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To look toward the girls without pity
1 Jun 2010
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Sex workers are so different from each other, it’s almost impossible to give them a couple of common views. It depends on where they come from, why they decided to start working in the sex industry, what happened to them before or in the meantime. That gives them so many different ideas about things. I think, in general, it can be positive. It can be negative.”

Mariska Majoor. Started the Prostitution Information Center (PIC) in 1994. She teaches self-defense for window and street prostitutes as well as trains other organizations to offer similar workshops in other cities and countries. Publishes the Pleasure Guide.[1] Interviewed June 2010.  

To look toward the girls without pity

When I was working as a sex worker myself, I didn’t understand all these people coming to the red light district, staring at the girls like they see special type of monkey in the zoo. I used to hate the groups of tourists in front of my window. Later, I started to realize that because people don’t know anything about it, they create such stigma. Because of that stigma, it’s hard for sex workers to feel good about themselves. If you do this type of work, you always feel a bit embarrassed.

I thought, well, you have to start at the beginning and explain to people more about sex work, so they look toward the girls with different eyes, instead of eyes on things or mistakes. That’s all.

It’s not that they should suddenly find sex work great. That’s not my purpose. I don’t want to make it sound as the most fantastic profession you can have, but I want them to look toward the girls without pity in their eyes. Not look down on them and make her into a victim but give her or him the opportunity to feel good about herself and show respect. To give her the opportunity to stand tall instead of hanging her head ashamed.

I can be really pissed by people that are always judging. They always have an opinion about things they don’t know anything about. People are way too quick with their opinion. Towards sex work, they are negative, but they are only negative because they don’t see it as something that is right for themselves. Because it’s not right for yourself, it’s not supposed to be right for another person. I think that’s very arrogant. It’s arrogant because you think that people must feel the same way you do about things.

At the same time as I’m talking about sex work as work, I always tell people to skip the word ‘normal’ because it isn’t normal. It’s a profession. You have to respect people. At the same time, I do realize that it has everything to do with sex, with emotions, with difficult social issues, with poor women. I don’t think sex work itself is something positive, but it’s a way of making money for so many people in the world, and they deserve respect for that.

Even if you do this, you will always fight a little bit against yourself, against your own system. Your own opinion can never be strong enough to get rid of the rest in the stigma. You will always feel a little bit ashamed. There’s always something deep down inside you that makes you feel sometimes insecure about the things you do.

That was the case for me but just a little. I made really, really good money. I had a lot of fun with my colleagues. That’s something you hear a lot from sex workers if you ask them, like, “What’s a nice thing about your work?” colleagues is always in the top three, besides money.

I think, especially in the window prostitution, you learn so much about people. If you are willing to analyze yourself and then your life a little bit, I think that you really learn things. You really learn how to work with yourself, how to recognize certain behaviors, how to respond to that, and I’m still using these skills in my daily contact with people. I think it’s interesting.

For me, for example, I see every man for the rest of my life as a potential customer. Not necessarily in a negative way. If you work in the window for a long time, you learn to do quick judging, like you have only a few seconds to see a guy, to get an opinion about him. Is he ok as a customer? Am I willing to work with him? Is he friendly? Is he respectful? Or is he an asshole? That becomes part of your system. Even after work, a long, long time after it, you still look at people that way.

You get a different view on people as a sex worker. The difference between a sex worker and any other woman, I think sex workers are less naive in many ways. You become a little bit harder. If you have a lot of violent experiences, you become harder in a negative way.

Sex workers are also so different from each other, it’s almost impossible to give them a couple of common views. It depends on where they come from, why they decided to start working in the sex industry, what happened to them before or in the meantime. That gives them so many different ideas about things. I think, in general, it can be positive. It can be negative. 

How I started the Prostitution Information Center, I just thought, “I want a little shop in the middle of the Red Light District where people can stop in without any stupid appointments.” I did it because I thought it was important to offer all kinds of people an opportunity to simply go somewhere to ask about sex work.

I also do lectures for about a hundred people a week, and it’s really interesting. You see people coming in with eyes wide, you know, like they’re in culture shock. They don’t know what to think. They’re curious, but people feel really insecure and they have a lot of mixed feelings about sex work, usually quite negative. The only thing they know is what they read in newspapers or what they see in movies or in their fantasies, which is all quite negative.

For example, the rest of the world is looking at sex work as trafficking. I forget many times, I say “sex work,” they think, “trafficking.” For them, it’s impossible that somebody is choosing to do this, so then I have to make a few steps back and explain to them that sex work and trafficking are two completely different things. Trafficking human beings is world problem number one these days. It’s happening all around the world, it’s also happening in the sex industry, so yes it’s also happening in Amsterdam in the Red Light District. It’s like a shadow side of sex work, but it’s not the same as sex work.

