Russian roulette in the Red Light District

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Patricia Perquin worked as a prostitute in Amsterdam for over four years. She had huge debts as a result of her shopping addiction. A friend suggested she should go into prostitution to pay them off. Never, she thought. Three weeks later, she was selling her body in one of the Dutch capital’s Red Light District windows. Ms Perquin has written a book about her experiences. “There is no handbook for this life.”

At the time, Ms Perquin was panicking as personal bankruptcy was looming and she wanted to resolve the situation herself. “People often told me during those four and a half years ‘you have to switch off’. Leave your emotions behind, but I could never do that. Yet I did switch off so I could take the decision. I only realised that afterwards. Funny, I was able to do it after all, though I'm not the type of woman who goes to bed with men easily.”

High price
Although she does not regret her decision, the price was much higher than she could have imagined. Patricia Perquin led a double life; very few people know that she used to do this work. Not even her own family.

She also underestimated the risks of working as a prostitute. “If you let down your guard for a minute or even a second, you could pay with your life in the Red Light District,” she says. Once she was almost strangled by one of her regular clients. Who is prepared to take that kind of risk?

“No-one wants to play Russian roulette, watching your back and looking round just in time to make sure no-one is about to strangle you. No-one wants to undergo the humiliation I have experienced. And I probably got off lightly, if I compare my experiences with other prostitutes.”

“You cannot imagine what it's like to be a prostitute. You can't look it up. There is no handbook,” she continues. What annoys her is that so little attention is paid to what really goes on behind the facades of the Red Light District. She thinks society just has a romantic notion of the Dutch capital’s popular tourist attraction and hopes her book Behind the windows of the Red Light District will give people a more realistic picture. Ms Perquin is convinced at least 80 percent of the girls and women are forced into the sex industry.

Relationship of trust
What really makes her mad is the “millions of euros in government money” spent on helping women leave the industry. But in the end, the organisations that take the money are not even able to provide affordable accommodation, a job or benefits and psychiatric help.

Even police officers who are supposed to make sure the women are working legally and have not been coerced into prostitution get it wrong. “As a woman, you see the police drinking coffee with your landlord one minute and with you the next minute. Then you see them helping out with tours of the area organised by commercial companies. How are you supposed to build up a relationship of trust. Whose side are they on?"

“A lot of misery could be avoided if the authorities, welfare organisations and police tackled the root of the problem,” says Ms Perquin.

“Imagine you are an 18-year-old Hungarian girl. You end up in the Red Light District and don’t even know which country you are in. Your lips are pumped full of Botox, your hair is dyed blond and you are wearing a skimpy bikini. You have to allow dirty sweaty men to have their way with you for 16 to 18 hours a day. A girl like that speaks no English.

But somehow she has managed to register with the Chamber of Commerce, to obtain a stamp from the Immigration and Naturatlisation Service in her passport, to sort out a tenancy agreement, to open a bank account and even to find herself a room in the Red Light District. How is that possible? You tell me...”

Breaking the wall of silence
Ms Perquin believes the underlying problem is that the organisations fail to work together and are more worried about their own budget than helping the women. She advocates a central coordinator to deal with all matters concerning prostitution. That way forced prostitution and human trafficking can be exposed more quickly.

In addition, there should be a drop-in centre for the women, where they can have a cup of coffee, buy condoms, and get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. But it should also be a place where they can get real help if they ask for it. That way, in Ms Perquin’s words, “the wall of involuntary silence among prostitutes, built on fear and distrust, can be brought down.”