learning about sex work in the Red Light // my week in Amsterdam

This past week, I traveled with my core class at DIS to study in Amsterdam.  Notorious for its historic Red Light District, Amsterdam was an obvious choice for our study tour since my program is specifically focused on Prostitution and the Sex Trade.  Over the course of the week, my class had the opportunity to hear from a diverse array of individuals and NGOs about their perspectives on prostitution, human trafficking, and migration.

My week in Holland was an illuminating academic experience–truly unlike anything I have experienced in a traditional classroom setting. I have gained so much insight into the reality of the sex trade in Amsterdam, hearing firsthand from people who have bought and sold sex.

This post turned out to a pretty lengthy one–it was a jam-packed week–so if you want a quick summary, just scroll down to LONG STORY SHORT.


On Monday afternoon, we arrived in Amsterdam after a brief flight.  After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we went to visit and hear from a representative at PIC, the Prostitution Information Center.  The center was founded by a former sex worker in 1994 with the goal to provide accurate information about the Red Light District to tourists, student groups, and sex workers themselves.  In conjunction with PROUD, the Dutch Union for Sex Workers, the PIC aims to clear up misconceptions about this profession, giving sex workers a platform to share their own stories and experiences. For instance, the woman who spoke to our group at PIC works for an organization that connects sex workers with psychiatric patients and people with disabilities. Though she still works part-time as a nurse, she finds sex work rewarding and profitable.

Challenging the “victimhood” narrative that is so prevalent in discourse about prostitution, one of the slogans at the PIC is “Don’t Save Us, Save Our Windows.”  Rather than “saving” prostitutes–women who have chosen to enter the profession of their own volition–the Dutch government should be focused on saving their windows–providing sex workers with a safe working environment.


After this lecture, we ate a group dinner before visiting the Red Lights Secrets museum in the heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. It was our first time walking through the area at night, and the streets were packed with tourists. Though I would have assumed that tourism would be good for business, many of our speakers spoke to the contrary. The hordes of tourists populating the Red Light District often have no intention of purchasing sex–rather, they come to stare at the women in the windows much like animals in a zoo. Furthermore, these onlookers might discourage actual customers from completing a transaction. Therefore, the presence of this museum in the area was somewhat problematic, as it continued to attract a tourist crowd.


Though Red Light Secrets museum was a bit sensationalized, it did give us the opportunity to feel what it might be like to stand in the window ourselves.  The front of the museum looked like the front of any other brothel; upon first glance, you wouldn’t be able to tell it was a museum.  Once inside, you could sit or stand in the window, looking down at the masses of tourists.  For just a brief moment, I witnessed the scrutiny, judgement, and stigma of the window.

This experience challenged me to think critically about how I myself was looking at the sex workers in the Red Light District.  Though I certainly didn’t want to ogle, it also felt wrong to walk by the windows and very purposefully avert my eyes, disregarding the humanity of the sex workers standing in the windows.  After my experience at Red Light Secrets, I aimed to acknowledge the sex workers in the windows like I would any other person that I crossed paths with on the streets of the city.



The next morning, we went on a walking tour of the Red Light District led by a former sex worker from the UK named Mark.  He told us about his own experience working in Amsterdam and showed us some of the landmarks in the area.


a statue in the Red Light District, “portraying sex workers as they would like to be seen”

That afternoon, we attended a lecture from a representative of CoMensha, an organization working to combat human trafficking in The Netherlands.  We had heard from several anti-trafficking NGOs during our study tour in Sweden; however, this lecture from CoMensha was slightly different.  Since sex work is legal in Holland, voluntary sex work was not conflated with trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Following this lecture, we had a little free time to explore the city before our next group activity.  During this time, we wandered around the Cheese Museum (so. many. free. samples) and the beautiful Tulip Museum.

Our next scheduled activity was the Anne Frank house. This was a solemn visit, particularly in light of recent events in the United States, and walking through the secret annex was a poignant experience. However, reading Anne’s defiantly optimistic words of wisdom left me feeling hopeful for the future of the world around me.


the Anne Frank house

“All her would-haves are our real possibilities. All her would-haves are our opportunities. And the book’s a flame, a torch, we can light our own candles and take them and illuminate our hearts with the incandescence of her spirit.”