Sex work is only sex work, and it’s only right if it’s done by somebody that is choosing to do this. Sometimes they choose to do this because they like it, sometimes because they want to solve a financial problem, or they want to feed the family. If you talk about trafficking, you talk about people that are really forced into this by a person, not by circumstances, by a person.

But you only need to hear one story of somebody that was forced into this and people will never forget about that. These stories make a huge impression and these stories make you feel really insecure about this subject. So, many people, it’s impossible for them to differentiate sex work and trafficked women. They will never ever be able to see sex work as something that people can choose to do because it was something horrible for someone else.

All these people in my lectures, they come in a bit shaky and a bit nervous. These are people who usually feel very secure when they are walking on the street but then you place them in a so-called “weak” position as a window prostitute in sexy lingerie, they change completely. They feel really insecure. Then, after the lecture, they can ask all their questions, even personal questions. I don’t mind. They can ask me anything. A big part of the group goes out with different ideas. They start to understand what it’s like do this.

It’s my world for a big part. I know a lot about it. I feel very confident in the environment and in the subject and I know that people like it. Especially in the groups that I do in the evenings, there are always people that come to me after, “It’s good that you do this.” People are grateful, especially if you really help them. That gives you energy. I like to see happy people. I think as long as I still see happy faces and people give a confirmation that I’m still doing the right thing, it’s still useful. That gives me energy. But part time. I don’t want to be here every day because at the end of every day here, I am really, really tired, really empty. But I like the energy in this place, and I like to talk about this subject. 

My biggest project was the statue of Belle. The original Belle is located outside in the Red Light District on the other side of the church. It’s a monument for sex workers. You have to go to her and read the statement on the plaque, which is, “Respect sex workers all over the world.”

It’s something for me that comes from the heart, and it’s the most important thing I ever did in all my projects. This is the way I explain to people you should look toward a sex worker. Not with pity in your eyes. To not look down on them and make her into a victim but give her or him the opportunity to feel good about herself. You show respect if you give her the opportunity to stand tall instead of hanging her head ashamed. That’s the message people get if they come here.

The Prostitution Information Center was just an idea, an impulsive thing, but based on a very important inner feeling. I really wanted to inform people more about sex work, to take away the stigma. It was probably something personal for me as well… I had to deal with my own past as a sex worker. It wasn’t really a conscious thing. Years later, I started to analyze it. Then I thought, maybe it was a personal thing as well.

I just like to create things. I like to write, and I like to do things that are a bit unusual. So the center is not a big thing but it’s unique and it’s nice.

In the beginning, well, the organization grew. I started to do a lot of projects, started a lot of writing and publishing magazines. PIC became a member of all kinds of working groups. It was open every day for the public, which was great, but it was really difficult to finance. It became too big. So I stepped out. Now, it’s small again, which I really like.

Still, this center is not supported by anyone. I have to run it as my own little business, which is really hard. I skipped all the staff and do it on my own. That’s why the shop is only open on Saturdays. During the week, I work on appointments and in the evenings, I have groups for lectures and tours.

In the meantime, I publish a magazine, the Red Lantern, and I have another shop around the corner. It’s a little shop with only red-colored articles. It’s like a Christmas tree, only red mirrors, red kitchen things, red toys, red pillows, red clothes and dresses. I opened it two years ago because I really needed a break. When I stepped out of all the talking groups and shit, I opened up this other shop, and now I’m getting my energy back.

For me, it takes a lot of energy because it’s so personal and people ask a lot. I’m always very willing to give the information they need, but because it’s all very personal for me, it takes a lot of energy. 

Sometimes people think I am hypocrite because I have a daughter myself and people always ask me, “How would you feel about your daughter being a prostitute?” Then I start with saying, “I have too much respect for my daughter to talk about her this way,” not regarding sex work but regarding her life and these very personal things. She can do with her life whatever she wants to as long as she’s happy. I will always support her but to be honest, no. I don’t hope that she will start to work as a sex worker because that’s a way too difficult and heavy job. For your child, you want to protect her from difficult things, like sex work. Not only because of the work but mostly because of the way people will treat her.

For example, what I really hate is that sometimes customers think because they pay, they are in charge. Too many sex workers give away all the power. They think the customer is more important than their own opinion. What happens too many times is because of the money, because they want to keep the peace, they don’t want to have any confrontations or fights, they do more things than they were willing to give. I know that from my own experience as well.

Too many wives do that in their relationships as well. They don’t want to have any confrontations, they don’t want to have any fights, and they want to go to sleep so give him his five minutes. Then you’re at peace with each other.

