23 August 2012

Returning to the familiar, even if it isn't best.

In thinking and reading about prostitution in the last while, I've been wondering about those who stay in and/or return to prostitution when it seems like leaving would be better.

I will admit to being biased about prostitution: from a Christian perspective, it's not how God intended sex and relationships to be (adultery, though, is worse - see Proverbs 6:26 and Klaas Spronk's article about Rahab). Besides this, I think it's very demanding work - both physically and emotionally. It's also a job where one receives limited respect, there's more competition than friendships with colleagues, it is not necessarily well-paid (especially if there's pressure to hand over one's earnings), and it can be quite dangerous. It is, in my opinion, not the ideal job for anyone. At the same time, because of how hard it is, I admire the women who I meet who seem to do their job well and remain relatively emotionally healthy. Yet, because of how hard it is, I admit to finding it somewhat difficult to understand why everyone is not trying to leave and take advantage of the programs offered by Scarlet Cord and Frits Rouvoet's Blood'n'fire.

There are two situations that I especially don't understand.
- The first, and simplest, reagrds those that barely make enough money to pay for the rent of the windows. As many of the window working behind the windows will tell you, business has been bad - the crisis has hit the middle class and that is who most of their customers are. My question then is, why aren't these women more obviously looking for another way to eke out a living - with perhaps not less hours, but at least less stressful and difficult hours?
- The second are those who have been victims of human trafficking (and/or pimps and loverboys). After they have been rescued (or at least separated) from the one who was forcing them to work in prostitution (or at least took all their earnings), they often return to working in prostitution (for themselves now, though). One example of this is one of the Fokkens twins who was pushed into prostitution by her boyfriend and then continued (with her twin sister) later on her own.

Perhaps the answer is simply that what we know is often the easiest - it is easier to return to what is familiar, even if it's not necessarily best. It is obviously complicated, and other thoughts are welcome on this. It is also something that saddens me, especially the second situation that I named above.

18 August 2012

Recommended reading over prostitution: Achter het raam by Patricia Perquin

Of all the books I've read, probably the most accessible and realistic book that I've read thus far is that of Patricia Perquin (Achter het raam - currently available only in Dutch). Several of the more academic studies that I've read, especially those incorporating the words of prostitutes and clients, probably provide more accurate accounts that lack the necessary flourishing of a novel and the bias of a story written by one person. Other books also capture better the problems of human trafficking (recommended is De Fatale Fuik) or loverboys/pimps. Nonetheless, if you were only to read one book about prostitution and the Red Light District, I'd recommend this one (supplementing it by reading the newspaper and/or watching news programmes).

This book comes after a series of articles in Het Parool written by Patricia, someone who claimed to work several years as a prostitute in the Red Light District. It's thus written from an insider's perspective. Based on my conversations with the women working and what I've read about prostitution, it seems to provide a fairly balanced picture. Not all prostitutes are victims of human trafficking, nor under the influence of loverboys or pimps. Neither is the work solely glamorous, as one might conclude from the recent book, Ouwehoeren. Instead, for many women, prostitution is something in between or, perhaps, another category completely.

The book does a good job in raising good questions and it especially gives a good picture of how emotionally difficult the work can be - from a lack of respect given to those working behind the windows to the complicated relationships with the other women to the demands on her person. It details a bit of the actual work that she does but she doesn't let that overwhelm the book - partly because she doesn't sensationalize it. And she raises questions about what might not be good about how we respond to the work she does: how helpful are the umpteen organisations offering help? how easy is it to leave the work? should the work not be more regulated (i.e., should someone who can speak neither English nor Dutch be allowed to work in the Red Light District? What receipts can actually be claimed for taxes? Should there be a maximum hours per week that someone can work in prostitution and how do you regulate that?). I know a number of others who have now read the book, and I look forward to talking more about it and the questions it raises.

