De vogels en de bijen, Part 1: Dutch widows

I’ve been absent a while, mea culpa. Call it a perfect storm of a busy work schedule, Thanksgiving and an unfortunate run-in with the norovirus. But I’m back and ready to entertain.

What I have in mind is a short series on naughty things to do with Amsterdam, particularly in relation to its Golden Age in the 1600s, though some of it will spill over into the modern day. Past, after all, is prologue.

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Procuress, 1625

And what better way to illustrate that than with a story from my own life.

Picture it. I’m 11 years old. My mother and I are in Amsterdam for a weekend trip. We were taking a get-away from her parents’ apartment in Höngen, the ancestral village hometown in Germany, just across the border from the Netherlands. Each trip we took to Germany to visit them, which happened about every other year, she and I would plan on one of these sanity breaks, leaving behind the village that at the time had more dairy cows than people to escape to Amsterdam or Luxembourg or Munich.

Mom always said travel is what opens eyes — and minds — so maybe that’s why she directed our walk to one of the main streets of Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District. So there I was, little me, all of 11 years old. Just me, my mom, and all the ladies in the window. Mind you, it was still early afternoon, and the fabled red lights didn’t stand out at all among the sunlight. But still. Who cares about red lights when there are ladies in lingerie and thigh high stockings to look at?

All was going swimmingly. Until I started singing, under my breath, “How much is that doggie in the window?” For that, I was rewarded with a swift elbow to my ribs from my mom, who has never truly appreciated my sense of humor — not like I think my dad would have, in that situation. So ended my foray into the lurid world of commercialized adult love, circa 1982, age 11.

The oldest profession has been at it a while here

By the time I got around to oogling the Red Light District, it was nothing new to Amsterdam. In fact, women have been trading sex for money or goods in the area for centuries.

Dirck van Baburen – The Procuress, 1623

De Wallen, as it’s actually known, gets its name from the walled canals that date back to the mid-1200s, when a bridge was constructed over the Amstel River near the place where the Damrak canal became a harbor. Since it was a place that drew in sailors trading goods, it’s easy to see how demand for “commercial company” quickly arose. And Amsterdam, ever a haven for capitalism, was quick to meet demand.

When Amsterdam was still a Catholic city, prostitution was tolerated, if not embraced. Sex workers were viewed as sinners capable of salvation, and prostitution itself was seen as necessary for social order. After all, the mere presence of a hundred — or hundreds — of foreign sailors in town all at once brought danger to the women who lived there. Without available sex workers, it was feared (not unreasonably) that the sailors would turn to so-called “respectable” women instead — either consensually or not.

That didn’t mean that prostitution was seen as honorable, however. Prostitution was delegated to De Wallen, and married men and the clergy were prohibited from setting foot in it. Which is a neat trick, because the cathedral is also located right there, so to be honest, I’m not sure how that worked.

Things changed when Amsterdam kicked out its Spanish overlords and became Protestant, however. No longer was prostitution tolerated as a necessary evil; it was simply an evil to be eradicated. Women who engaged it in it were not sinners to be pitied and brought to redemption but criminals to be punished. First-time offenders might find themselves in the spinhuis, or workhouse prison. Repeat offenders could find a prison stay in addition to brandings, floggings and expulsion from the city.

Of course, that didn’t stop anything. Instead of being plied in the open, brothels moved to the upper floors of gambling parlors, taverns and music houses. They operated as open secrets, more or less, and as long as they remained out of public sight and didn’t become a nuisance, law enforcement generally let them be.

When Napoleon took control of the Netherlands in 1795, bringing along his code of law, sex work was decriminalized. Brothels became licensed and sex workers were subject to regular health checks. Keeping soldiers free of syphilis had become a key concern. Even after Napoleon was defeated, this more open-minded attitude remained.

Though attempts to shut down prostitution flared on and off throughout the 1800s, all of them failed. By the 1930s, Amsterdam pretty much gave up on trying to outlaw the stuff and decided that smart regulation was the better route to go. It just told sex workers to stay behind glass rather than walk the streets, leading to Amsterdam’s iconic window shopping scene. Finally, in 2000, prostitution was formally legalized in the city in designated areas.

A dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it

But who were the women — back then and today — who put Amsterdam’s most famous neighborhood on the map?

And what do widows have to do with any of this?

Cranach the Elder – The Procuress, 1548

It may be a slang term that has largely fallen out of favor, but according to one dictionary of slang published in 1828, the term Dutch widow dates back to at least 1608 and means “a prostitute.” But WHY did that term come about in the first place?

