I can’t remember the last time I was really angry. Perhaps when I got my clothes stolen in Africa 8 years ago. Experiencing this emotion in Amsterdam this past week has felt odd – like an unfamiliar acquaintance stopping by for a visit, making a home amongst my usually-positive thoughts.
Jennifer Tunehag, an incredible woman who we got to know in Sweden, told us that sometimes after she’s spent hours or days doing anti-trafficking work, she just feels moody and can’t figure out why. Then she connects her bad mood to the heaviness of the issue she is dealing with – the missed victims, the scarce resources, the overwhelming needs. In essence the bad mood is a manifestation of deeper emotions – like grieving the suffering of others. This past week I have been moody and angry, and at the root of it all I feel deep sorrow for what we have heard and seen.
Amsterdam is known as a city of freedom. We learned from locals that it is a deeply embedded cultural value to live free from government interference as well as others telling you what is right and what is wrong. Sadly, we’ve witnessed the abuse of this freedom.
On Tuesday we had the opportunity to interview two victims of “loverboys,” traffickers who pose as boyfriends with the purpose of grooming a girl for prostitution. This is quite common in the Netherlands. I can’t tell you what it feels like to look directly into the eyes of a victim, as they bravely share their story with the hopes that it will make a difference in the life of another. We consider it an honour to steward their stories to the best of our ability, as each word is so valuable. As we headed out, Jay apologized to them on behalf of men, affirming that the males who abused and sold them were not real men at all.
Following the interview we went to the notorious red light district of Amsterdam, De Wallen. That night we went without cameras, just to see what we were dealing with. It wasn’t the girls in the windows that shocked me as much as the men that were buying them. As we neared the district we heard singing and chanting, by about 200 guys around a bar who were watching a football game before descending upon the district to either celebrate or lament their victory or loss. Most were drunk. One man reached open his arms and yelled “I LOVE AMSTERDAM!”
As this was all happening, I had the opportunity to bring soup to the women in the windows with my friend Saskia, who works for an organization that provides nutritious meals for those in the red light district. She has gotten to know many of the girls, and as we approached, the looks on the girls’ faces went from sexy and seductive to delighted that soup had arrived. This made the men nearby uncomfortable, as all of a sudden these women became real humans, not just food to be devoured.
A few of the ladies invited us inside their windows to talk. We talked about hair, about soup, about their customers that night. They all seemed tired. Some a little self-conscious. One girl looked nervously out her window at the men chanting at the bar and mumbled “dangerous.” A lot can happen when the curtains close behind them, when they are alone with a man who is drunk or violent.
And this is where the debate begins. What does freedom look like? Some women in the district say the don’t want pity, because they are doing this to support their family back in their home country. Some that Jay and I saw looked very young and scared, half-heartedly posing. We saw one burly man, who did not appear to be a customer but likely either a brothel owner or pimp, walk into the brothel with three girls, and all of them looked very uncomfortable. Some who end up in Amsterdam have already been doing this for years all around Europe, and by the time they get to Amsterdam, they have experienced so much abuse that De Wallen actually seems like a good deal. Everyone has a different story, and it is not fair to stereotype and try to peg everyone’s experience into some kinds of “typical story” format.
As Saskia mentioned to us, prostitution is very easy to get into but very hard to get out of. Despite what side of the ‘choice’ argument one lands, that is very clear indeed. Whether one is a victim of a loverboy, an international trafficking ring, or poverty – or made a series of choices on their own, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a gross abuse of vulnerability happening in the sex industry.
I admire the courage, compassion, and devotion of many we have met and spoken with in Amsterdam this week. I cannot begin to thank those who shared their hearts with us, as well as some of the incredible work being done to stamp out organized crime and exploitation. I have also thanked Jay many times in the past few days for being a good man.
I do, however, leave the city feeling exhausted and almost a little wounded in a way. Wounded by the stories of abuse and exploitation, by the reality that there are men willing to abuse vulnerability, and by the fact that I can’t snap my fingers and make it all better. But that if course is why we all have a part to play, so let’s take that responsibility seriously.