The women behind the windows in Amsterdam’s red light district

A review of ‘Body for Rent’ by Anna Hendricks and Olivia Smit

Body for rent is the true story of two girls being groomed, and then pimped into the windows of the famous De Wallen red light district in Amsterdam on the day they reach 18, the magical age that prostitution becomes legal in the Netherlands, and their subsequent years of struggle to get free. Underlying this story is another one: the power of the love and friendship between the two women, even under the most brutal circumstances and the best efforts of their pimp to drive a wedge between them.

“We never went looking for trouble. We didn’t need to.”

The first part of the book provides a chilling picture of the two girls’ lives as young teenagers. They both live at home, but have already been practically abandoned by their dysfunctional parents. They truant and hang around on the streets, their vulnerability a magnet for predators.

They make friends with an older girl, Mary, and spend happy days with her, hanging around in her flat and the shopping mall. But the carefree innocence dissipates in the evenings, when a group of men from the drug underworld congregate in Mary’s flat. That’s how Anna and Olivia meet Ricardo. At 26, he’s 11 years older than them; attractive, charming – and deadly.

Exactly three days after Ricardo starts sleeping with Olivia (even though, at 15, she is below the age of consent) the girls learn that Mary has been brutally murdered by her so-called boyfriend. Feeling responsible and with no one to talk to about their distress and feelings of guilt, the girls spiral downwards, providing Ricardo with the perfect opportunity to move in. He showers them with attention and takes them out drinking. They need little encouragement to drink too much, such is their pain and confusion, and they are too young to understand how it also dulls their self protective mechanisms.

Out of the blue one day, Ricardo anally rapes Olivia. And so begins his reign of terror – unpredictable bouts of extreme violence – that was to dominate their lives for the next seven years or so.

“I would like to tell you that we came to hate Ricardo, but, sadly, I can’t. Although we lived in terror of what he would do to us, and had enough common sense to realise that our situation wasn’t right or normal, this understanding was completely overshadowed by our unhappiness. Even though Anna wasn’t the one sleeping with him, she stayed with me and suffered his beatings because she wanted to protect me but also because, by this point, she was simply too scared of Ricardo to contemplate getting away from him.” (Page 55)

Within a year, he pimps Anna out to a fat, middle-aged businessman. Although both girls are living in their respective family homes, they are already so alienated from their parents, they are unable to disclose what’s happening, and their parents are so preoccupied with their own concerns, they don’t read the signs. So Ricardo continues abusing the girls, and he goes on pimping Anna out to the fat businessman for another two years.

Looking back years later, they see it wasn’t an accident that Ricardo first pimped Anna around the time that the Netherlands legalised prostitution, including ‘non-violent’ pimping. And this change in the law was also not unconnected with the new business venture Ricardo announces shortly before the girls turn 18 – to set them up in the De Wallen windows with him as their pimp.

“[O]ur situation was worsened by the Dutch attitude to prostitution and, even more so, our country’s inability to protect the women who are traded at the heart of its capital’s centre.” (Page 76)

Again the girls feel unable to seek help from their parents. But their parents get to hear anyway and Anna’s father tracks Ricardo down. He insists it was the girls’ idea, not his. He only offered to help, he says, because he cares about them and wants to protect them from all the dangers out there in the red light district. Anna’s father doesn’t fall for this but he still blames Anna and throws her out of the house – as Olivia’s parents do to Olivia. So Ricardo rents a flat for them and announces he’ll take the rent out of their earnings.

Their dependence on him is now complete.

“We knew nothing; absolutely nothing”

On the day she becomes 18, Ricardo makes Anna go to the office of the agency licensed by the city council to register for one of the window rooms. The legalisation of the windows, and of the sex trade more generally, was justified as necessary to protect women who are trafficked and forced. And yet Anna is not asked if anyone is forcing her into this, whether she really wants to do it, how much her pimp will take of her earnings. She is only asked to prove her age.

Such wilful blindness of the authorities is a theme running through the rest of the book. It seems that all that matters is the money pouring into the area from the punters – not only Dutch men, but bus- and plane-loads of male sex tourists.

Anna is taken to one of the window rooms, where, Ricardo has ordered, she is to lie down and let the men fuck her, and then give him 50% of her earnings, while she’s to pay for all the overheads herself out of whatever is left.

“The walls are bare. […] The floor is cold and tiled. […] There is no furniture in this room save a little stool and a narrow, single bed, covered in worn red plastic. No sheet. No pillow. No cover. Nothing that makes it a bed; instead it’s just a table.” (Page 81)

When Anna opens the curtains that first night, a line of jostling men quickly forms outside. She is 18 years old and zero days, but she looks much younger. Young is what most punters want. “Disgusting” is how she describes it.

A week later it’s Olivia’s 18th birthday and the same fate awaits her.

“So I ended the first night of my life as a Red Light District prostitute lying exhausted but sleepless, tormented by what had been done to my body and by the unnerving sensation that my mind was beginning to break free of my control. This was the true cost of prostitution, and it was paid not by the customers but by me and Anna and by all the other women in the windows.” (Page 101)

“We were sexual servants, always available, always required to appear willing”

The description of the physical, emotional and psychological effects of being penetrated by numerous men for cash every day is powerful and chimes with the testimony of many other women who’ve been in prostitution.

“[S]ubtly, gradually, they wormed themselves under my skin. I found it ever harder to disguise my contempt for the men who paid to penetrate me and almost impossible to shake off the disgust I felt for myself.” (Page 119)

Because Anna looks so young, large numbers of elderly men want her so they can act out their paedophilic fantasies.

Even though both Olivia and Anna are clearly miserable and barely functioning, the punters are so focused on getting their money’s worth, they do not notice. To them, the women simply do not register as fellow human beings.