Because Patricia remains anonymous and because her words correspond well with the 1012 project to clean up the Wallen, this leads to suspicious about how true her story really is. The fact that she never mentions the annoyance of tourists, one of the most common complaints of all the women, also raises questions about her story. One fascinating reaction to her book is found on the blog, "the experiences of a prostitute." (before you click on the link, you should be warned that the author writes in Dutch and sometimes uses crass language). The writer of the blog, another person claiming to be a prostitute also writing anonymously, is rather sceptical of Patricia and negative about what she has written. Yet, she also has some things to say about prostitution that I think ought to be heard. The following is a translation of a few sentences middle in the blog entry linked to above:

"Prostitutes are often depicted as murder victims in crime shows and books. Not surprising, as many people consider prostitutes not to be real people. We are seen as inferior, and people who want to harm others find it easier to do that to prostitutes. That is a problem and a danger.... We are not actually outlaws, but we are more vulnerable because many people believe that we are. And thus we must learn to stand up for ourselves..."

this blog entry has been cross-posted on the blog: the Kronemeijers' recent reading

17 August 2012

Bike ride to Zandvoort

Before heading out on our long weekend away, I took a day off to go biking with a friend. I've always wanted to bike to Zandvoort, a village on the North Sea about 35 km away from Amsterdam, so that's what we did.

We started in the Westerpark and headed out towards Haarlem, following the paths that seemed to be as close as possible to nature. Halfway to Haarlem, we came to Halfweg, which actually means "half-way." The following is a picture of a church (since no trip for me is complete without checking out the local churches :))

The next stop was Spaarndam. Looking back on the trip, I tink it was Spaarndam that was the most interesting. The town itself has a picturesque feel to it, as you can sense by this picture.
But also delightful was the bike ride from Spaarndam towards to Haarlem, as there's an old fort along the way.

Haarlem is also a wonderful city to visit, but this time we just biked through and did our best not to get lost. By the time we knew we had the cut-off to Zandvoort and we were heading in the right direction, we had practically bumped into Overveen. In the train, Overveen is the "almost there" stop - the one right before Zandvoort. I've walked from Overveen train station to the sea before, so I knew it couldn't be much longer still.

Except I forgot that dunes are hilly. Not surprising, since the Netherlands is notoriously flat. Flat, except for the dunes (which we biked up and down) and also Berg en Dal, where we had to walk up a significantly steep incline for 15 minutes in order to get to our hotel during our vacation.

The following gives an idea of the dunes. These were taken in different directions from the lookout point.

It was thus actually a rather disappointing lookout place, although it was a good place to stop and drink some more water. We couldn't have asked for more perfect weather, although a bit cloudier would have been good, too.

We celebrated our arrival in Zandvoort with one last steep incline on the bike and then having apple pie with cappucino and taking a walk by the sea.

Follow this link (the same as the one on Facebook) to see the map of our trip: http://soc.li/2vAZctb 

15 August 2012

Reading about prostitution

In the hope of understanding my neighbours and this neighbourhood better, I have read quite a lot related to human trafficking and prostitution. Through what I've posted previously on this blog that might have already been obvious, but it seemed good to acknowledge that. 

It seems appropriate then to share what I've learned with others, partly because knowledge is for sharing and partly because putting what I've read down in words helps me process things. And processing is necessary, as the topic of prostitution can often be overwhelming. What is most overwhelming is how complicated it is and, other than my (Christian) belief that prostitution is not part of God's ideal world, very little else is straightforward or clear when it comes to prostitution here in the Red Light District. But it can not be ignored, and I hope that my thoughts might be a way for me to show respect and care to the women working here

The blog entries with regard to prostitution and/or the Red Light District will be labelled with "prostitution" and/or "de wallen." Click on the link(s) to see more of what they are. More books about prostitution, primarily studies written in English that I read a number of years ago, can be found on brendahey2.blogspot.com under the label "prostitution lit."

13 August 2012

A Prostitute does her work with pleasure?!?

