Taking to the streets to find out more about sex work. Image by Meg Ten Eyck.
I’ve spent most of my summer on tour with Gay Star News for the #MyGayPride campaign. Pride is one-part celebration and one-part community gathering, with a dash of protest. Despite what the media tells straight people, its focus is not all leathermen, hooking up, and finding the best sex toys and lube. Although, that is part of it.
I came away from a month of back-to-back Pride celebrations eager to find unique travel content for my audience. There are only so many ways you can cover pride festivals around the world. I was inspired to find fresh angles that celebrated our pride, didn’t trivialize our sexuality, and showcased resources for queers interested in the less well-known aspects of European cities.
All of these feelings were coming to a head at the same time that U.S. media was wild with headlines about sex. Hackers stole data from 33 million users on infidelity dating site Ashley Madison. Federal authorities raided the Manhattan offices of Rentboy.com after two decades of online operation. Amnesty Internationalcame under fire from white feminists and pearl-clutchers alike because of their decision to back the decriminalization of sex work.
While these headlines are different, they have a similar vein. They illustrate the tendency of Western culture to both vilify and be endlessly fascinated by any kind of sexual deviance.
One of the byproducts of the cultural obsession with sex is sex tourism.
Sex tourism is when people engage in the sex industry while traveling. It isn’t a simple issue. I was rife with thoughts and feelings about the attack on sexuality while I was processing my time exploring the queer sex scene in Amsterdam.
On the positive side, visiting an area where sex work is legal offers an outlet for people looking to engage in no-strings-attached sex in a setting that protects both the sex worker and the client. The media paints people who buy sex as men devoid of connection, but based on the testimonies of numerous sex workers, most clients are average people looking to buy sex for a variety of reasons. Sex tourism is a booming business. An average week at the Bunny Ranch in Las Vegas brings in $6,000 for an employee. In developing countries the exact numbers vary widely, but there is still a great economic impact when the money is spent by the sex worker. The money is used when they consume goods, which in turn generates economic stimulus in the local economy and creates jobs for locals.
On the negative side, there is always the concern of human trafficking and forcing people into sex work who do not want to be involved in the trade. There are issues of racial fetishization and classist dynamics amongst white tourists visiting developing countries. Socio-economics play a huge role. Some feminists would argue that any kind of sexual tourism in developing countries with a stratified economic power distribution is immoral.
Knowing this background information, I was curious about the options for female and transgender clients. Online research turned up very few resources for women exploring sex tourism and even fewer for queer women.
I decided to set out on the streets of Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District to find places to recommend to the largely queer readers of my blog, Dopes on the Road. Filled with hopeful naivete, I decided to chat with locals working in the sex industry to find leads for my article.
The Red Light District
I was jittery as I walked beside the canals of the Amsterdam Red Light District. As a card-carrying, sex-positive, intersectional feminist, I’m ashamed to say that I was nervous as I explored the neighborhood.
I wasn’t nervous because I was uncomfortable with the idea of sex work or felt unsafe but because I was there as a journalist, and I know that journalists are not always respectful of sex workers or the industry in general. I wanted to come off as socially conscious and make sure that I wasn’t offending the people I met, while still getting solid content for my readers.
Sex workers are often exploited in the media. It’s not difficult to understand why someone working in the industry would hesitate to speak with journalists when the media paints the image that women are to be consumed, and men are a product of boys-will-be-boys culture. The narrative of the dumb and shallow woman looking for a man to rescue her from the horrors of giving daily blow jobs is tired and old. Many people in the sex industry are painted with a single brush, using highly overused tropes and stereotypes.
It was 2 PM on a Monday afternoon, and already it was difficult not to notice the women in the glowing red windows. Most were sitting by themselves, looking a bit bored as they studied their phones, filed their nails, or chatted with the women beside them. Most were in their early 20s and dressed in lucite heels and lingerie. All of them were slim and dolled up in hair, makeup, and body glitter.
NOTE: Female sex workers are often painted as sluts first and foremost. I mention the details of their outfits not as a way to slut shame, but to show their outward gender expression.
As a queer woman primarily attracted to people masculine of center, if I had been there as a client (and not a journalist), I would be most interested in hiring a woman or trans person who was physically appealing to me. I can’t speak to how the workers in the Red Light District see themselves underneath the hair and makeup, but as a potential client, I couldn’t find someone who appeared to be on the masculine end of the spectrum.
I spoke with nine people working in the sex industry for a total of about six hours, so this is not the most comprehensive analysis of sex tourism for women and queers. That said, I did find it interesting how the narrative changed when I introduced myself as a journalist versus as a potential client.
