What do you think of when you think of Holland? Clogs, cheese, canals? Windmills Maybe the old Dutch Masters and dark, atmospheric paintings like The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum? Endless fields of bright tulips and people smoking weed on every corner? Prostitutes working the Amsterdam Red Light district?
It’s all these things. It’s also so much more. We’ve learned a few things about the Dutch and the Netherlands (as they prefer their country to be called) – and about myself – while living there for the last 6 months. Where should I start…?
Let’s start with the sex worker story. We’ll come back to the others in a later instalment. You never know, Dietmar might even be convinced to write another blog too 😉
Back in the early 2000s, I painted a series of nudes from life – the ‘Blue Nudes’ – and haven’t painted bodies since, despite the success of that series.
When I moved on board Cesarina, to Amsterdam in September 2020, something about the combination of the apparently liberal vibe of the Netherlands, the directness of Dutch women, an evening involving burlesque dancers with Margo van der Linde, the beautiful curviness of my friend and studio host Roos van Monsjou, the strange-to-me atmosphere of the De Wallen Red Light district that made me want to consider and celebrate the female form.
I started to think about how I might do this.
One late night, chatting with Dietmar and our friend Margo over a bottle or two of wine, I had an idea. There were restrictions in place in the Netherlands and the Red Light district was already closed. I wondered how the workers were earning any money. The windows were empty, the curtains drawn. I decided that what I really wanted to do was to paint a series of working women, with all the interesting conversations that this would bring up. My bright idea was to hire a room in the Red Light district, and to paint from life, for all to watch. I opened Pandora’s Box…
Prostitution has an interesting history in the Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam. It was first recorded in the fifteenth century, in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, as they expanded rapidly as seafaring ports. Over the years, it has been tolerated, reviled, glamourised, prohibited and was finally fully legalized, unionized and taxed in 2000. It is now a regulated industry. This was in response to many years of a strong feminist message that women choose to work in this industry and should be empowered as such, not seen as victims but given the full protection of the law, like other career choices. It remains controversial, unsurprisingly. The moral and sociological questions raised are myriad and nothing if not provocative.
I made some enquiries about how I could set this project up. I also made some extremely naïve assumptions.
I presumed that finding working women to use as life models would not be so hard – if I were to pay them the same rates that they would earn as sex workers, surely they would rather lie comfortably on a couch and be painted rather than perform services? I airily dismissed any lingering doubts about exploitation, figuring that I would be supporting the local economy. First of all though, I needed to rent a room. How difficult could this be? I was already planning the social media and perhaps a press release or two…
Margo told me a cautionary tale about how she had started a performance art piece in a street where prostitutes were also working. She hung a red light in the window of a completely normal house and, fully dressed, proceeded to perform normal everyday tasks such as the ironing in the window.
The prostitutes working in the same street called the police and threatened to take action themselves if she did not immediately stop. She was distracting their customers, and trade was hard enough as it was without some artist messing about nearby. The police shut Margo’s performance down and threatened prosecution for using a red light without a licence to do so. Hmmm. I figured that I would definitely have to use a registered premises – so I went looking for one.
The last time I was in the city of Amsterdam, in the summer of 2019, the Red Light district was heaving the way you probably remember it or have seen on YouTube – 95% men, 95% tourists, glitzy and seedy in equal quantities. Not everyone’s cup of tea. Fascinating and gruesome. Prostitution in the Netherlands consists of roughly 90% working women and 5% men. If the light is purple, rather than red, you are looking at one of the other 5% who are transvestite or transgender.
As a woman in De Wallen, you can wander through almost completely unseen. The men are not interested in you unless you are behind a window or dressed provocatively and scantily, and neither are the working girls.
Often with make up like war paint, sometimes dazzlingly beautiful, the women stand or sit in their windows, clad to catch a cold in lace or leather or less, variously looking bored or unnervingly vulnerable, often world-weary. Some linger at their doorway, making an effort to make contact with the rubber-neckers passing by. Young men are urged on by their drunken stag party mates. Older men in raincoats lurk and stare. Transactions are negotiated and men are waved through the door. The curtain is pulled.
The women generally avoided eye contact with me and on the occasion when I made it, it was frankly uncomfortable. I am not sure whether it was just uncomfortable for me – I didn’t get the chance to ask. You are bustled through, caught in the wave of marijuana smoke and the smell of summer sweat on a thousand enervated men, aware of the very real risk of pickpockets. All of life is here. The energy is palpable. It’s not a place for women who aren’t for sale in that way.
In November 2020 however, the streets of De Wallen were lonely and empty, litter blowing down the rain-soaked alleyways, all lights off despite the long nights and short days. The curtains were all drawn. Commuters scurried through, collars up against the cold wind, heads bowed.
The sex shops were still open, if you wanted to brave passing through the slightly sticky rubber curtains like the entrance to a wholesale butcher. I didn’t.
“Te Huur” (nothing to do with whores – it means ‘For Rent’) notices were in many windows on the edges of the District and along the canal banks. I followed the link to a couple of the advertised websites when I was back on board Cesarina. What I found came as a massive surprise.
First of all, in order to hire a Red Light window, you have to be a registered sex worker. You can’t hire a room otherwise, and you can’t turn on a red light otherwise. So – I thought – I obviously need to register temporarily as a sex worker.
