Jane Fallon Griffin | Contributing Writer
The sex trade in Amsterdam is now widely considered a necessary evil, and it continues to flourish financially
“Plausible deniability” was our tour guide’s response when questioned about the theoretically illegal yet practically legal smoking of marijuana in the Netherlands. For those ignorant of the meaning of such a phrase, as I was until recently, the term was coined during the Kennedy administration in the U.S. It allowed questionable yet ultimately beneficial operations to take place without public reprisals harming the image of senior figures who “officially” knew nothing of it. In the case of the Netherlands this policy of tolerance is extremely useful not least for the inhabitants but also for the many tourists who travel to its capital annually to experience the liberal drug and sex culture for which the city is renowned. The sex trade in Amsterdam is now widely considered a necessary evil, and it continues to flourish financially. It is estimated that there are between twenty and twenty-
five thousand working prostitutes in the Netherlands with forty per cent of this number active in the city of Amsterdam. Coffee shops, retail outlets, sex shops and brothels all exist side by side. In Amsterdam at least, sex really does sell. And it is a seriously profitable business.
A flicker of movement draws the eye back to the window where the figure is located, the beckoning gestures and intense eye contact confirming that it is more than clothes that this model is selling
The largest Red light district in Amsterdam is De Wallen, which features more than three hundred full-length glass windows occupied by prostitutes. The rooms behind the curtained windows are frequented by an average of twenty thousand people a year, half of whom are tourists. The average client is aged between twenty-five and forty-five. Here, business hours are not confined to the dark of night and many prostitutes fill the window-lined alleys during the day. Walking along the alleys in daylight the area could be perceived almost as a retail centre. After passing numerous outlets with vibrant window displays selling everything from bongs to souvenir t-shirts to Dutch pastries, the sight of a female figure in a following window is, at first glance, a mannequin in a lingerie store. A flicker of movement draws the eye back to the window where the figure is located, the beckoning gestures and intense eye contact confirming that it is more than clothes that this model is selling. The image itself seems poignant, it is a business and like all business advertising is a feature of the market.
The decision to legalise prostitution in the Netherlands in October 2000 stemmed not from governmental approval of the industry, but rather as a result of concern for the welfare of the workers
As darkness descends on the city it becomes impossible to mistake the district for anything apart from what it is. The glare of the red lights spills out from the alleys and there is a notable increase in window occupants and people traffic. The decision to legalise prostitution in the Netherlands in October 2000 stemmed not from governmental approval of the industry, but rather as a result of concern for the welfare of the workers. Since the law was introduced brothels are subject to health and safety inspections. Police both uniformed and casually dressed patrol the district at all times and each room housing a prostitute is fitted with a panic button. One Dutch citizen explained how he supported the move, insisting that while prostitution may be illegal in other cities it happens universally, and that when it is unregulated and illegal its activities cut a far more sinister image than that of the Dutch sex trade.
Furthermore the legality of the industry allows the government to enforce laws over the trade as it would over any other business. Working hours, taxing and safe sex are all now subject to inspection
Furthermore the legality of the industry allows the government to enforce laws over the trade as it would over any other business. Working hours, taxing and safe sex are all now subject to inspection. Sex workers are required to register their profession with local government in order to ensure they pay taxes. Prostitutes rent the windows in the district for eight hour shifts, costing them between €85 and €150, while their own prices start at €50. Two or three clients per day insure they break even, yet the pressure to obtain a profit sees the number rise far higher than this. Competition is also high for windows meaning that in order to maintain their position workers rent the room six or seven days per week. Prostitution both as a service and form of employment has firm foundations in the region with the neighbouring port having played host to countless shiploads of sailors for hundreds of years.
This has led to the emergence of escort services which cater for those who are more reluctant to visit the red light district and have a more robust bank balance at their disposal
As Amsterdam’s liberal attitude towards the sex industry continued, its reputation spread across the world attracting people of different social classes, employment fields and sexual persuasions. This has led to the emergence of escort services which cater for those who are more reluctant to visit the red light district and have a more robust bank balance at their disposal. These escort services range in price and advertise the services they offer online. The average cost of a regular escort is €150 and the company offers descriptions of each escort accompanied by a range of professional style photos from which the client can make a booking. The appeal for many of those who use this service is that the escort is not confined to an area and can come to meet the client. Furthermore, there are a variety of different forms of experiences on offer many of which may not be advertised in the red light district.
She spoke of the difference between having a coffee at home, ordering one in a café and going for coffee in a high class hotel
As the Netherlands is one of the few places to offer a legal sex trade, competition between companies is rife. As the cheapest option the red light district attracts many, as do the escort services for a client seeking a more discreet booking. Within the upper end of the escort market, where price tags of well over €1500 are common, there is always a need to distinguish one’s company from the next. One such company with headquarters in both Amsterdam and Rotterdam is that of Society Service. Marike van der Velden is both founder and owner of this high class escort agency. A graduate in business and entrepreneurial law, Van der Velden started the company ten years ago. According to the owner, the difference between the services offered by each level of the three tier industry is easily explained. Using the analogy of a coffee bean, Van der Velden explained to me why the price varied. She spoke of the difference between having a coffee at home, ordering one in a café and going for coffee in a high class hotel. She describes the red light district as being purely for satisfying a need as in the case of making a coffee at home using shop bought beans. The client gets what they are looking for and it is at a minimal price. In terms of an escort service, Van der Velden explains that it is similar to using a service such as a café to purchase a coffee, it will be more expensive but the client can order from a menu and the service will be provided for them. In terms of the high class escort agency she runs, Van der Velden explains that her company offers an experience rather than a service as in the case of the other options.
