase, you'll often hear. Hey, hallo! So you would sacrifice other women just for your own security? There is no public indignation over the oppression of these women. Partly due to ignorance, but there is also a sense that 'it is the way it is'. We can't allow that.'

Legalizing prostitution was infused with the idea of the articulate prostitute, who should get rights and better working conditions. But that image is incorrect, says Schaapman. Two third of prostitutes are foreign, most often illegal and nobody is registering. The Amsterdam police has a port-folio with 76 violent pimps operating on de Wallen. Often they stand at the corner, counting the customers of 'his' woman, to subsequently collect the money. 'It is very difficult for the police to get a case. Pimping is allowed, but exploitation and violence of course are not. But the women do not file reports, or will retrieve them later on.'

The scope of her mission is still making Schaapman's mind reel every once in a while. Particularly because it is largely to do with global poverty. Women from poor countries - mostly Eastern-Europe and Africa - come here to work. Sometimes to provide for their families at home, sometimes forced; they are being bought and exploited by traffickers. Often they are made to work throughout Europe.

'We won't get rid of this problem. There is a constant supply in the illegal circuit. But in the end, it is our Dutch men that create the demand. I want to appeal to them, nobody has tried that as of yet. I want to debate whether it is all that normal for men to satisfy their needs in this way.'

At, a site where men can post reviews of their visits to prostitutes, Schaapman saw how shockingly condescending customers often are. 'They exchange where to find the pregnant women, they calling them consistently whore and slut. They want women as young and cheap as possible.

The don't show any compassion, not even when they suspect that a woman is being forced. That is only a bother 'because she wasn't participating with enthusiasm'. Make no mistake: has 6000 members, they charted out all prostitutes at among other places de Wallen, with addresses and window numbers.'

'I'm realist enough to acknowledge that prostitution will always exist. Even in Iran fully veiled women streetwalk. Women should be able to charge good prices and work under decent conditions. You'll have to convince customers that they go to a decent brothel if they have the urge to satisfy their needs. They should become aware of the abuses their behavior causes to remain.'

Abuses are many, since lifting the brothel ban as well.

About 8000 prostitutes work in Amsterdam, in a year. One quart works behind the windows, one quart in sex clubs, one percent on the streets and the rest (almost half) work in secluded escort, bars, private houses or at home.

Therese van der Helm, the Amsterdam intermediary for prostitutes and the city health services, points in her annual report to problems that have risen due to the lifting of the brothel ban. For five years brothels have been allowed, if they have a license. Other forms of prostitution, that before were condoned, are now forbidden.

"Illegal prostitutes could be reached by social services at the time, but are now driven underground', writes Van der Helm. Customers can order girls via 06-numbers or the Internet. The ads are in the newspapers.

The city health services do have indications that illegal prostitutes are working in the Red Light District. Groups of young Eastern-European girls alternate behind the windows. City health providers visit prostitutes in their work environment. Often they are being confronted with women who are forced into the situation. The women tell about it, but are not willing to take steps. The idea to file report is very scary. Moreover, often they are very fearful of their violent pimp.

Known is that traffickers circulate Eastern-European women in particular, through European cities. Even if they do cooperate with police-investigation, victims do no automatically have the right to a Dutch staying permit. They are being send back to their original country and run the risk to fall into the hands of their traffickers once more.

Criminologist Frank Bovenkerk, who researched the abuses in prostitution in April of this year at the request of the city council of Amsterdam, concludes that most prostitutes are forced. They are either victims of trafficking or work for a pimp. He also established an increase of callousness at De Wallen. At least 76 violent pimps are known to the police, but without women reporting them, it is difficult to fight them.

Other recent research, titled 'streetwalking after the zone' concludes that very young girls of Surinam and Caribbean descent service boys and men for little money at home and parties in the Amsterdam quarter Zuid-Oost. The researchers found also 'wippercelen' [screw-lots]: illegal brothels in condo's where mostly illegal African women work under miserable circumstances.

Moreover, an estimated thousand boy prostitutes work in Amsterdam. There is little attention from social services for this group according to councilwoman Karina Schaapman. 'It turns out that these boys have a real difficult time later on, because they have had to involve themselves in homosexual activities while being heterosexual.'

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