In sex work it’s the same. You don’t want to have a fight with a customer, he wants to take you from behind, you’d rather not do that because you have some pain in your belly already—because you had a busy day or you have your period or you just have some pain in your belly—but you know that he comes quicker when he takes you from behind. That position makes them really hot. So, because of that, you say, “Yes.”

Then, after that, maybe you have regrets because now you have even more pain in your belly or you gave away something personal, something from yourself. It’s hard to say. I think emotionally, it’s dangerous to let somebody else make decisions about your body. It’s not a big thing, but if it happens too many times a night, it becomes a big thing. If people constantly cross your boundaries, small ones, big ones, whatever, in the end, it does start to hurt you.

The funny thing is that we Dutch sex workers think we are in control all the time and that we are so well prepared for things but I think not enough.

I spoke to somebody a couple of weeks ago and she returned a couple of days before from Vietnam. She did workshops with Vietnamese prostitutes over there, and she explained to me how things were over there. That was unbelievable. Group rape among prostitutes is a common thing. Customers can choose to have sex with or without a condom. It’s not an option for sex workers to choose. They don’t get any extra money if the customers choose to have sex without a condom. Of course the payment is really low. So, the customer is in charge all the way.

That’s not the case here, but I wish that here sex workers looked on the details, the small things that look really small, with no meaning. In the end, all these almost invisible borders, if you cross them too many times, they seem to be more important than you thought they were. These small details, these small boundaries are really, really important.

If a customer demands me to turn around because he wants to get his orgasm that way, I know that if I say, “No,” he will be angry or he will be disappointed. Then, it will take him a longer time to get an orgasm, so I say, “Yes.” It’s a very small thing. It’s maybe meaningless for a lot of people. But I know what happens if that happens a couple of times a night— and it does happen a couple of times a night.

I find really important teaching my daughter and to young girls that you always have the right to say, “No” to anyone. Specifically for sex workers, you always have the right to say “No” -- to a customer, to a boss, to a landlord, or to a partner. Nobody is in charge of your body. Respect is a very important word and without respect for yourself, you are nowhere. You have to take care of yourself. You have to be really clear about your boundaries, to be strong and firm with both feet on the ground. You must help each other. You must trust your intuition. Well, all this shit. But I think that especially the intuition part is really important.

If I think back on my relationships outside of work, I can still remember from almost every one of them the first feeling I had with the person. With all the relationships that had a bad ending, I knew from the first day that it would end that way. It’s not only that way with partners, with relationships, but also with customers, with friends, with people you meet in a bar, with people you sense in a shop. The intuition with people is really strong, but we have to trust it more and learn to listen to it more because I think if you do that, you cannot make so many mistakes with people.

For sex workers it’s really important to trust their intuition because it can make the difference between life and well, maybe, even death. You know, in some countries, violence against sex workers is really, really extreme. It’s really important to listen and trust on your intuition.

I think it’s really important for young girls as well. They have to take good care of themselves. They have to find themselves important. They should never let anyone touch them without their permission, not even with one finger. Some people think that because I am pro-sex work, which is not the case, not in that way… but I really feel strong about this: It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, sex work or not, nobody has the right to touch you without your permission, for free or for money. There’s also rape in relationships. I think that’s worse than problems with a customer that is not paying enough money.

I think these things are important and if somebody chooses to be a sex worker or not, it’s no issue. It’s important how you feel about yourself and how you deal with these issues that makes you happy or not.

And, you know, people make impressions on you, small ones, big ones. Some become negative but not all are negative. Some become a role model in a way. Role model is a very big word but it can be like a very small detail that impresses you and stays with you. I don’t just have one role model but a little of my mother, a little of my grandmothers, and a little of every woman I meet in life. You pick one thing or one little sentence, the way some people look or the way people are dressed, do their hair, the words they use, the things they say, or the impression they make. It can be like a very small detail that impresses you. People stay with you.

[1]According to the Pleasure Guide, there are 25,000 sex workers in the Netherlands and under Dutch law they can refuse any client they don’t want and any sexual act. They pay taxes on their services, pay rent on windows if they are window prostitutes, and consider themselves independent businesswomen. The Pleasure Guide includes an informative section that reminds clients to be polite and respectful, come with their body fresh, and do not drink too much beforehand. It states that prostitutes hate drunk or even tipsy clients; it emphasizes the importance of making clear agreements with the prostitute ahead of time; and it articulates that she won’t do everything. The guide reminds clients that meeting a prostitute is not love, so they should stay professional, relax, and never demand their money back even if they are disappointed. There is always a limit on what prostitutes will and won’t do, respect, and don’t push, says the Pleasure Guide. Go somewhere else if she won’t do what you want and “don’t be under any illusions; she is just doing her job.” The client must be at least 16 to go to a prostitute; she must be over 18.

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