Amsterdam is the kind of city where anything goes. All sorts of personal styles, guys holding hands, women holding hands, soft drugs are legal, people walking down the street smoking joints like it’s nothing, because it isn’t, millions of white dudes with dread locks, and prostitution is legal. Amsterdam is cool place visually, socially and culturally, but in a lot of ways it’s also a nightmare –- a place full of misbehaved British frat bros and regular American bros who can’t wait to debauch and do all the things that are basically illegal everywhere else.
Amsterdam is the Las Vegas of Europe. Their local coat of arms is XXX, three Vertical St. Andrews Crosses in a row. You can see it on buildings, flags, basically everywhere throughout the city. It’s a complete coincidence that XXX is now the symbol for the adult entertainment industries, because it has been the city symbol for the last 500 years.
And speaking of XXX, you can’t go to Amsterdam without going to the Red Light District. Even the locals think so. At least, that’s what the hip, tattooed 40-something year old woman at the coffee shop we’re in tell us.
“Take the corny canal tour of the city, definitely, and go to the Red Light District. It’s really interesting because it’s in the oldest part of the city. Those are the two things you have to do,” she advises.
We’ve already been here three days and we haven’t made it to the Red Light District, which is coincidentally a stone’s throw from the University of Amsterdam campus, a quaint neighborhood that is on some of the oldest land in the city.
By the time we get there it’s midnight, maybe one o’clock in the morning on Sunday/Monday. The walk through the University of Amsterdam campus to the District is beautiful. You walk on cobbled streets along the canal, which barely moves this late at night, and dim yellow streetlights punctuate the darkness. There is, overall, a quiet, painterly ambiance.
When you hit the Red Light District, tiny streets curl through and on them are boutiques, shops, and late night food joints. Because it’s so dark, the neon lights advertising “BAISER SUR SCENE/LIVE SEX SHOW” show up. That’s how you know you’re here.
Hundreds of scantily clad female sex workers stand in doorways behind glass, each of them framed by an unmistakable pink neon light. It’s a shopping center – a mall of women, all ready to fulfill every heterosexual male’s deepest fantasy. For a price. The women compete for our attention, work for it, dancing harder and harder the more we stand to look at them. The whole thing feels shocking because you’re not sure if you’re supposed to look or look away.
“I’m feeling really uncomfortable,” one of my friends says. “I feel like we shouldn’t be looking.”
“But this is their work. They are here to be looked at. They are working,” I say. “And werking,” I finish.
“Yeah, I know. But something about the gaze just bothers me” he goes.
And how does a woman react to all the nudity?
“Yassss!! Look at Miss Kitty over there,” one of the girls in our group says. “She is really werking. I want to get a bustier just like hers.” She waves at Miss Kitty and shouts, “Go ahead, sister!” even though the dancer can’t really hear because we are looking at her from the other side of the canal.
The women are dressed in all sorts of male fantasies – there’s a schoolgirl, a girl who could be a hipster in the hottest neighborhood of the city by day. There are even several transsexual women, located on a side street and slightly off the main drag. But plenty of men stare at them. Unsurprisingly, you don’t see many women of color.
The moment you see something you like, go up to the door, state your request. I’m sure you know how the rest goes. It’s an exchange, played out right here in the middle of the city on the oldest and most beautiful piece of land in town.
All labor gets boring eventually, no matter what kind of job you have. And some of the women in the vitrines look painfully bored – playing on their iPhones, sitting motionless and looking exhausted in front of the window and neon lights. You have to imagine that performing sex acts for foreign men starts to get really boring and annoying and old after a while, just like any kind of job.
Walking through the Red Light District is one of the most fascinating and difficult experiences you can have. On the one hand, legal prostitution is a huge tourist boon for the local economy. It’s also interesting to see because it is unlike any other Red Light District anywhere else, not least because of the unique architectural environment it’s in.
But it is also one of the most difficult experiences. Even though prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, for now anyway, how many of these women are working in the sex trade against their will? To a straight man walking through this neighborhood, seeing so many kinds of women behind glass vitrines, subservient and willing to fulfill his deepest wishes, this place is paradise. But for anyone else strolling through this famous part of Amsterdam who is not shopping for tail, you feel out of place. Strange, like you’re gawking and poking fun, maybe even being rude. This is sex work. These women are working, they are not here for you to be pointing at.
I’m all for the legalization of prostitution and I have no qualms with sex work or the public display of sex. The part that challenges me, however, is that the women are all on display, some of them desperate-looking, waiting on the next customer to come through. Is this the value of women’s bodies?
It’s challenging because the entire history of shopping is about women’s bodies. You can find examples everywhere from literature to painting, from Zola to John Sloan – women shop, men are much more rational and do practical things that actually benefit society. Women are irrational shoppers, so advertisers think. In the Red Light District in Amsterdam, what we have is not women looking at vitrines, but women in vitrines. It’s a zoo of women, and it’s hard not to think about the 19th century slave auction block.
