Sex, Drugs, and Taboo

For a number of Oxbridge students Hilary Term was rounded off with a weekend in Amsterdam. Hoards of Oxford’s worn out and overworked students, hungover from essay and/or alcohol-induced all-nighters, piled into coaches bound for the Netherlands, enticed by the quirky architecture, the world-class museums…the drugs, the sex, the debauchery – because out in Dam all that’s legal. 

From the demographic on the trip, it’s fairly likely that plenty were in search of the latter; a weekend of intoxicated hedonism, a reward for surviving Hilary.  And fair enough, who isn’t partial to relaxation and enjoyment, in whatever form it comes? I myself was looking forward to passing my weekend in such a way. However, the reality of Amsterdam did not quite meet my expectations. 

Everything was far too overt, far too crude and out in the open. I wanted some impropriety that was, in fact, illegal. That’s not to say I have a predilection for breaking the law – far from it – but isn’t part of the thrill the possibility of getting caught? Maybe I am just painfully British, the stiff upper lip unwilling to loosen up a bit, but all that legalized debauchery just felt too seedy. Is there a place for taboo in our society?

The convenience of having soft drugs legalized is undeniable. You can walk into a coffee shop knowing that the next however many hours of haziness won’t get you a criminal record. Cannabis is easy to buy and you can ask for advice – people are there to make sure everything is safe. So far, so good. You’ve gone from sneaking around the streets to lounging in a legal, licensed establishment. Simple, convenient, safe. But didn’t you quite like the thrill of keeping it clandestine? And if you’re game for that, who needs Amsterdam?

This leads me onto the subject of prostitution. While exploring the Red Light District I got a strong sense that some things really should be kept behind closed doors. Out in the open it makes for a very uncomfortable evening stroll. Am I a prude? Sexually ‘vanilla’? No – I just have some respect for the female body. Passing by the empty windows, curtains drawn a few metres back from the glass, it really hit home what those women are there for. Even if the women are there by choice, it made me feel that no society should condone women objectifying themselves as an acceptable means of employment. Yes, models, actresses, in fact most celebrities – male and female – are selling themselves. But actually selling your body for sex? This seemed a step too far. Whatever sex means to you, it remains one of the most intimate and personal acts. Intercourse should never cross the line from intimacy to commodity.   

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However, one cannot deny that it is a human right of these women to do with their body what they will. While much of it is about the earning potential, money is not the exclusive motivation for sex workers. There are many women who work in the industry because they enjoy having sex. Hell, if everyone had a job they actually enjoyed the world would be a merrier place! Yet these women still suffer from the stigma of prostitution. Even with its legalized status in one of the most tolerant cities in the world, some people who walk past and watch project lewd and misguided ideas onto the women in the windows.

Those passersby cannot comprehend what would compel someone to make a conscious choice to earn a living through prostitution. I for one find it difficult. Yet most of these women are there through their own will. There’s a call for more respect. The stigma comes from a misunderstanding; for sex workers are actually in control of what they do. They are by no means obligated to open the door to anyone, and they more or less decide which sexual favours to impart and at what price.

All in all, I came away from Amsterdam disillusioned with the idea of legalizing sex work and drugs. It may be safer over there, but I did not feel at ease with everything being so shamelessly public. Some taboos are there for a reason: to deter people from engaging in sordid and degrading behavior. In my view, something is either illegal for a good reason (i.e. prostitution) or, lacking that reason, its illegality just makes for a more thrilling high.