Emma Thompson, 2006


On Wednesday, we took a day trip to The Hague. In the morning, we visited the Humanity House, a museum that aims to give its visitors an immersive and interactive glimpse into the experience of a refugee.  Though the ‘immersive” portion of the museum was definitely a simplified portrayal, I enjoyed the last room in the exhibit where I was able to walk around and watch video clips of refugees sharing their personal stories. The museum did a good job of showing how multifaceted migration can be–each refugee had different reasons to flee their country, different reasons for coming to Holland, and needed different forms of support.


After some free time exploring The Hague and the Mauritshuis Museum, we attended a lecture by Maarten Abelmann, a representative from the Dutch Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings.  He spoke to us about the reality of human trafficking in The Netherlands and how the government is working to combat this crime.


Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer (in the Mauritshuis)

Though the National Rapporteur is responsible for coordinating data collection and reporting on the statistics of human trafficking, our speaker was candid about the difficulty of collecting accurate data about the prevalence of this crime.  His honesty was refreshing–many of the organizations we have spoken to seem to use any numbers and statistics that support their agenda without discussing the data collection process.

Maarten Abelmann also discussed how prostitution in The Netherlands is changing–rather than existing solely in the windows, prostitution is moving online.  He noted that, in one sense, this shift makes it more difficult to identify victims of trafficking.  With online prostitution, the incoming sex workers do not have to undergo an “intake interview” with the landlord or brothel owner to ensure that they are participating of their own free will. However, he also noted that this shift to internet prostitution can be a useful tool for the police, as they can look for signs of trafficking within internet profiles (for instance, if a profile says “available 24/7” or “willing to engage in unprotected sex”).


Thursday morning, my class went to Amsterdam’s city hall to hear a lecture from the Prostitution Policy Unit.  This government group was formed back in 2012 with the goal of creating a safe working environment for sex workers in Amsterdam.  They discussed some of the legislation and policies regarding sex work.  Additionally, we learned about some of the programming to support sex workers such as free STD testing, educational programs for vulnerable minors, language classes, and prostitution exit programs.

Next, we visited P&G 292, the prostitution and health center.  This clinic provides free hepatitis tests, pregnancy tests, and STD tests and treatment.  They can also provide PREP and PEP for a low fee, helping to protect sex workers against HIV.  Furthermore, they have confidential counselors and can help to refer sex workers to other social services.

Our last academic visit of the day gave us a look behind the window–literally.  We were able to step into a brothel and speak with a Romanian woman named Felicia who works there.  She shared her personal story with us, and we had the opportunity to ask any questions we might have about her experience as a sex worker.



On our last full day in Amsterdam, we had the opportunity to hear a perspective that seems to be largely silent in the public debate about prostitution: the voice of the sex buyer.  We spoke with a man from the UK who has been traveling to Amsterdam to buy sex since 2007 and keeps a record of his experiences on a blog.  He discussed the relationships he has established with some of the women in the Red Light District throughout his years of sex tourism and how his experiences with sex workers challenge the “prostitute as victim” narrative. Marcus also spoke to the stigma of purchasing sex–although he was happy to speak (very candidly) to us about the topic–he was careful to maintain his privacy, as he does not want anyone from his home or work to know about his escapades in Amsterdam and London.

Next, we heard from an organization called Not for Sale.  This NGO helps victims of human trafficking to integrate and reenter the work force, offering training programs and employment opportunities in their cafe.

Last, but certainly not least, we went on a canal tour with a company called Lampedusa. This unique company gives tours on the boats used by immigrants and refugees on their journey to Europe, and the tour guides are all people who have immigrated to Holland. We had the opportunity to hear from an Egyptian refugee about his process of seeking asylum in Amsterdam.

