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Should Buying Sex Be Illegal? | The Nation

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Should Buying Sex Be Illegal?

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Sex work protest

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Editor's Note: Reporting for this article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

“Felicia Anna” is the nom de Internet of a 27-year-old Romanian prostitute who has worked in one of Amsterdam’s famed window brothels for the last four years. This spring, she launched a blog, Behind the Red Light District, and when I was in Amsterdam reporting on prostitution laws, a Dutch advocate for sex workers’ rights suggested I read it. Anna’s writing, the advocate said, would help me better understand the reality of legalized prostitution—a reality far removed from the lurid tales told by European anti-prostitution campaigners who seek to criminalize the purchase of sex.

Written in English, Behind the Red Light District takes on what Anna sees as the myths propagated by the “rescue industry,” the confluence of radical feminists, conservative Christians and members of law enforcement who seek to save girls from sex trafficking. Legally, Anna would probably be considered a victim of trafficking herself. She had few prospects in Romania, she said, where she could expect to earn 200 euros a month at most. Some friends had promised to help her find a bar or restaurant job in Italy, but it never came through. Finally, at loose ends, she spoke to a couple—an Amsterdam-based sex worker and her boyfriend—who promised that she could make a lot of money as a prostitute in the Netherlands, which legalized pimping and brothel-keeping in 2000. They got Anna started, buying her plane ticket, putting her up in their apartment and helping to arrange the necessary paperwork. In exchange, Anna had to pay them back all the money they spent, “plus a little extra for all the effort they put into it,” she says.

But this was not, Anna insists, an exploitative situation. The couple was kind to her, functioning more as a helpful employment agency than as underworld thugs. The work turned out to be remunerative, and the independence it provided was empowering. “I have a good live [sic], have enough money to do whatever I want to do, and have all the freedom in the world to do what I want, whenever I want to,” she wrote on her blog.

Anna is scathing about the so-called “Swedish model” (also referred to as the “Nordic model”), an approach pioneered in Sweden that bans the buying but not the selling of sex. For the last few years, the Swedish model has been ascendant in Europe. Norway and Iceland adopted it in 2009, and Ireland and France are both considering it, though its future in the latter country is increasingly uncertain after a defeat in a French Senate committee in July. Earlier this year, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling for Swedish-style laws throughout the continent. Dutch advocates for sex workers’ rights fear that such laws could eventually come to their famously liberal country. The variant of feminism that backs the Swedish model, says Anna, is a “growing cancer for prostitutes.”

I e-mailed Anna, and she agreed to meet early on a recent Friday evening at a cafe in central Amsterdam, where she arrived with her Dutch boyfriend in tow. Anna is slight and pretty, with dark hair pulled into a tight ponytail. Her eyes, slanting up above high cheekbones, are ringed with thick black liner, and her eyebrows are painted in a dramatic arch. Given the voice of her blog, I expect her to be tough and sarcastic, but she’s nothing of the sort. She smiles a lot when she speaks, in English that is more broken than on her blog.

How, I ask her, did she become so interested in the politics of prostitution? “Because of my boyfriend,” Anna replies. “I think if I don’t have him, I would still be one of the girls who really doesn’t know what is happening.”

Her boyfriend, who speaks excellent English, has longish brown hair and a hint of a mustache and goatee; he’s wearing a gold-colored chain around his neck and another around his wrist. He works in IT, he says, but never seems to make much money. He met Anna two years ago as a client; before they got together, he lived outside the city because he couldn’t afford an apartment in Amsterdam. Her earnings—about 300 to 400 euros per shift, which can run anywhere from four to ten hours—are more than five times as much as his.

As we talk, it becomes clear that the voice of the blog is at least as much his as hers. In conversation, he compares the Swedish model to Prohibition in the United States, a point also made on Behind the Red Light District. And while the online Felicia Anna says she’s been endangered by a client only once, the Felicia Anna sitting across from me says she’s had to call the police two or three times. Nor does she feel that she can call for help every time a client gets aggressive and starts demanding his money back: “You can’t call always the police, because sometimes then you have to call almost the whole night.” Her boyfriend chimes in to compare it to working late at night at a bar. “You can also get drunk guys late at night,” he says. “You can also have problems with them.”

When I mention that Behind the Red Light District sounds like him, Anna tells me: “He help me a lot with it, because I work in the nighttime and I have to sleep, too. And I have my own stuff that I have to do—cleaning the house, shopping, sometimes cooking. I can’t do everything by myself.”

Basically, her boyfriend adds, “she dictates what I have to write, and I kind of fill in, smooth out the story line.”

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