The book provides a powerful account of the women’s gradual mental breakdown and the chronic erosion of their sense of self and self worth, without which even the hope of another kind of life is impossible – and again it chimes with what we hear from many other women who’ve been trapped in the sex trade.

Ricardo’s violence, coercion and control is relentless and chilling. It’s a form of domestic abuse – with all the familiar tactics of isolation and unpredictability – but with the added dimension that Anna and Olivia’s prostitution provides the income underpinning his extravagant lifestyle.

“A fiction maintained to keep the profits rolling in for those at the top”

Amsterdam’s red light district has a sophisticated infrastructure dedicated to maintaining the illusion of a safe, well-managed sex trade full of empowered women who are there under their own volition. There are museums, information centres, live shows and organised tours.

But of course it’s an illusion. Anna and Olivia spend years in the windows and get to know the reality behind the façade.

“Behind every scantily clad woman touting for business in the windows of De Wallen, there was a man. A man who put them there, kept them there and took a cut of their earnings, or – most often – the entire amount. These pimps were universal and inescapable; they drove around in expensive cars or sat in bars on the street corners, constantly monitoring the productivity of ‘their’ girls.” (Page 110)

Every De Wallen window room has a panic button. But just like the panic buttons in the legal brothels in Melbourne, Australia, they are as good as useless. By the time help arrives, the punter is long gone, the damage done.

And there is little point in turning to the police or other authorities for help, because they invariably protect the pimps, the punters, the illusion.

Desperate to escape, Anna and Olivia approach the two NGOs tasked with helping the women. De Rode Draad turns them away because they aren’t victims of international sex trafficking, and the other, De Scharlaken Korda, quickly alienates them with its heavy Christian doctrine. They realise that if they are to escape, they’ll have to do it by themselves.

For everyone who wonders why they don’t just get up and leave, this book is a must read. They have no transferable skills and nothing to put on their CV. They have been broken, body and soul. They fear for their lives. They have been abandoned by their families. In fact one of Anna’s relatives cons her into participating in an illegal scheme and she ends up taking the rap and incurring a huge debt through the courts. As a woman from the windows, her word has no value – unlike her uncle who is believed because in the eyes of the court, he is a good, upstanding citizen.

Conclusion

We live in a culture that likes to pretend that the world is fair, that society is a meritocracy where people’s position really is commensurate with their skills, abilities and efforts, more or less – and that prostitution is a ‘service’ not that much different from waitressing and that women choose it freely and most of them really do love it, and that prostitution clients are lonely men paying for a service, like we pay the dry cleaners to clean our winter coats.

This book brilliantly exposes this to be nothing less than a pack of lies. It also exposes the dangers of those lies.

Even though Anna and Olivia knew instinctively that prostitution was harmful and they didn’t want to do it, no one warned them about the predators – the men seeking vulnerable girls and young women to trick and bully into prostitution for the sole purpose of providing those men with an easy, risk-free income.

Because of those cultural lies, no one warned the two girls of the very real and specific dangers of their situation.

And because of those lies, their parents didn’t understand their duty to listen to their daughters, to provide a space where they could express their confusion and the reality of what was happening to them, let alone to warn them of the wolves in their midst.

And because of those lies, when their parents did find out the truth, they believed the girls had freely chosen prostitution and therefore deserved everything that was coming to them.

This idea that prostitution – or ‘sex work’ – is a choice that must always be respected no matter what, is perhaps the biggest and deadliest lie of all. It’s a DARVO reversal that literally exonerates everyone, and blames: not the pimps and their raw greed and brutality; not the punters and their narcissistic selfishness; not the authorities busy raking in their billions in license fees, taxes and tourist cash; not the parents who have abdicated responsibility for their children; not our society that has mislaid our collective responsibility to the young and vulnerable and our will to hold those who abuse them to account; not the sex museum and the sex tour operators who repeat the lies; not the media companies with their ‘Happy Hooker’ and ‘Pretty Woman’ myths; but the hapless girls and young women we sacrifice so we don’t need to see our own hollowness, complicity and utter lack of ethics.

Please read this book – and support our campaign for the Nordic Model.

2 thoughts on “The women behind the windows in Amsterdam’s red light district

  1. Seems to be a book worth reading, since at least the omnipresent cliché of the ‘poor girl abused by her father’ isn’t included which makes it seem at least a real or very close to reality story….
    As to appear on Nordic Model Now of course a story from a legalised prostitution setting, but anyway, worth dealing with, I think.

    I lived in Germany before prostitution was legalised. It’s not that there haven’t been brothels and prostitution. It’d be great if testimonies from prostituted persons from the two other types of settings: when prostitution as such is illegal and when punters or punters and pimps are illegal would be published, so one could have a look at the differences and a chance for an unbiased, personal judgement which “model” is how and ‘to prefer’.
    However, given that the girls mostly blame society for their fate, even without the comparison with other legal structures provided, it’s worth a thought to how far a degree all of us contribute to the exploitation of people for prostitution. It’s our silence, our indifference to the fact it exists, many people’s inhibition when it comes to talk about sex – even the “pro”-porn watchers rarely are able to actually talk about sex and sexuality, they watch it, wank on it, but never really talk about it (maybe despite “I nailed that thing! Her breasts are like this, buttocks like that and she was hard to take but….” and stuff like this with their same sex friends, but never to their mating partners or in a sense of sexuality as such), and so does the vast majority of our society, even in the modern times deemed oh so progressive….
    It’d surprise me, if this book appeared on any bestselling list like @NYT or @DerSpiegel or whatever…too “prude” our porn-loving societies to allow female reality becoming popular….too obsessed with the centuries old myths of women meaning yes when they say no, always “asking for it”, wanting to be conquered and so on…

    Like

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