‘It feels like a war on prostitution’
Sex workers should be allowed choose prostitution if it makes their lives better, says prostitute-turned-advocate Mariska Majoor
‘Tourists and government officials want to keep the area as a tourist attraction, while at the same time opposing the very thing that makes it famous,’ says Mariska Majoor. Photograph: Marjoleine Van Kalke
A video installation shows men taking a look inside a brothel at the Red Light Secrets museum in Amsterdam. Photograph: Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty Images)
The last time I saw Mariska Majoor, I was scantily dressed in a window, in Amsterdam’s red-light district, and she was sitting just out of view, asking me what kind of man I like. I was taking part in a workshop that Majoor, a former prostitute, offers at the Prostitution Information Center, in which participants spend an hour learning how to draw clients – and repel undesirables – using body language and eye contact.
“You must have a look that says, ‘You can have sex with me – for €100’,” she told me. Not a look I could muster, but the experience was fascinating, humiliating and empowering all at once. “Window work is the hardest,” she said when it was over, “but you would probably do well in a brothel.”
Over a glass of wine, Majoor explained sex work openly and matter of factly, describing everything from negotiating with clients to “professional development” with her peers. “I started as a prostitute when I was 16 and before then I had sex only with one boy, when I was 14. So I was not that experienced. My friends and I would practice things on each other.”
Now, as then, the 45-year-old regards sex work as just that: a job. But in an attempt to reduce human trafficking and the exploitation of woman, the red-light district has undergone some major gentrification recently, and last week the EU Parliament passed a proposal that would make selling sex legal in Europe, but criminalise paying for it.
In Ireland, the Turn off the Light Campaign agrees with this course of action. The organisation, of which the Immigrant Council of Ireland is a founding member, lobbies for laws against prostitution, including targeting sex buyers. According to a spokesperson: “The issues around prostitution have been the subject of exhaustive proceedings, including 800 written submissions and six months of hearings before the Oireachtas justice committee, which last June unanimously supported the introduction of laws targeting the buyers of sex. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, employers and 68 Irish organisations believe prostitution is exploitation and not work.”
According to Majoor, Amsterdam’s sex workers are furious. “It feels like a war on prostitution,” she says. “Sex work is not the same as trafficking or abuse. Why can’t anyone understand that?”
Majoor, who took a job at a brothel before coming to work in a window in the red-light district, acknowledges she was a young when she started sex work, but she says it was a natural extension of her boisterous life at the time and that she was always able to treat is as just a job.
“I developed ways to separate my personal and work life early on. I never took a customer that I would be attracted to outside of work,” she says. “I think it’s the case for most sex workers. If you don’t have this mechanism in you somehow, you don’t choose this life.”
Majoor says that while some girls enter sex work because they have limited options, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a decision. “For many sex workers, there are complicated circumstances. But they are not victims. They will be very angry if they are put in that category,” she says.
She has also often been told she is damaged from her years in prostitution. “It’s insulting,” she says. “Even now – and I am 45 – I am told I was too immature to make this decision and that I will eventually regret it. It’s rude. It’s even been said to me by other former sex workers and I think, I’m sorry for you that you feel bad about your choice, but that’s your story, not mine.”
Majoor gave up sex work in 1994, when she founded the Prostitution Information Center as a small museum and information centre. In 2007, she organised an “open day” in the neighbourhood that included the unveiling of Belle, a statue of a prostitute “to honour sex workers everywhere”.
But things are changing. As part of a city “clean-up” effort known as Project 1012, named after the area’s postal code, a housing corporation has bought 17 properties from one former landlord, Charles Geerts, for €25 million, and the houses will be converted into what Majoor calls “more decent” businesses.
“The government wants it to be a mixture of chic and seedy – but most of us in this neighbourhood don’t want that,” Majoor says. “I love a rough neighbourhood. I love the rough life. It’s the case for everybody who lives and works here. They don’t feel at home in the more decent parts of Amsterdam. Okay, the mayor prefers a different life, but who the hell is he to tell me that I should not live how I want?”
Majoor finds it hypocritical that some people – both tourists and government officials – want to keep the area as a tourist attraction, while at the same time opposing the very thing that makes it famous.
“I don’t understand that. There are people who are drawn to this area for its seedier elements, and yet at the same time they want to get rid of the girls and the criminals. They romanticise it while wanting to live decent lives themselves.”
One former brothel has been converted into Red Light Secrets, a prostitution museum. “I was so angry about it, because it is a building I knew very well from my working days,” she says. “I have known all the owners of these buildings for the last 25 years. It was a brothel, yes, and the city closed it. They closed it because it’s evil, it’s bad, they want to rescue the women. And then what do they do? They pump money into a tourist attraction in the same spot that has fake windows that visitors can have their pictures taken in.”
Majoor still conducts her workshops. “The difference,” she says, “is my workshop is not intended to be funny. It is not something I allow for a laugh or just a photo. It is educational, informative. It shows people what it is like, how it works, whether they feel they could ever do it.”
Majoor says no one protects the rights of professional sex workers, and she is now changing the focus of her information centre from a small museum – it was previously furnished like a working window room – to more of a gathering place with small tables, like a cafe, that she will call the Action and Study Center for Sex Workers’ Rights.
“The government here and in the EU Parliament say they want to help us, but I feel they play with us, that they don’t care about us, and they just want us to go away,” she says.
“At the moment, we are working with a little group to help the girls with tax problems. Tax people are playing a hard game against sex workers, giving them big fines for administration mistakes. I want to help educate the girls to avoid that.”
Majoor does not want to form an official city organisation, but she want to be an advocate for the girls. “They come to me and tell me their problems,” she says, “because they want to talk and because they think I’m good at it.”
For example, last year the organisation Loesje, which spreads various messages using posters and bumper stickers, began putting signs in the red-light district such as, “Was that a wink, or a cry for help?” Mariska responded, at the request of local sex workers, by producing stickers that read, “My body is my business” and were signed “Poesje”, the Dutch word for little cat. “What I find is that advocacy works, and it’s something I’m really excited about,” Majoor says.
Majoor appreciates the role of prevention to help girls avoid sex work, but says the measures currently proposed won’t work. “I know not everyone is working because they want to – some only do it because they need the money for a better future, because they have a family, they need to survive,” she says. “If you want to protect that group – if you feel sad for them – help them out by giving them an education, a job, food. If you cannot help them out, let them do the thing they choose to do to make life better for themselves.”