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Can Sex Work Be Empowering For Women: A Walk Through Amsterdam’s Red Light District

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By Karthik Shankar:

Recently as I walked down Amsterdam’s red light district, I saw row upon row of glass windows that displayed women the same way clothing boutiques display their latest fashions. The women weren’t mannequins however. They teased men whose gaze lingered too long. They beckoned prospective clients by unbuttoning their blouse. The location of the red light district right in the bustling centre of the city, was truly a sight to behold and such a contrast to the ghettoised brothels in India.

Image source:
Image source:

Sex workers in Netherlands are officially recognised by the government, pay taxes and have mandatory health check-ups. It’s treated like any other profession; commendable because by legitimising it, the government is able to drastically reduce child trafficking, pimping and STDs, that continue to plague the profession around the world. Legalising sex work objectively seems like a no brainer for me, since I think its benefits clearly outweigh the harms. Yet, I’ve always had this nagging feeling. Is the profession really empowering women?

A sex workers’ museum provided a little insight. Most women in The Netherlands don’t spend more than two to three years in the profession. This isn’t a commitment that swallows up their lives whole. Moreover, a Dutch friend told me that many women turn to sex work as a means of financing their studies or raising young children. Put in those terms, it’s just another means of financial security for women.

Image source: Karthik Shankar
Image source: Karthik Shankar

The question then is whether it can still be a feminist act without the financial component. Oscar winning Hollywood screenwriter Diablo Cody has often spoken about stripping being a more feminist act than white collar jobs. “I actually found the white collar jobs a lot more anti-feminist,” Cody said. “I found myself shoehorned into the adorable secretary who fetched older men’s coffee. I would much rather give lap dances“, she added. Maybe the same could be true of sex work? By willingly engaging in it the women fly, in the face of a culture that implicitly encourages female chastity. Of course the very crucial idea of choice is what separates it from being a dehumanising profession.

Some people may argue that even in a Western liberal democracy, going into this profession is a coerced choice; that it’s poor and destitute women who use sex work to make ends meet. Yet, isn’t that true of many menial jobs? Is sex for money inherently more demeaning than manual labour? A woman who works as a janitor may also do it simply to fend for her family. Respectability politics however places one over the other. Undoubtedly I’m coloured by my perspective as a male. If those rows of shops were filled with men, its exploitative nature might have screamed out to me. Or not. Male privilege entitles us, men, to this idea of choice.

Still, this is a complicated subject and that is seen in the varied ways sex work is treated around the world. It is legal in countries like Netherlands and Germany. It is outright banned in the U.S. Some other countries like India take a more complicated stance by not banning the industry but just falling short of legally recognising it. The Singapore government for instance has quietly encouraged a bustling red light district with the belief that it allows migrant workers to release their sexual urges without resorting to rape.

Still, outright legalisation can have severe pitfalls. I remember a lecture by Sugata Roy, a communication specialist with UNICEF, where he spoke about taking part in a raid at a brothel and uncovering a false wall behind which young girls were hidden. With fewer checks, those younger girls could have hidden in plain sight. Even prostitution in Netherlands has been on the scanner in recent years and the government has shut down many brothels for suspected involvement with criminal elements.

Sex work, both demystifies the kind of sacred hold sex has in our world, and yet further obfuscates it. In discussions with family and friends, I’m gung-ho about getting rid of the moral prurience that surrounds the discussion of sex work in the media and deal with it strictly the Dutch way. Yet on the day I walked to the end of the sex workers’ museum, I thought differently. There was a video screen that had people ogling at you as if you were on display and it didn’t feel so empowering.

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  1. Khogen

    I think prostitution is definetly anti feminist stuff. It is against the dignity of women.It encourages the objectification and sexualization of women’s body. And i think here its not the women but the men who buy sex should be seen as criminals. women are actualy the victims here as laws in scandinavian nations ( most gender equal group of nations) says. Men who buy sex will not be faithfull to their wives.Women who get into its trap are umfortunate and the women who willfully sell sex even after having other sources of income are like mother in laws who force their daughter in laws to abort female foetuses in other words a disgrace to feminism and women kind.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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