There’s the standard explanation given, and then there’s the reason I tend to believe.

The more common explanation comes from a device Dutch sailors are said to have created during their long ship voyages or during their posts in overseas colonies. A Dutch wife/Dutch husband/Dutch widow was one of several devices that a person lay next to in bed. Depending on its construction it was either …

  • A body-length pillow that a person could hug to them like a person, or prop a knee up on for better posture, or
  • A device similar in shape to the above, but made out of cane or bamboo, so that air could circulate around it, thereby keeping the sleeper cooler in warm climates, or, and this is my favorite …
  • To English sailors, it was a wooden board with a hole in it. Why was there a hole it it? I leave it to your imagination.

But I think there’s another reason, a sadder and more poignant one, that Amsterdam’s prostitutes were called “Dutch widows.” And it’s this: they were literally Dutch widows.

According to one Red Light District tour operator, wives in Amsterdam faced a very uncertain future when their husbands headed out with the Dutch East India Co. While many of the men who sailed out with the fleet returned home with decent pay, up to a third of them would never come home at all.

For wives whose husbands died of disease while onboard ship or in a distant colony, this was a tragic and sad outcome, but at least it was a certain one. There would most likely be a witness to the death, a burial, an official document.

That wasn’t necessarily the case for the wives of the men on the 734 Dutch East India Co. ships lost at sea. Just think of it — 734! One of the most common kinds of ships at that time was the fluyt, which had an average crew size of 35 men. Using that as basis, we’re looking at an estimated 25,000 men lost at sea!

If these men were married, their widows faced a difficult future. Without a witnesses or a body to bury, there was no confirmation that the husband had died, and therefore, no proof that the woman actually was a widow. That, in turn, meant that she was ineligible to remarry. And without being able to remarry, she was left to fend for herself. For most women, this meant a very uncertain future — exponentially more so for every child she may have depending on her.

Some women might turn to their abilities in domestic skills — laundry, seamstress, knitting, etc. — to make ends meet. A lucky few might have had a family business to turn to, for instance, a family member who ran a tavern or some kind of storefront. For those who didn’t find success in those ways, there was a limited amount of charity to draw from, but the Dutch culture strongly believed in the value of work and bootstrapping one’s way to success (I guess I see where America got that from, dank je wel, Nederlands!).

For those unfortunate women, the sex trade emerged as a final refuge between desperation and starvation. Unable to remarry, unable to find meaningful work, Dutch widows too often became prostitutes as a matter of last resort. The name stuck. And maybe years later, when those long pillows were made, they were named “Dutch widows” as a joke, a throwback to the women who the sailors knew back in Amsterdam.

Who can say for sure?

State of play today

But times have changed. It’s not about sailors lost at sea and priests restricting who can and can’t get married anymore. There are so many career paths open to women and the job market is currently pretty good. So who ends up working in the world’s oldest profession in one of the world’s most famous Red Light Districts?

Johannes Vermeer – The Procuress

It’s a charged question that is up for some debate.

Strictly speaking, sex work is legal in Amsterdam, the workers are unionized and protected by police, they are subject to regular health checks to ensure that everyone is safe and healthy. There are no pimps. It’s all above-board. That’s the whole point of making things legal and regulated — to take all the dangerous element out of it.

But others say that there’s more to it than what you see through a big, glossy, red-lit window. Behind that glass could be a woman who has been brought to the Netherlands by a human trafficking ring and is being made to sit there through threats of violence to herself or her family. And many of the sex workers in De Wallen do come from financially desperate places like Eastern Europe and Africa, which can lead you to think twice about how much the decision to work in the sex trade is truly a freely made decision and how much is compelled by financial desperation. It’s a wildly wide range, but anywhere between 10 percent to 90 percent of women involved in the sex industry are believed to have been involved in human trafficking. So even at bare minimum, with some 4,000 sex workers in the country, that’s still 400 women being forced into prostitution. And that’s a problem.

Trafficked or not, the lurid promise of sex on demand continues to draw people by the thousands. First they came by trading ships. These days, they come by tourist visa. So many that the new mayor of Amsterdam has mused about shutting the whole place down, or at least moving the sanctioned prostitution area to somewhere else in the city. The sex workers themselves are solidly against the move.

With its long history and despite its troubles, it’s hard for me to imagine Amsterdam without its Red Light District. It’d be like imagining Amsterdam without its coffee shops. But that’s another story.

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