Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities in the world. I love the artistic history in Amsterdam, the architecture, the canals and winding stone streets, the gouda cheese and meats for breakfast, the helpfulness of the people walking down the street, the color of oranges, green apples, and ripe bananas at food stands peppering my path. I love the world famous gorgeous garden, the Keukenhof, filled with over seven million tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth that I once visited with a friend. It’s a beautiful city and I have friends there that remain in my heart.
On one trip to Amsterdam, I woke to a chilly morning in the city and the meaningful day before me. I hopped in a taxi and headed outside of the city to a secondary school for teens with special needs. Walking into the classroom I saw my friend, Helene, a prevention worker with Scarlet Cord. She and her colleague were going to be teaching a “Beware of Loverboys” class to at-risk girls aged 14-16, discussing issues of sexuality, boundaries, and the common practices of pimps¬–termed “loverboys”–who use a lengthy and intentional process to manipulate girls into prostitution. Wellspring International provides funding for this prevention program developed by Scarlet Cord and now taught in over 25 public schools annually around Amsterdam. I was there to observe, and finding a chair in an inconspicuous corner of the room, I did my best create minimal intrusion.
In this school of two hundred students and sixty females, there had been four known pregnancies and one abortion that year. Hesitant and shy at first, the girls began to respond, holding up a red card for boundaries they were comfortable holding and a green card for behaviors they found acceptable. It always surprises and frightens me to hear the role of the internet—of Facebook, of Snapchat, of webcams–in a story where a young girl ultimately finds herself in prostitution. The stories begin with meeting a charming guy who friends her on Facebook and fast forward a few days later to a gang rape, physical abuse, and ending up behind a window for sale. I followed along as they showed photos of the various profiles a loverboy will set up, allowing him to tailor his approach to the vulnerabilities of each girl he targets.
The stories are heart-wrenching. A young, teen girl allows her boyfriend to expose her and film her, only to have him use this to blackmail her into working for him. A loverboy will invest one to two years as a girl’s boyfriend, methodically pulling her away from family and friends, then stage a rape in which he intervenes and rescues her, creating a sense of indebtedness. Later he will confess how he is in real danger and ask her to sell herself just for one night to bail him out of his financial woes. Ultimately, she finds herself in a life of prostitution, still defending the certain love and good intentions of her boyfriend/pimp.
When the girls in this class were asked how they would react if a guy they met tried to strike them or offer her body up to his friends, I smiled weakly when the most feisty of the group answered confidently that she would strike back and could certainly defend herself. The reality is she would be no match for their combined physical strength. The overwhelming importance of the curriculum that focuses on establishing boundaries becomes abundantly clear to avoid such a circumstance. But in our current climate where relationships are so frequently initiated and maintained through social media, how do we realistically protect young people? When asked how many friends they have on Facebook, one answered three hundred. When asked the follow up question of how well she knew them, she answered emphatically and insistently that she truly knew them “very well.” For a generation that has grown up with virtual relationships, do the terms even mean the same thing they once did? I confess I leave these settings with renewed fears, wondering how long I can protect my own children from the destructive dangers of the Internet, iPads, and screen time.
After class, we debriefed with the teacher and headed to the Scarlet Cord office, located in the red light district. I reviewed reports and data they recorded over the past year, carefully citing the number of visits they have had with women and the current environment of the red light district. Previously, all four hundred windows were filled on a given night, though currently the number is closer to three hundred windows and seven thousand individuals working in prostitution. In the last few years, the city of Amsterdam has cracked down on organized crime, resulting in the closure of many brothels.
The working age for prostitution has been raised from 18 to 21, and the drinking age elevated, as well. Where once no proven comprehension or ability to communicate was required, it is also now compulsory that a sex worker speak Dutch, German, English, or Spanish. Scarlet Cord showed me its latest books, published with stories from women who left work in the district. I asked questions about the incidence of human trafficking and they repeated how difficult it is to measure. Police officers share stories with them of women they feel sure are trafficked, how frightened some girls seem, or how suspiciously similar their stories sound. And without their testimony, law enforcement cannot act on their behalf.
While there, I interviewed Ineke, a social worker at Scarlet Cord and director of their Street Work outreach program. She shared how she and a colleague stopped to purchase white roses one day, leaving one with each of the girls they talked to behind a window that day. The girls responded with such gratitude, so grateful for this single flower. Ineke told them that the flower was to remind them they were special and that God loved them.
“Oh no!” protested one, as she held the rose carefully in her hand. “I am nothing. But this rose is beautiful. It is something.”
The vision of Scarlet Cord exists to be available to her, and many others, and to insist that these women are, in fact, something and someone extraordinary. Their mission is threefold: street work, prevention, and support. I remain so deeply impressed with this team, the integrity of their mission, the advocates and friends they aim to be to the intrinsic value of a woman.
I asked Ineke what the legalization of prostitution had done for women’s rights in Amsterdam.
“I believe it can be true there are some girls who are happy in this job,” she said. “I think they exist. But in thirteen years, I have never met a girl who says she is happy, who says, ‘This has been a good choice for me.’”
The reality of such an answer is difficult to argue against in the fluidity of theory. The debate is in the public square, but tremendous insight is found through individual encounters.
I can’t help but wonder…
To quote Nicolas Chamfort, “Do you think that revolutions are made with rose water?”
Naomi Zacharias is director of Wellspring International, the humanitarian arm of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.