Red Lights and reluctance

13th August 2003, Comments 0 comments

Sex sells, so recent news that local Diva of the Divan, Mariska Majoor, had published the first magazine on prostitution aimed at the general public should have had punters flocking to their local newsagents. Right?

Majoor is well known as the former prostitute who founded the Prostitutes Information Centre (PIC) deep in the heart of Amsterdam's red-light district. The PIC provides information to prostitutes, the press and the public, and hosts visits from foreign social workers and police. It also has books and leaflets on prostitution and an impressive array of souvenirs, including "red-light" fridge magnets.

Her latest effort to bridge the gap in understanding between sex workers and society at large is De Rode Lantaarn (The Red Lantern).

De Rode Lantaarn magazine is published quarterly. It is in Dutch, black and white, 34 pages and, unfortunately, extremely amateurish. The colour cover on the first edition shows an older lady of the evening who looks more frightening than enticing, even granting the adage of "different strokes for different folks".

When writing about the issues relating to sex workers, it is very difficult not to fall into obvious old clichés (like the one above). Majoor has at least managed to avoid this mistake. Crucially, there are other publishing pitfalls she has not been able to negotiate so successfully, which is a pity.

It is with good intentions that Majoor has attempted to bring about more understanding among the general public of prostitution. The classic double-standard still exists, even in the "enlightened Netherlands", where the (almost strictly male) public avails of the trade, but generally regards sex workers with disdain.

Unfortunately, when creating a product for the general public, good intentions are not enough.

The design and layout are reminiscent of student publications without that spark of rebellious creativity required to draw you in. It looks old and tired even before you start reading. She shoots herself in the foot by beginning with an introduction that pretty much says, "well, nothing in this business really changes." So why should we pay EUR 3.15 to read about the same old topics?

What does she actually cover in this publication subtitled "news, opinion and background over prostitution"?

Well, the magazine examines the current problems concerning tippelzones (public areas where street-walking is allowed) and the way various communities are dealing with prostitution issues. We can expect more of these in future issues, we are told.

There is also a question-and-answer section, a debate between two well-known Dutch feminists on women and prostitution, a discussion on the proposed changes to the new raft of legislation on brothels, information on sexually transmitted diseases and a profile of a male sex worker. Oh yes, and how to find a good place to conduct business.

These are all admirable topics and, to be fair, of extreme importance to the quality of working life for sex workers and others in the industry. But is it enough on its own to sell it to the public? No seems to be the short answer.

The heart of the problem with the magazine itself is that potentially interesting subjects are written in such a way as to make them flat — as black and white as the publication. Perhaps it is simply an effort to deal with these subjects in an objective way, but it's not an easy or fun read. Even a vingette on the makings of an SM room has been written with such a lack of expression you can't help feeling, "So what?".

The other problem is far more fundamental and may, in the end, prove fatal to the publication. Is the general public interested in more information about sex workers beyond the odd newspaper article? A totally unscientific straw poll of a variety of folks pretty much said the same thing: "Not really".

And, if the response of four inner-city newsagents is anything to go by, the general public won't even be given the opportunity to flick through De Rode Lantaarn out of curiosity. The magazine was not visible at Central Station, nor any of the newsagents checked. A verbal request for the magazine elicited the same response: "We sent it back". Why did they send it back? "Because it's for prostitutes," they all exclaimed, looking first as if they had eaten something disagreeable, then eying me curiously.

The newsagents apparently all shared the opinion that a magazine for prostitutes was not for "their clientele".

A copy was eventually found at Schiphol Airport, although not on display. Incredibly, with all of the various sex mags openly on offer, De Rode Lantaarn was kept behind the counter. If you do request one, don't be surprised if the clerk shouts across the shop: "See, someone did want one!".

When asked why they kept it behind the counter, the response was that it didn't seem to fit with the shop's stable of pornographic literature. They are right, it doesn't. De Rode Lantaarn has done the almost impossible and made sex very unsexy.

2 July 2003

Subject: Prostitution in the Netherlands

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