It's been almost a year now since I started volunteering again with the Salvation Army's vrouwenpastoraat (pastoral care to women). It's something I am thankful I can do, as the women are my neighbours, and I want to be able to reach out to them and show them love and respect - an attitude too often lacking amongst many of the tourists and visitors to the Red Light District.

Joan van't Hof, who has a lead role in the work of the women's pastoral care, recently posted a short article on wij about this. For those of you who read dutch, I encourage you to follow the link. But for those of you who only speak English, the following is the translation:

A Prostitute does her work with pleasure

My initial reaction to this statement was: If that were true, then the Vrouwenpastoraat (Women's pastoral care) of the Salvation Army would hardly need to exist. How did it start? After the Second World War 'Major' Bosshardt began caring for this special group: care that grew into an extensive social and spiritual work that has now become the Goodwill Centre Amsterdam and where more than a thousand people work. Since January 2007, I have been able to participate in the work as a volunteer.

Ever since it began, the Salvation Army has been active in visiting the prostitutes that work in the Red Light District. The visits were initially limited to once per week. Now there are more than twenty volunteers who ensure that visits are made three times per week to the prostitutes working in the Red Light District. In addition, on Thursday those working in the area of the Spui and Singel are visited. We also provide Dutch language lessons so that it is easier to find a job in the Netherlands, as well as making it easier to communicate with Dutch people.

Every week we reach out to three to four hundred prostitutes. The contact itself is very diverse. It ranges from a short raising of a hand to sometimes a conversation of an hour or more. On account of our regular presence and the lack of conditions for how we approach "our" girls, we have built up trust with many, if not most, of those whom we visit. If we are asked to talk about our beliefs and matters of faith, we gladly share more about that. On our own, we do not bring up this topic, recognizing that many are believers.

Sometimes the Red Light District is populated by hordes of tourists and spectators, who march through the alleys shouting, banging on the windows, and calling out to the women (for example, "Hey, grandma," when they see a prostitute who is "already" thirty years old). Or there are couples walking hand in hand through the alleys, kissing each other in front of a window, and staring disapprovingly at the prostitutes. In the last while, a girl next to our building has occasionally donned a kind of police uniform, in the hope of attracting (certain) men. Last Thursday, there stood a group of people before her window laughing together at her. Such an attitude disgusts me: no respect for the women who, without exception, always respond to us with respect and love.

During our visits, family situations often comes up. The women talk about their (grand) children and favourite nephew/niece. And the sun breaks through completely whenever we ask whether they might have photos. With barely concealed pride, the little children and other relatives are always shown. At such moments, we recognize our common humanity. A fellow human being who is no different than us. The only difference is where and how one's life began. Coming to know the latter can cause your heart to break when you realize how many of the girls have been forced into this profession. The force can be a lack of another means of livelihood and therefore, often at wit's end, "choosing" to work here in the prostitution, or the force can be having been recruited by a human trafficker and made to do thise work under the most horrible of threats (not infrequently followed through). No, this type of work is not something you do because it is respected or because the work is so enjoyable.

article re-posted with permission from the author.

12 August 2012

House guest

Normally when we have house guests, my cat disappears. He's only just now starting not to hide and he'll actually let visitors touch/pet him. However, rarely does he sit in his usual place - in the middle of the room divider (where we've now made a place available for our "living art").

But the last few weeks, we've had a house guest and Jerry's been quite social. Fortunately, our guest has actually been that of our neighbours downstairs - several weeks is a bit long for even the best of guests. However, as our guest fits through the "cat door," he can visit whenever he can escape into the hallway (and thus frequently). Except for his nasty habit of going directly to the food dish whenever he comes in (he's on a diet so considers himself always underfed) and his shedding orange hair everywhere, he's been a great guest - and wonderful entertainment for Jerry. Hopefully, my downstairs neighbour will get a kitten soon and Jerry can always have a friend in house.

