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Grown men should not be having sex with prostitutes unless they are married to them.— Jerry Falwell

Braced against the elements with newly acquired rubber-toed boots, bright red scarf, and a wooden-handled umbrella whose underside was printed with a map of constellations, I didn’t mind that it was cold and raining. The guy I was staring at didn’t seem to mind either. He seemed oblivious to the frigid water that pooled around his bare toes and soaked the hemline of his blue jeans. In the way of Scandinavians, the 20-something guy was tall and athletic, with penetrating crystal-blue eyes. On his shaved head he wore a rain-soaked bandana that was the same powder-blue hue as his flip-flops. But it wasn’t his outfit that had prompted me to pause on the slick cobblestone road, it was the way he had approached the three mannequins positioned on the walkway in front of the shop. Like the man, all of the mannequins were bald. As David and I approached from the opposite direction, the man suddenly stopped and jerked his head in the direction of the male mannequin in tight leopard-print pants and black mesh top, as if the punk-styled figure had called to him by name. I nudged David in the arm and pointed at the man with my chin. Sheltered beneath our umbrellas, we stood and watched the guy reach out and place his splayed hand on the mannequin’s head. The man then threw his own head back so that the rain fell directly onto his face. His eyes rolled into the back of his head, and his eyelids fluttered. He remained like that for minutes. Finally, his pupils returned, and he stared long and hard into the mannequin’s face. Then, as if to punctuate his telepathic communion with the dummy, the man patted its head, smiled lovingly at it, like Jesus to a child, and continued off in the direction he had been heading: down a side street in Amsterdam’s infamous red-light district.

There’s a lot to do and see in Amsterdam — one can contemplate historical horrors at the Anne Frank House, marvel at the city’s architecture from a canal boat, ogle famous art at the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum, or gulp fresh beer at the Heineken Brewery. But I’m not much for museums, I don’t drink beer, I prefer to see the buildings from the streets, and the houseboat David and I had rented gave me a swan’s-eye view of the canal. There was one unique facet of the Dutch capital that captured my fascination, and that was its notorious scarlet quarter where legalized drugs and prostitution reigned.

It didn’t look very red to me. Then again, it was mid-afternoon, and the gray-white sky glared brighter than any neon. At first glance, the streets of the red-light district seemed no different than any of the other dozens we had roamed in our search for the famed nexus of naughtiness. It wasn’t long before a gust of wind accosted my nostrils with the skunky scent of ganja. Souvenir shops selling wooden shoes gave way to hookah lounges and smoking paraphernalia stores, the windows of which were plastered with posters depicting the myriad varieties of magical mushrooms sold within. I gazed at the drawings and photos of fungus and tried to guess by their captions which ones the mannequin whisperer had ingested.

The people wandering around blitzed on one drug or another didn’t faze me — like the man I watched, I’ve had my share of tête-à-têtes with insentient beings. And though I found the hardcore teaser pics posted outside the theaters to be bizarre (luring passersby with scandalous images of candles in orifices or some guy’s hmm hmm in a willing woman’s whatsit ), they did not make me fear for my virtue. The only thing I found troubling in the kink shops was that I couldn’t find any latex dresses or thigh-high patent leather boots in my size. I did, however, find one feature distressing; you might call it the feature: the red lights.

I’m a huge fan of red — it dominates half my wardrobe. It wasn’t the color itself that bothered me, but what it meant. I passed by a lingerie shop’s display and did a double take when I sensed movement in the window. Behind the glass, standing in a small room was a flesh-and-blood woman and not, as I had thought, a mannequin modeling undergarments. Continuing down the street, I was struck by just how many windows there were. It was early, so most of them were still obscured by red curtains. Many of the women on display were large, middle-aged ladies proudly parading rolls of flesh that could not be contained by their too-tight g-strings. I wondered if they were like early-bird specials, or that crappy band that plays for free three hours before the headliner arrives. The advertising posters all promised perfect, young bodies. Maybe the regulars came out during the day to pay for real sex with real women, and the young tourists — kids on vacation with cash in their pockets and drug-induced fantasies filling their heads — waited until the sun went down to prowl for busty size zeros.

Confronted by the cold reality of the world’s oldest profession, it became clear that my emotional response to seeing someone actually hustling crashes head-on into my carefully considered intellectual opinion. I think prostitution is a woman’s choice, whether she is selling her body to one man for a house in Rancho Santa Fe and an unlimited account at Neiman Marcus, or renting her body to many men for cash — it’s her body and it’s her life, and if she’s not hurting anyone else, she should be able to do with it whatever she wants. There’s no doubt in my mind that legalized and regulated prostitution is much safer for all involved. But when my gaze inadvertently fell upon a window in which a beautiful, nearly naked young girl stood, looking like she had stepped off a page in a Victoria’s Secret catalog — her face a mask of bored detachment and a hint of what I perceived as hope — I felt the same sort of projected shame and embarrassment I feel when I accidentally walk in on someone in a public restroom.

I mourned for the women in the windows. They sat on stools or stood in heels, presenting their bodies for examination and comparison and, ultimately, for purchase. I wondered if they were relieved to get someone they were mildly attracted to, someone who respected the merchandise. I wondered if they hummed the tune to “Roxanne” and fantasized that Sting was singing directly to them, or that some day they too could put away their make up, turn off the red light, and be treated like a person instead of a go-cart. I wondered if they perceived all men as johns and if any of them had ever experienced a healthy, symbiotic relationship, platonic or otherwise, with any man in their lives. I realized that though I believed it was their human right to do with their bodies what they chose, I found their choice — and what must have led up to such a decision — to be sad. As David and I rounded the corner that led us away from the red lights, I tried to imagine that girl returning home after work, as the sun was rising. In my mind’s eye, I saw her taking off her clothes one last time, running a bath, ingesting some pills or maybe a bottle of wine, and doing her best to forget the details of the evening’s invasions.

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