“Love for Sale,” A Sex Trade Exhibition

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Dianne Feeley

BETWEEN MARCH AND September, 2002 the Amsterdam Historical Museum held an exhibit documenting four centuries of prostitution in Amsterdam. “Love for Sale” brings together an amazing set of documents, photographs and paintings about prostitution.

Included are erotic S&M panels police confiscated from a 1930s brothel, recreations of both the drawing room of 19th-century brothel and an up-to-date pad designed for the modern swinger, a 17th-century map pinpointing where prostitutes lived and 19th-century questionnaires police asked prostitutes to fill out, detailing how they viewed their working conditions.

The answers are in French, proof that the women came — whether voluntarily or by force — to Amsterdam from somewhere else. But the exhibit is silent about the trafficking of women.

Why has Amsterdam had such a reputation over the centuries as a capital of prostitution? The exhibit notes suggest the answer is because the city has been a port — and certainly Amsterdam existed as an urban space where sailors, having just come back from a long voyage, had money to quench their desires.

But I think, more importantly, Amsterdam is a city of commodity trading, and sex is just another commodity on the market.

The Dutch authorities have held ambivalent attitudes toward the prostitute. At times prostitution has been outlawed, at other times it was been tolerated or even — as is the current situation — legal. In the 17th century prostitutes were placed in houses of correction — and in a classic case of voyeurism, the city fathers invited the public in to view them!

In the early part of the 20th century feminists and socialists attempted to deal with the trafficking of women by banning prostitution — but only succeeded in driving it underground. The exhibit features a 1929 photograph of two women hanging around the front of a cigar store. Since men frequented cigar stores, brothels often used such a shop as a “cover” for their enterprise.

Most of the artists — including well known painters like Jan Steen — paint the prostitute as generally young but knowing while the man is older, drunk, and often about to be fleeced. The male artist’s eye seems to see men who visit prostitutes passive actors while women are the agents who actively lure men into sex.

Most of the exhibit frames the prostitute as a woman and the client as a man, although toward the end it does mention that gay men and transsexuals are also involved in prostitution. But it’s a fleeting reference — probably because there’s a lot less documentation on the history of male prostitution.

Scary Business

From beginning to end the exhibit features a number of videos where women talk about how they became prostitutes, how they select (or reject) men and how they see their lives.

One of the longest interviews is with an older woman, who finds the business today much scarier than when she was working. She remembers an era in which prostitutes helped each other out, introducing friends to their respective clients and relaxing together. But all was not rosy then — she mentions that two of her friends were murdered, commenting on one, “She went with anyone.”

Although the exhibit conveys a sense of the overwhelming presence of men — whether the artist, the client or the police — there is only one male voice: the video of a man who rents out some of the windows where the prostitutes sit, displaying themselves for their potential clients.

He complains about how, now that prostitution is legal, the police conduct searches. When they find an immigrant woman without proper papers, they hold her for deportation. He notes that Dutch women don’t want the job anymore — that’s why it’s women from Africa or South Asia or Eastern Europe. He’s obviously complaining about the disruption this causes to his business but his short interview is about the only time in which the race and economic status of the
women is mentioned.

“How Much, How Much?”

Another of the longer interviews is with a woman in her thirties. She is talking while sitting in the window waiting for a client. She tells the interviewer she turns down a lot of men. Surprised, the interviewer asks what criteria she uses. She says she turns them down if she feels they are too macho.

Later in the exhibit a person has the opportunity to understand what she means. There’s a space with just a bar stool — you are supposed to sit down on the stool. When you do you realize you are sitting in a window — as if you are the prostitute, waiting for a client.

You look out and the window frame in front of you is actually a screen, filled with secretly taped videos of men walking by, checking you out, calling to you — no, yelling at you, gesturing to you: “How much, HOW MUCH?”

The impact of the exhibition comes from the stories real women tell about themselves. They express amazement that men still try to persuade them to have sex without a condom, and one feels proud that they have the knowledge and ability to protect their bodies. Most places in the world women wouldn’t feel as free to turn down abusive customers.

After a decade-long debate, prostitution was legalized two years ago. But, according to the exhibit, that means women receive regular health examinations, pay taxes on their income and face deportation if police find they don’t have immigration papers. Given the new right-wing government determined to deport undocumented immigrants, this means many prostitutes are worse off.

Unfortunately, the exhibit doesn’t even mention the prostitutes’ unions or explore issues they and feminist organizations have raised since legalization.

ATC 100, September-October 2002