“I want to see some hot cocks,” I realize. Unsurprisingly, as far as I can see, there are no men in any of the windows. There are not a lot of places to see near naked men on the street or the display of male bodies. In all fairness, that could be because it’s late and we’re already Sunday/Monday. Maybe we missed something. I doubt it, though, and it raises an interesting question about the visibility of women’s bodies in culture. I don’t have a problem with the display of women’s bodies in the Red Light District, nor with sex work, but I do think the way the way the women are displayed is totally problematic and tied to histories of consumer culture, women, the gaze, advertising, and even slavery.
Women are to be looked at and the absence of naked men in the Red Light District proves exactly that. But this is something we already know. You’re far more likely to see a pair of tits in a movie than you are to see a nice huge erect cock before the film has to be rated NC-17 or XXX. In this exchange of bodies and sex, who is in charge?
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Today, after about two years in Los Angeles, I’m retiring my bike helmet. I have biked almost twenty miles to work each weekday in the City of Angels. I suppose they call it the “City of Angels” because “City of Potholes and Horrible Drivers” doesn’t look as good on the bumper sticker of the guy cutting you off as he blindly swerves into In-N-Out while texting.
As I hang up my helmet I’d like to… well, first I’d like to clean it. This thing smells horrible. How do you wash a helmet? Is THAT what Helmut Lang does? Washus helmuts? But after I do that I’d like to look back at some of the things I’ve learned as a biker in the country’s most car-centric city.
1. Drivers hate bikers. It’s Us vs. Them out there and I don’t know why. Yes, we bikers run some red lights and yes, we sometimes swerve to miss a giant pothole or an opening car door, but you are IN A STEEL BOX ON WHEELS. If I’m on a bike and make a mistake, I’m eating pavement. So try and take it easy on the “scaring bikers” to teach them a lesson or whatever you are trying to do when you gun your motor past us or purposely drive really close to us, trying to freak us out. This isn’t Death Race. It’s not even the lesser 2008 remake. (Sorry, Jason Statham. I love you, man but c’mon…)
2. Drivers are terrified of bikers. The odd flip side to drivers’ hate is the fact that you are terrified of us. And maybe that’s where the hate comes from: your insecurity around us. You treat us like a physically disabled person you just met and are terrified to look in the eye. You hang behind us for blocks, too scared to drive around at a safe distance and pleasant speed. You don’t understand us. I’m not going down La Brea at 25 miles an hour because I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s going to be OK. Just drive like a sane, defensive driver and we’ll all get along fine.
3. Drivers are selfish. In everything you do, you think of yourself first. Why? What happens when you open that door and adjust that mirror? I’m honestly curious. Because every day I see you run yellow (let’s be honest, red) lights then honk at someone in the crosswalk for having the audacity to be there. You cut people off and yell at THEM! You sneak down a lane you know is closing ahead just to get six cars ahead of other drivers. Why do you think you are better than everyone else? Why don’t the rules of decency exist for you when you are in your car? Is that the stuff you want to teach your kids?
4. Use your goddamn turn signal. If there is one thing that drivers could do to cut down on accidents, near-accidents and dodges with other cars and bikers, it is that little stick attached to your steering wheel. (No, not that one. That’s the wipers. No, not — Forget it. I’ll just show you. Right here. The turn signal.) You must, somewhere deep down in your brain, realize that other people on the road have no idea when you are going to turn, right? You yell at other people when they don’t use theirs but then you don’t either. It’s so simple. It’s right there and takes almost zero effort. Just click the stick up or down when you want to turn. Not as you are doing it, not after you do it. At least a few seconds before you do it. Not just on your “big turns.” Every time. When you switch lanes. When you are in a turn only lane. Even when you think it’s obvious to everyone that you are going to turn. Let the rest of us whose lives depend on it know what you are thinking. And then, for the love of God, turn the damn thing off. You’re not a grandfather (apologies to all the grandfathers on Thought Catalog).
5. Drivers are like dogs. My dog was the nicest, most timid and sweet creature I’ve ever known. But get her in the car and she barked and played tough with other dogs walking on the street. Same thing with drivers. Most of you think you are invincible and untouchable in your car. But remember, I’m on a bike. And LA traffic sucks. I’m going to catch up. And then I can just pull up and you have to confront me like a human being. It’s embarrassing to see you so cowered and scared. Don’t act like an unreachable asshole when you have the chance. Don’t act like you are a god because you’re driving a BMW. Or a Ford Fiesta, for that matter. It’s embarrassing.
OK. That is all. I just bought a car so I’ll see you on the streets. Just a heads up: I’ll be the one swerving into In-N-Out from the far left lane.