The first person I talked to was a shopkeeper at a sex toy boutique down the block from my hostel. I explained to her that I was looking for resources for women interested in sex tourism. She pointed me in the direction of the “window girls” but warned me that most of the lesbian services were marketed towards straight men and couples. She suggested that I attend one of the live lesbian sex shows in the area. I asked her if she thought they’d be safe for a queer, solo, female traveler, and she said, “You might be the only single woman in the crowd, but you should be fine.”
I had a hard time trusting this advice because of my previous experiences being hypersexualized in strip and BDSM clubs when I went on my own. As a solo woman in a sexualized environment, I’ve found myself eroticized in an unpleasant and objectifying way. Despite my hesitation, I followed the shopkeeper’s recommendations and found myself in conversation with several more sex workers.
The first woman I approached was a tall, slender blonde in a window outside of a theater advertising “Live Lesbo Sex.” I told her I was a journalist and explained that I was looking for services for women; queer women in particular. She told me that she didn’t know of any services for lesbians, but there were male sex workers who would be strolling the area later in the day. After a few more questions, she explained that she would take couples as clients, but not women on their own. When I pressed for more information, a client approached, and she diverted her attention to him. I walked away confused and curious.
Later in the afternoon I was approached by two men strolling through the area looking for clients. They were both tall, handsome, and clad in leather jackets. I had a joking exchange with them and asked where I could find sex workers for lesbians. Their response was that lesbians don’t need to pay for it. When I challenged them by asking if all their clients “need” to pay for it, they became visibly uncomfortable, and I backed down. They did tell me that there are sex workers available for women in Amsterdam, but they’re harder to come by. Back in the 1990s there were male sex workers for women introduced in the Red Light District, but they didn’t pick up in popularity in the same way that female sex workers did. Most of the male sex workers marketing themselves towards female customers can be found online through digital escort services.
The sex tourism experience is very different for gay men than it is for other people under the queer umbrella. It is fairly socially accepted within the gay male community but not widely publicized. Despite the recent outrage from gay men over the Rentboy.com raid, sex workers — especially women of color, and even more so trans women of color — have been unfairly targeted for centuries. It’s wonderful that mainstream gay media is beginning to notice their own privilege now, but it’s worth recognizing why it’s taken so long for them to align themselves with the more marginalized parts of the queer community.
In Amsterdam there are dozens of resources for gay men looking for sex workers. Blue lights outside of venues in Amsterdam indicate the presence of transgender sex workers and gay-male-oriented brothels and shows.
As I approached person after person during my time there, I got the same shoulder-shrug reaction from all of them. It seemed to indicate that women aren’t interested in sex unless it’s for the benefit of a man, which I know first-hand is not true.
Sex work is as integral to queer history as to feminism. Forgetting that has devastated feminism, and will do the same for queers.
Women’s sexuality remains largely invisible and even more underground when it’s queer, deviates from the norm, or is in any way radical. When it is visible, it’s almost exclusively for older, white, privileged women. Sex that is not cisgender and heterosexual for female and transgender clients is virtually non-existent unless, of course, it is centered around the desires of men. Examples of this might be a straight couple looking for a threesome with a woman, or a queer man and his transgender partner also looking for a third.
When I left Amsterdam, I dug deep into my journalistic research mode.
I polled the Internet, asking solo female traveler groups for their stories of sex tourism. I received dozens of stories in my inbox of women buying men food, clothing, and experiences in exchange for sex, but not a single woman identified her transaction as being under the umbrella of sex work. And, alas, I received not a single story of queer women or trans people engaging in sex tourism as clients.
Later I learned that comprehensive data on sex work is hard to come by because of the stigma associated with engaging in sex for compensation. In countries where sex work is legal, government agencies have estimates for sex work based on data collected from brothels, but not all sex workers use brothels as a means of employment. In countries where sex work is illegal, accurate figures are even harder to come by because of the additional legal consequences of being identified as a sex worker.
As I read study after study, I began to see a pattern. Many of the studies listed police records as a citation for the estimated number of sex workers in a given area. The police records are biased at best because they are either taken from arrest records or causal estimates based on police interactions with sex workers involved in the criminal justice system. Like many interactions with the police, the accounts are skewed and over-represent street sex workers who are people of color from developing nations, transgender, and of lower social economic means. They are also by no means comprehensive.
Needless to say, I was and still am skeptical of sources that include percentages and total figures because quantifying the numbers of sex workers in countries where it is stigmatized is not possible. Because we don’t have access to exact figures, we can’t draw accurate percentages.
We can, however, listen to the voices of sex workers in the media working to improve employment conditions and reduce stigma.
In the end, I never answered the question I set out to answer.
I left Amsterdam more confused than I had been when I got there. Amsterdam is a lovely destination for queer people looking to engage in traditional tourist activities, and I really wanted to love it as a sex-positive, affirming destination for queer people looking to experience the city’s well-established and well-marketed sex tourism industry. Are queer women ignored in this industry?
Have you had an experience in sex work or looking for paid sex as a queer person? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.