Featured image: My Red Light shift manager Sunny regales travellers with stories on Gudowski’s Secrets of the Red Light District in-person tour (pre-COVID). The tour has been running virtually during the lockdown. / Photo provided by Alexandra Gudowski
What Two Sex Workers Taught Me About Sex, Love and Empowerment
NOTE: Some names have been changed to protect the identities and privacy of the parties involved.
Stories are the spice of my life. Collecting them from a flavourful mélange of humans the world over is my main motivation for travel. While nothing beats the sensory explosion of seeing, doing and experiencing for yourself, technology has gifted us grounded travellers with some rare opportunities for immersive, illuminating virtual experiences during the pandemic.
I’m not talking about a virtual tour through a museum – though that could be cool with the right guide. I’m talking about being whisked into a foreign world you knew existed but never had the opportunity to experience fully without active participation or feeling like a voyeur.
That’s exactly the kind of experience I was invited to participate in to celebrate the birthday of a former NYC colleague. Secrets of the Red Light District is an Airbnb Virtual Experience curated and hosted Alexandra Gudowski, founder of Who Is Amsterdam Tours.
Through her, I was gifted with an opportunity to virtually walk through the doors of My Red Light – the world’s first non-profit brothel in Amsterdam – and sit down for some open, honest dialogue with two fascinating women, Sunny and Rose.
Gudowski and Sunny share some laughs during our virtual tour / Photo provided by Alexandra Gudowski
Five lessons learned from two immersive hours in an Amsterdam brothel
1. These are strong, smart, savvy women who have made a career choice – they’re not victims
Sex work is a legal, regulated profession. However, the sex workers of the Red Light District are often perceived as weak, pitied, reviled and judged. Gudowski says most of that judgement comes from other women. Since My Red Light is run by former and current sex workers, the women who rent rooms at the brothel are treated as what they are – entrepreneurs – instead of productized or marginalized. They’re also equipped with tools to ensure business success, from banking advice to language lessons.
- Open minds open windows
- It’s not all about sex – it’s about unmet needs
- Relationships hinge on one BIG thing – communication
- Sex is an ongoing negotiation
A window onto a different world – entering a working room at My Red Light
Gudowski first discovered the Red Light District as a tourist when she moved to the city 14 years ago, unfazed by what she saw since she grew up in Hamburg, which has its own. Her relationship with one of Amsterdam’s oldest neighbourhoods changed when she founded Who Is Amsterdam. “I thought: How can I make it personal? How can I help people understand and see the women behind the curtain?” she says.
Growing up internationally and working in sales and marketing for global brands like Heineken gifted Gudowski with an expansive worldview, a penchant for storytelling, and a desire to create authentic travel experiences that connect travellers with locals in a meaningful way. She interviewed sex workers at the Prostitution Information Centre, developed relationships, and began building a platform where sex workers could share their stories and travellers could ask questions – creating open-minded conversations that lead to learning moments. Her work gave her an opportunity to develop friendships with a group of open-minded women who work in the Red Light District.
I’ve been to Amsterdam several times and have walked its Red Light District, set smack in the historic city centre, where the ban on brothels has been lifted since 2000. I’ve felt the tension of an inner struggle between intellectual interest in these undeniably attractive and sensual women enticing clients from windows, and not wanting to stare.
So, the prospect of a two-way dialogue with women who’ve worked the windows and brothels of the Red Light District and beyond – and were willing to share their personal experiences with us – was intriguing, to say the least. My journalist’s nose for a good story was twitching from the moment I received the invite.
My afternoon with Sunny and Rose was an eye-opener for me. I consider myself an open-minded, free-spirited woman with an expansive worldview. I’ve never looked down my nose at one of the world’s oldest professions, but I’ll admit to holding preconceived notions of sex workers as victims.
Before we begin our chat, Gudowski regales us with the history of the Red Light District, and some salient points about My Red Light. The brothel is predominantly managed by former or current sex workers. Before an enterprising sex worker can rent one of its 14 rooms, they are vetted by management. If the interviewer suspects that the applicant is being trafficked, pimped or otherwise exploited – and as current and former sex workers, management has a keen eye and ear for telltale signs – authorities are called in.
The camera pans back to reveal a wider shot of the room where Gudowski sits with Rose and Sunny around a stripper’s pole. Brightly painted walls in jewel tones bring to mind some burlesque clubs I’ve frequented – the effect is sexy with a touch of class.
Sunny is a make-up artist who has worked in management in retail and restaurants. When she began her transition – the process of changing one’s gender presentation and/or sex characteristics to align with their internal sense of gender identity – finding work proved challenging, so she decided to do sex work. For 10 years, she was a high-class escort who ran her own business internationally – from Paris to Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. She tried the window brothels in Amsterdam for six months but decided it wasn’t her thing. She started working at My Red Light two years ago as a shift-manager, and slowly stepped down from sex work, shifting fully to management only last year.
Rose is a window worker and passionate activist for the cause of smashing the stigma that surrounds sex work. She is frank and challenges our group to shake off our conditioning and get curious.
As they reveal their world to us in refreshingly unreserved, witty anecdotes, I am struck with a single thought that lingers long after the session ends: These are women I’d like to sit down and have a drink with.
Intrigued? You can take a virtual tour of Amsterdam’s famed Red Light District through Who Is Amsterdam – or wait until you can experience it live and in person.
If You GoGudowski’s top tips for a positive Red Light District experience:
- Prepare yourself: “If you are from a reserved culture or country, mentally check in with yourself, because you’re literally in the middle of the Red Light District once you step out of Amsterdam Central Station.
- Educate yourself: “We have a Prostitution Information Centre where you can get accurate information about sex work in Amsterdam, and you are totally welcome to join us on a Who Is Amsterdam Tour, of course! Educate yourself first, and then go discover it with new eyes. Even see a sex show!
- Be curious: “It does something to these women when they experience a negative reaction from people. Be kind and treat them with respect. A smile goes a long way. Keep an open mind.”
- Follow the rules: “Do not take photos of the women behind the windows. It is disrespectful to the sex workers who are simply doing their job. Also, no drinking on the street!”
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