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You know the adage, that you should really only concern yourself with things that will matter a few years down the line. If you can imagine what you would have done 5 years ago if the you that you are now were there, you can assume that your future self will want to give your present self some similar advice. That being:
1. Make time for the things that make you happy. Your baseline of happiness will fluctuate with major life changes, but will eventually return to whatever is your norm. For example, after your needs are taken care of, a plethora of extra money won’t really aide your innate happiness. You have to work on the baseline. That’s best done by the little, everyday things that make you feel good. They seem small and insignificant and like they won’t matter in the end, but they will, and they do, because what matters in the end is that you’re happy right now.
2. Don’t concern yourself with petty things that upset you, like associating with friends who only serve to make you feel bad about yourself, worrying largely what other people will think to the point of making your own decisions based on those opinions. Criticism is important for the growing process, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to differentiate between what will help you and what is only negativity aimed to hurt you.
3. Have a little more faith that the universe has it figured out. That’s the biggest thing that strikes me when I think about what I wish I knew five years ago. I can see now how many little, insignificant things were signs and callings and how I was led in directions I was completely opposed to and how I wasted my time and energy being opposed when the universe knew what was right for me. Today, I couldn’t be happier or more thankful that I didn’t get a lot of what I wanted 5 years ago.
4. Let yourself let go of what keeps you all pretzeled up inside. Easier said than done, I know, I know. But I know I wish I could have told myself that I was literally wasting my time being worried about things that worrying could not change. Things will, without exception, work out how they are supposed to, and although it’s a cliche, you have to understand how true it is. You also have to trust it.
5. Don’t let anybody else dictate how you feel about yourself or what you do with your life. You are not a democracy. Nobody else gets a vote. Taking the opinions of others into consideration and letting them dictate your decision are two completely different animals, and you have to understand how to do the former without the latter. Nobody has to live in your body or live your life, so make decisions for your own sake.
6. Approach things from your best self. I think we can all recall times we wish we wouldn’t have been so brash, harsh, cruel, passive… I could go on and on. When tough situations arise, I think we have tendencies to react very instinctively and that doesn’t always bring forth the most flattering versions of us. Especially when the things being dealt with are difficult and personal. We often make situations worse when if we would have just put in a little effort to be a bigger person, we could have seen a different outcome.
7. Focus on what does, and what will, matter: the things you won’t always have. You will not have all of your family members around forever. You may not be in close proximity to a friend a few years down the line. You will never be right where you are again, and you will look back and wish you took advantage of everything right now has to offer.
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Advil won’t touch your headache and no matter how many times you brush your teeth, you can’t mistake the smell of agave. You swear it off for good and you really mean it this time. For months, even the smell of limes makes you gag. But then, out with your girlfriends one night, someone yells, ‘Tequila shooters!’ and you’ve fallen off the wagon once more. Your steely resolution has dissolved and, naturally, one shooter follows the other, until, what’s that old saying? One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor. The vicious cycle repeats.
2. Glitter Nail Polish
(Most of) you men out there won’t understand this one. And, for your sakes, I’m elated. I once heard that glitter is the herpes of the art world, and no truer words were ever spoken, especially in regards to nail polish. You’re feeling festive and you think, ‘why not?’ Glitter nails? Harkens back to youth, makes you smile as you swipe out a text. In fact, even cheap glitter polish resists chipping (which may be why we buy it in the first place). But when the inevitable chip presents itself and it’s time to remove it, that glitter polish is stuck on like Krazy Glue.
You find yourself on the bathroom floor, 2/3 of the way through a bottle of acetone polish remover, wisps of cotton swab stuck to the chunks of glitter that just won’t let go, swearing to the powers that be that if they just help you get it off your right hand, you’ll consider offering up your first-born. Then, inexplicably, as in the experience of childbirth, the unpleasant memory of your struggle is forgotten. Before you know it, ‘funfetti’ is all the rage again and Sally Hansen has another of your .
3. Holidays Back Home
Grandma’s ninety years are catching up to her, not that age has anything to do with it. She’s always told you that your eye-makeup makes you look like a street-walker and that, if you’re not careful, Hell will be a short trip. Though alcohol is expressly prohibited, you strongly suspect that you’re not the only one with a buzz. Sibling rivalry is alive and well, three generations deep, and despite the fact that you’re clearly at the top of the pile, you find yourself on dish duty for your 28th year. The turkey is dry as a bone, crazy Aunt Leta is screaming about the Nixon administration, and just as you’re about to check out (permanently), your mother hugs you and tells you how much it means to see your face on [insert holiday]. Then you know. Thanksgiving 2032 is already booked.