“There’s more to it than sex”
“There’s more to it than sex” she adds. By ordering a coffee in a fancy hotel she explains how you pay not only for the coffee but also for the pretty cup, the accompanying sweets, the waiter who serves you and the plush surroundings of the hotel. The profiles of escorts available for hire on SocietyService.com not only have model-esque photos , but also personal information on the escort, much of which relates to her education and interests. The interested client can select a variety of characteristics they find desirable in a drop down menu which includes the age, build and ethnicity of the escort. The system then presents them with those who most closely resemble their preferences.
Although Society Service lost their legal battle in trying to sue them, they maintain that theirs is “the only original virgin service in Amsterdam.”
The market is a competitive one, as Society Service discovered when they launched a new service which had not before been a feature of any escort service worldwide. Following the introduction of the Virgin Experience, another agency began to offer a similar same service using the same name due to its success. Although Society Service lost their legal battle in trying to sue them, they maintain that theirs is “the only original virgin service in Amsterdam.” Van der Velden explains that after a year and a half of operating Society Service, stories began to emerge of clients who were virgins, and for whom intimacy was a big ordeal. The majority of clients are aged between twenty-five and thirty, although sometimes this age range can rise to forty. As a result of this, a service catering solely for males over the age of twenty-one was created. While also offering male escorts for other services, the Virgin Experience is not open to female virgins as the company’s owner says a female is looking for “a certain feeling” which is very hard to capture. The Virgin Experience is designed to make clients (many of whom, according to Van der Velden, are very nervous and have had minimal sexual interaction) feel relaxed.
The employees who provide this service are guided by a sexologist, sociologist and a flirt coach
The girls capable of providing this service must be very socially skilled, she continues, with special training being offered to ensure the experience runs as smoothly as possible. The employees who provide this service are guided by a sexologist, sociologist and a flirt coach. The virgin experience lasts three hours and while time may be added the duration cannot be decreased as the company feels this is not conducive to a relaxing and productive experience. While there is a massive difference in price between this service and the red light district (three hours starts at €950), Van der Velden says that it is the experience you pay for and if you simply want to lose the term “virgin” that can be done in two minutes in the red light district. The three hour minimum is designed to encourage a positive first time experience for the man involved. The experience also involves educating the man in intercourse in order to make future sexual experiences less daunting. “A woman needs more than just sex and that is what they are taught in the Virgin Experience,” she explains. Van der Velden also claims that Society Service often receive letters from clients who have become engaged, and recognise the company as the source of confidence which has led to their forthcoming marriage.
Although few Irish students would relish the opportunity to work for a high class escort agency, in Amsterdam this is fast becoming a popular means of student employment
Although here in Ireland the sex industry is largely thought of as corrupt and often tangled up in drugs, in Amsterdam this is not the case. Although few Irish students would relish the opportunity to work for a high class escort agency, in Amsterdam this is fast becoming a popular means of student employment. Society Service receives its greatest amount of job applications during the Summer months when the colleges close and at the beginning of each school year. Why? Well given that it is legal and that high class escorts can expect to make around €200 per hour it offers the student a lot of money for a few hours’ work. To ensure that its escorts maintain a level of enthusiasm for and continue to enjoy their work employees must have another occupation and no more than two bookings per week are permitted. Although most escorts will work for around two years while a student or until they enter into a serious relationship, there are cases where a couple agrees that escorting will solely be a profession and not interfere with their own relationship. The agency receives around one hundred applications per week from which very few are actually hired. The criteria for employment spans the physical, intellectual and social sphere, with girls expected to fulfil the “dream girl” idea of being attractive, intellectual (Society Service prefers applicants with degrees, but it is not essential) and the ability to blend into any social event a high class client may attend. The job description involves providing an ideal date-like experience for the client including dinner, conversation, companionship and ultimately sex.
Provided that the payment takes place in the Netherlands the activity is legal
Society Service also offers an international service whereby an escort is flown to the location of the client to offer the Virgin Experience. Provided that the payment takes place in the Netherlands the activity is legal. According to Van der Velden this sees the girl “not sell[ing] sex… but only her time.”
they assume that “because you run that type of company you must be that sort of person.”
However, although this and all other services offered by the company are legal, perhaps the people of Amsterdam are not quite as liberal as their city’s reputation suggests. The owner explains that the stigma surrounding the sex trade in Amsterdam is still very much alive, so much so that opening a normal bank account is next to impossible with even basic services such as those offered by telephone companies often hard to obtain. Van der Velden was not surprised to be randomly searched at the airport security checkpoint, nor was she surprised when her bags were searched the previous day at the airport. She explains the pre-conceived ideas some officials have of the industry as being suspect or criminal, saying they assume that “because you run that type of company you must be that sort of person.”
It is undeniable that sex sells
Whatever one’s moral stance or otherwise on the issue Society Service, like the rest of the sex industry in the Netherlands, continues to attract new and repeat clients with plenty of scope for new initiatives such as The Virgin Service. It is undeniable that sex sells, and will continue to be a marketable commodity so long as it maintains its profitable position as one of Amsterdam’s top attractions.