Long Story Short

Overall, I had the most amazing week exploring and learning in this city alongside so many of my new friends.  I think what I appreciated most about this experience was the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts from so many people who have experienced the reality of sex work.


with my classmates in Amsterdam

In particular, the first lecture we attended at the Prostitution Information Center has had a strong impact on the way I think about sex work.  During this lecture, we heard from former nurse–now sex worker–who works exclusively with disabled and mentally challenged clients. This woman challenged the traditional, stereotyped representation of a sex worker: her appearance, education level, and age set her aside from the prominent cliché. This visit affirmed the fact that there is no one narrative–every sex worker’s experience in this field is unique and complex.

My experience in Amsterdam has continued to complicate my understanding of sex work and the public policy surrounding this profession.  It’s easy to look at the prostitution debate as two-sided: the “happy hooker” versus the victim, legalization versus criminalization. However, the reality of the issue is much more complex.  Even if sex work is legal, as it is in Amsterdam, how will it be regulated? How can the government ensure the safety of sex workers without infringing on their right to privacy?

Being exposed to so many viewpoints and perspectives has challenged me to think deeply about my preconceptions of sex work.  More than anything, I think that this trip has affirmed that sex work is work. It involves people, just like any others, doing a job in order to pay their bills. Some might enjoy the work, some might not, and sometimes it just depends on the day. The profession is as multifaceted and complex as the people who choose to engage in it.

core course week

This week at DIS is known as “Core Course Week.”  Instead of meeting in my regularly scheduled classes, the entire week was dedicated to intensive studies with my core course (in my case, Prostitution and the Sex Trade).  This week also included the first of two study tours with my core class. In accordance with DIS’s academic model “Copenhagen as your home, Europe as your classroom,” my class had the opportunity to travel together to Sweden for two days and attend a series of lectures.


Sweden was an optimal location for our study tour because their policy regarding prostitution is quite different from the Danish legislative model.  While prostitution is legalized in Denmark, Sweden takes a unique approach.  Though the selling of sex is legal, the purchase of sex is criminalized.  This approach, more commonly known as the Nordic model, is designed to protect sex workers while minimizing the rates of prostitution and sex trafficking in Sweden.

Prior to our trip, the class had been assigned a selection of readings that analyzed the effectiveness of the legal policy. Thus, we were eager to hear from some of the people who had experienced this model in action, hoping to learn more about its pros and cons.

During our time in Sweden, we attended five different lectures regarding the Nordic model.  Three of these lectures were from representatives of non-profit organizations working in Sweden. In addition, we heard from a member of the Swedish police and an academic who researched the “Multiplicities of Prostitution Experience” in Sweden.

It was so interesting to hear from this wide variety of perspectives within our organized lectures. However, we also gained insight by speaking to Swedish citizens during our study tour. While in Sweden, we were assigned an interview project. In small groups, we asked some of the people we encountered about their views on prostitution and the Nordic Model. By doing so, we learned a great deal about public perception and the Swedish mentality in regards to sex work.


On our way back into Denmark, we visited the famous Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. As a class group, we were able to attend a private tour of the “Men and Masculinity” exhibit. Though the exhibit wasn’t directly related to our course material, our tour at Louisiana was spefically curated to spark discussion about the link between gender roles and sexuality.

Though our trip had ended, we continued our discussion and debate throughout the week. For instance, on Thursday, we heard from a representative from the Rose Alliance, a Swedish organization for sex workers. Even though we were back in Copenhagen, this lecture was one of the highlights of core course week for me. If you’re interested in what we’re discussing as a class, I’d recomment the Rose Alliance’s website!


This has been such an amazing week. After traveling to Sweden together, my class has definitely become much closer as a group, and I can’t wait to travel again (to Amsterdam!!) with my new group of friends at the end of October.


field studies & FOMO

my first field study

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to go on a “field study” with my Danish Language and Culture course.  Along with my professor, my class visited the Nationalmuseet (National Museum of Denmark).  At the museum, we were divided into groups and asked to create a brief presentation about a period of Danish history.  I was assigned the Middle Ages, so my group mostly observed the elaborate Catholic iconography of the era.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many crucifixes in one place!