Dietmar, strangely enough, usually 100% supportive of my artistic endeavours, began to have what I can best describe as misgivings at this point. “Darling, really, you want to register as a sex worker? Are you crazy?”
It turns out that registering as a sex worker is not as easy as you might think. Thankfully, there is no practical exam like when you qualify as an electrician or a plumber, but you still need to register. I wasn’t sure that my parents would be all that impressed, but this would be in the name of art…
I found – to my surprise – a number of very helpful online resources about how to set yourself up as a sex worker. There are some friendly resources such as https://www.pg292.nl and even pages on the Dutch government website explaining exactly how to register as a sex worker, but nonetheless it is not as simple as just setting yourself up with a red light in a window, a g-string and a box of condoms… not that that was what I had in mind, but you get my gist…
First of all, I would need to register with the KvK (the Dutch Chamber of Commerce) – they recommend that you use the ‘Personal Services’ code as your profession because despite the apparently liberal attitude of the Netherlands, there is apparently still a lot of prejudice against prostitutes.
In order to operate legally as a sex worker, I would have to fill out an online registration form before registering with the KvK. I would need a private address and also a business address. As working as a sex worker from home is illegal in most towns in the Netherlands, I couldn’t give my studio address as my business address (even if Roos were fine with that, which I doubt!) and I didn’t think that a boat would count as a private address. I would also need a Citizen Service Number – a what? – and a trade name.
After I’d completed the form, I would be able to go online to schedule an appointment to complete the registration. I would need to attend the Chamber of Commerce, bringing with me my Dutch ID-Card (which I don’t have) and pay the 50 Euro registration fee. They would then pass on my details to the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration. Then I’d have to wait 2 weeks to get my VAT number through the post.
To protect my privacy, so that the whole world would not know that I had registered as a prostitute, I was advised to register a trade name – an alias – (this is where those Facebook memes helping you choose your porn star name from a combination of your favourite pet & some other random word to create your own moniker would finally come in handy: mine’s “Tinkerbell Candyknockers,” in case you’re wondering) and then go to the bank to get an account in this name. So people would be able to pay for my services by bank transfer. How extremely above board…
I was also advised that I would have to pay income tax and VAT on my turnover, keep careful business records and retain them for at least 7 years.
And all this, to paint a series of female nudes…
The Dutch have a thing for rules and regulations – way more than I ever knew or suspected.
Also –Red Light windows are significantly more expensive than I had expected, starting at around 150 Euros for a day rate, and over 200 for the night hours starting at 6pm. At 50 Euros for a fuck, that’s a lot of clients you’d have to service before you could pay the rent. As for painting – by the time I had paid for a sitter, I’d have to paint really fast in order to make any money whatsoever.
When I first started to research this, I really thought the whole thing would be an interesting and probably quite fun art project. By the end of it, I had disappeared down a whole rabbit hole of moral and ethical questions and legislation for which I was entirely unprepared.
It prompted me to reconsider so many things – my own relationship with sex and that of my friends and acquaintances; the ticklish issue of paying for sex; to what degree any relationship that is not of equal power is essentially a similar transaction. This was the just the tip of the iceberg of fundamental moral questions that I have been pondering since. It’s been… enlightening.
I also discovered that the Netherlands is significantly more regulated than you might think. Everyone thinks the Dutch are super laid back, super liberal, that everything is allowed here. It sort of is – but only within the tramlines. Marijuana, for example, contrary to popular belief, is in fact illegal. You may smoke in your own home and in the regulated Cafés, but not on the street or in public areas (the Dutch seem to ignore this in Amsterdam but you rarely smell weed outside of the city). You may not ride your bicycle either stoned or drunk, which is why late at night you see so many people wheeling their bicycles – something I didn’t understand at all to begin with. Speeding is heavily punishable by fines and/or by licence confiscation. I still have my licence, but I am several hundred Euros poorer from my first fortnight in the Netherlands. The speed cameras reinforce a zero tolerance policy and the fines are eye-watering, even if you were only 4km/h (2.5mph) over the limit. And so on…
My putative plans were completely and finally scuppered (honestly, probably just as well) by a much harsher lockdown and a curfew, with a ban on having more than one visitor at a time in your dwelling and with travel discouraged. And then we moved out of the city and got frozen in in the harbour in Medemblik in the north of the Netherlands, but that’s another story entirely. I couldn’t have completed the necessary paperwork to even start the project and the can of worms I was opening was pretty big, so it has landed on the pile of interesting but discarded ideas – for now, at least.
I still want to paint some naked bodies, but I haven’t started yet.
Instead, I have painted a small series of ‘Dutchscapes’ – sea and landscapes – in the meantime.
I’m going to launch the first series from our new life on the first day we are out of quarantine back here in Ramsgate – 5th May 2021. You can see what I’m up to over at www.emmahenkestudio.com
As for the naked women? One day. I’m sure Dietmar won’t mind… 😉
We’ll keep you posted.
Outshoorn, J. Policy Change in Prostitution in the Netherlands: from Legalization to Strict Control. Sex Res Soc Policy 9, 233–243 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-012-0088-z
Weitzer, R. (2012). Legalizing prostitution. From illicit vice to lawful business. New York: New York University Press. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ercUCgAAQBAJ&lpg=PP9&ots=Vq6PpVCOdd&lr&pg=PP9#v=onepage&q&f=false