4. Waiting Tables
Faking a smile and pretending to be besties with table 14 is your expertise. And, though it’s gnawing at your soul (and sobriety), it’s also paying your rent. Sure, you’re more educated than half the schlubs you cater to, but they make no bones about snapping their fingers to get your attention.
And it isn’t just the self-important customer. It’s the late hours, the smell of food on your clothes and hair, the berating you receive from the kitchen staff, tipping out the food-runners and bartenders who really didn’t earn their share of your money (if we’re being honest), and, of course, the “side work.” After running your nightly marathon and kissing so much ass your face hurts, you’ve still got to stock the mustard and take out the trash.
Just when a string of lunch shifts and a butt-grab from a drunken old man have you scribbling your two-week notice on a cocktail napkin, you hit the jack-pot on Friday night. Raking in enough for a car payment on a Jag, you wad up that napkin and hold out another week.
5. “Call Me Maybe”
You hum it. You text it. It comes out in conversation, rolling off the tongue with ease. “Call me, maybe!” your mom says as you’re driving away. Without meaning to, you’ve allowed one of the bubbliest songs of the 21st century to become part of your vernacular. “How could this happen?” you beg of the universe. “I don’t even listen to radio!” But the damage has been done. You’ve contracted an ear-worm you’d be hard pressed to extract.
Then, one of your hipster friends of the slam-grass movement finds out your dirty little secret. The shame you feel has you reluctantly deleting “Call Me Maybe” from your iTunes library, making pathetic attempts at a cover-up like, ‘Call me never again! Ha- ha!”
But, as with all addictions, you’ll be back. It may happen in the shower, in the car, or on the dance floor, but that adorable Carly Rae Jepsen and her siren’s song will never truly let you go. She’ll be calling sooner, rather than later.
6. American Airlines
You’ve been sitting on the tarmac, squished into your little 8” of personal Hell, for 45 minutes. The plane is progressively growing warmer (ironic?) as the pilot periodically comes on and tells you, “Folks, we’ll be off the ground in just a few minutes. The crew is still tinkering with one of the engines.” Excuse me, what?
Drinks haven’t yet been served and you anticipate at least another 45 minute wait for that bathroom cup-sized gin and tonic. Just as your firing off a tweet about how you’ll #NeverFlyAmerican again, the flight attendant/ prison guard snaps that the “’fasten seat belt light’ is on and that means no portable electronic devices!” You quietly slip a valium under your tongue and think happy thoughts of the destination to which you are flying, knowing next time you’ll be smart enough to fly Lufthansa.
Several months go by and it’s time for your annual autumn hiatus. As you fantasize about the pristine beaches of your Pacific island getaway, your recent vow to boycott American Airlines conveniently slips your mind. “Honey, look” you exclaim, “On American, it’s less than 0 round- trip! Think of the money we’ll save!” Money? Yes, you saved a bundle. But a little piece of your soul was just chipped away.
7. Fast Food
In college, your high metabolism had a high metabolism. It ran circles around itself — an impressive feat, really. You stayed up all night studying (or drinking beer upside down from a keg) and, being that you were broke and didn’t have a kitchen anyway, you walked down to the student union and munched on fast food for your every meal.
You swear you never saw a single one of those calories coming. It was as if you woke up one day, nearing thirty, and your body had traded itself in for a slower, chunkier version 2.0. It didn’t even consult you on the matter! But you’re not stupid; you’ve seen ‘Food, Inc.’. The fast food had to go (especially if you planned to keep the beer). Organic produce and vegetarian cookbooks make their way into your life and new attitudes toward health and fitness are adopted.
And then one of those damned tequila nights sneaks up on you. Your good intentions and inhibitions fly right out the window of your (designated driver’s) car as you yell, “Taco Bell!” from the passenger seat. You inhale a Nachos Bell-Grande (fraught with grade D beef) and gleefully wash it down with a Baja Blast Mountain Dew. It feels so right in the moment, so delicious. But morning light casts an ugly shade of shame on your jiggly thighs as they climb back up on the wagon.
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Guess what, everyone? Gay men don’t really have a whole lot of stuff to say about vaginas! Internet phenom Davey Wavey interviewed a gaggle of gays to get their experienced opinions on what vaginas are like. Chances are you know how the video ends up. But you gotta watch the video at least to see the first guy’s reaction to the question, “What do you think about vaginas?” HE LOOKS SO DEVASTATED. Then a couple of gays go on to say that vaginas have teeth, which, come on, they DONT. The video is just hilarious because none of the gays knows what’s going on/they have no clue what to say. But what do you think is the biggest lesson we learn about the connection between vaginas and gay dudes? Why, it’s that “Without vaginas there wouldn’t be gay boys because, like, we come out of them. You could say a vagina is a necessary ingredient for gay sex.” So think about THAT every time you hook up with somebody this Pride.
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