Working in a small group to create a presentation, I got to know some of my fellow classmates a bit better.  Unlike my other elective classes, most of which are focused on some variation of gender and sexuality studies, the peers in my Danish elective course are studying a wide variety of disciplines.  For instance, the students in my group were studying Global Economics and Medical Biotechnology.  I enjoyed getting to know my classmates better, and I think that feeling comfortable with each other will make our time in Danish class more productive (since it can feel embarrassing to try to pronounce all the difficult Danish vowels)!

After visiting the museum, our professor took us to a nearby coffee shop and taught us how to order in Danish.  He made a deal with the barista that we would only receive a drink if we ordered correctly in Danish–a little intimidating–but I’m very glad that I know how to order my tea in the local language now!  At the coffee shop, the various groups also had time to present about our respective historical eras, so we all gained a broader understanding of Danish history.

Following this break, our professor took us to have a personalized tour of the Danish Supreme Court.  We had a lively discussion about differences in the American and Danish legal systems, learning from one of the justices of the Danish Supreme Court himself.


The Danish Supreme Court

The opportunity to go on field studies such as this one with my Danish class is one of the main reasons I chose to study abroad with DIS.  Instead of meeting in my regularly scheduled classes on Wednesdays, I will get to spend the day exploring the city and participating in cultural experiences with my professors and classmates.  For instance, I will be visiting the Counseling Center for Foreign Women with my Human Trafficking class and attending a play of Virginia Wolf’s Orlando with my literature class.  I am really looking forward to these opportunities for hands-on learning–something that I rarely get to experience at home.

…and FOMO

Even though this week of classes has been dynamic and exciting, it has been difficult to watch on social media as my friends back at Kenyon move in, start their classes, and take on the beginning of junior year together. Though I feel so lucky to be taking on this adventure in Copenhagen, a part of me deeply misses the college community that has become my home over the past two years. I have experienced a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out) despite my enthusiasm about this semester abroad.

In order to combat this FOMO, I have done my best to disengage from social media as much as I can (and hey, it’s probably better to save my cellular data anyway). Though it sounds cliché, I am doing my best to “live in the moment.” I simply have to accept that I’ll be missing out on some fun beginning-of-the-year traditions with my friends in Gambier and embrace all the new possibilities for fun here in Denmark!

classes begin!

It has been a busy week in Copenhagen.  In addition to familiarizing myself with the public transportation system and local area, I began my classes at DIS last Thursday. Though the first few days are always overwhelming, my classes are off to a good start, I am very excited about the course material I will be studying throughout the semester.

DIS is located in the Inner City (or, as I learned today in Danish class, Indre By) area of Copenhagen.  The campus is composed of a handful of academic and administrative buildings throughout a few city blocks.  Unlike my campus at home, DIS is surrounded by restaurants, shops, and bars. Though the area is heavily trafficked by DIS students, it is also occupied by other international tourists and Danes alike.  This has been an adjustment for me, as I’ve grown accustomed to a more rural campus, but being in the city center has also been so much fun!  I’ve loved eating my packed lunches in the Gammeltorv square, right in the heart of Copenhagen.

I’m taking five courses here at DIS.  So far, I think I am most excited about my core course: “Prostitution and the Sex Trade.”  Next month, I will have the opportunity to travel with this group to Sweden, and at the end of October, we will spend a week together in Amsterdam.  My professor has done a great job facilitating lively discussions in this class thus far, and I’m happy to be taking “Human Trafficking in a Global Context” with her as well.

After an intense first two days of class, it was nice to relax a bit this weekend and explore the city more.  On Friday night, my host mom had her two children–Per and Maja–over for a family dinner.  They’re both in their twenties and live elsewhere in the city.  It was so fun getting to spend time with the bigger family group, and they had great recommendations about places to visit in Copenhagen.

On Saturday, I went to Studenterhuset (the Student Union) to get ahead on some reading for class.  It’s the only place I’ve found with affordable coffee and tea in Denmark, and it has a lot of great study space.

Sunday was the highlight of the weekend, as DIS had arranged an event for my homestay network to visit the amusement park Tivoli.  Though my host mom doesn’t enjoy roller coasters, I had a blast exploring the park and riding the rides with other students in my network!


Me and my friend Zuyi at Tivoli Gardens