As the photos indicate they get along just like brothers :)

11 August 2012

A visit to the second-hand bookstore (guest post by Matthijs)

One of the great things about living in central Amsterdam is the proximity of numerous good bookstores. My favourite is the huge second-hand bookstore “de Slegte”, which often lives up to its name – ‘the bad’, presumably the founder’s name – by costing me money. The other day, though, it brought some other surprises besides only books: I ran, separately, into two men I’d studied Theology with in the 1990s. One, a priest for at least ten years, I met in the Theology section, treasuring a volume by Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar about Origen of Alexandria (3rd century). The other would probably not even want to go near the Theology section, since he broke off his studies after far too many years of it, threw himself into the gay scene and became a Buddhist. Although we had been close friends, we both had gone separate ways and had lost touch for a long time. 

I was very happy to meet my friend and we’ll be sure to get together in the future. It’s amazing how easily one picks up a familiar tone in conversation with an old friend. Nevertheless, I also found out how separate our trajectories were when he asked about my marriage. Was I married to a man or to a woman?

[Editorial note – at this moment my delightful wife inserted herself between myself and the computer and glanced with a critical eye over the creative process, while beguiling me with her feminine charms, as Calvin’s friend Hobbes once eloquently put it.] 

They were strange meetings, one after the other. Two old friends, two very different trajectories, with myself in the middle. I have never seriously considered either the Catholic priesthood or a homosexual lifestyle. Obviously, when I was single the priesthood was always a possible life choice, with some attractions, practical and spiritual. Conversely, the gay life never had any appeal to me (Brenda and I usually flee the city during the Gay Pride festival), but I suppose I could theoretically have become ‘secular’ as so many people have.

I used to feel a bit sad to be excluded from more or less developed career and/or lifestyle paths, be they in the Church or elsewhere. Even now, as a married couple, our lifestyle and convictions are still uncommon. But it is clear that this life is where I belong – and, thankfully, it still allows for visits to second-hand bookstores and unexpected encounters. Under the guidance of God whose designs we cannot see, but only feel along the way, step by step.

09 August 2012

Home again - back in the middle of all the craziness

My best quote from our trip was probably said after we got home. We arrived at Amsterdam Centraal Station at around five in the evening on Sunday. It was busy - full of tourists and visitors - people arriving and searching where they would go, people rushing to catch trains, and everybody in between. What a difference from the peaceful bike ride through the  polder that we'd just had a couple of hours before!

We came home, ate supper, tried out our new boardgame (an extension to Ticket-to-Ride), and finally went to bed. At no time did the noise from outside of the window really disappear. Lying in bed, we joked about the contrast between our home on an Amsterdam canal and the quietness of the hotel we'd just visited in the countryside. Acch, home again amidst all the crazies. But, as I pointed out, at least they're our crazies.

After all, we're in the middle of our neighbours: whether it be the people in this house that we know, the new neighbours next door, the women that I visit who work behind the windows, or the homeless who stop by for coffee. And even if I groan when I think of tourists in general, it's good to be home again amidst neighbours and people we care about, no matter how crazy they might be!

08 August 2012

the multi-functionality of a partner

Last week, Matthijs and I headed out on vacation for a few days (a visit to a friend in Munster, an exhibition in Dusseldorf, rest and relaxation in Nijmegen [Berg en Dal]). It was lovely - we saw a lot, got to walk and bike around tons, and generally enjoyed spending time with each other - and perhaps there will even be photos here (or on Facebook) in the near future.

Matthijs wins for having the best line of the vacation. As I was placing my tickets in his shirt pocket, he made a wry comment about how multi-functional partners can be. And I agreed with him completely (and for the rest of the trip continued to place tickets in his pocket). Considering how much Matthijs and I delight in each other's company in so many different ways, the concept of multi-functional captures that ideal well. However, "pack-horse" is probably not a function I should emphasize too much, otherwise I'll have to carry more of the luggage on our next trip!