Sex!

Travel writers used to make a big deal about the Amsterdammers’ healthy, relaxed attitude toward sexuality. It was said that Europeans in general, and Amsterdammers in particular, saw sex as 'a perfectly normal part of life' — as if normal were something extraordinary.

The more time I spent here, the less I knew what those writers were talking about. The population here never struck me as especially permissive. They were just like people everywhere else I'd been. Some well-adjusted, some neurotic, some kinky, some prudish and some batshit crazy.

I guess words like relaxed and healthy are comparitives. Relaxed versus uptight, healthy versus sick. If you’re ranking Amsterdam alongside some conservative Christian heartland, or a strict Islamic republic, then yeah, Amsterdam will look downright libertine. At least superficially it will.

(A friend from the US tells me: "In most studies, the Dutch report a significantly higher rate of sexual satisfaction and a significantly lower rate of shame regarding sexuality and sexual experience. [...] The so-called 'American' approach is quite different, attempting to use cultural shame to delay virginity loss and rarely acknowledging pleasure associated with sex.")

It's possible, too, that having a functional red light district, with sex shops and condoned prostitution, gave the appearance of sexual liberation. But those things are superficial. They speak more to a relaxed attitude about business, than about sexuality itself.

Maybe I just can't see it. I know a lot of people here, and they seem all kinda 'normal' to me. By which I mean: the cross-section of personas includes a lot of worried people, some happy ones, some sad and broken, some traumatized from youth — just as I'm convinced you will find anywhere else on the planet.

Maybe being gay or bisexual here is more 'acceptable' than in some other places. But then, is it really acceptable that anyone anywhere persecutes gay people? No. Amsterdam does officially endorse gay rights, and we even have a couple of streets where the businesses are predominantly gay-owned. There's nothing unusual about that.

Also, I can say that since I've lived here, I do have more friends who are unabashed about their involvment in the S&M scene, than I did when I was living in America. Apart from their kinks, there is nothing out of the ordinary about them. Pride, love, insecurity, fear, joy, jealousy, hunger. Everybody's got it all.

We do, however, contend with that pesky fashion-trend of social conservatism. The enemy at the gates, so to speak. Me, I'm convinced the 'cleanup' campaign is directly related to gentrification. The compulsion to constantly drive up property values is a disease in the guts of many cities, and unfortunately Amsterdam is not immune.

In their ongoing effort to sanitize Amsterdam's public image, Gemeente Amsterdam is spending taxpayers' money to buy up buildings where prostitution windows are located, and convert them to other approved uses. Like showrooms for chic designers. (Right, that's what the people want.) They seek to constrain, contain and essentially 'ghettoize' the red light district, not just to keep it under control, but to smother it.

The latest news in their short-sightedness is the proposal to make window-prostitutes quit work at four in the morning, instead of carrying on until daylight. If that goes through, those women will not just lose revenue, they'll literally be on the street trying to get home, carrying cash with them, at a most vulnerable hour, when the trams and buses aren't even running yet.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against close supervision of the prostitution business. On the contrary. I just wish the authorities would spend less energy trying to put the sex workers out of business, and more energy aggressively eradicating forced prostitution — which is a real problem, if not a prevalent one. People can debate whether human trafficking (mensenhandel) is widespread here or not, but it does exist, and even a little of it is intolerable. I want the Gemeente to confront that problem head-on, instead of dancing around it, or attacking problems next to the problem.