THE OLDEST PROFESSION

This article was published in Dutch as part of the Occupy Campaign on 2-3 March, 2012, in the Jan van Galen neighbourhood of Amsterdam on the news & opinion website Joop.nl which we ‘occupied’ with a series of twelve Occupy-related articles. You can access all the articles (in Dutch) on the Occupy Campaign site under the heading press. (English versions of the other articles in the series will, hopefully, follow at some point.)

The Oldest Profession

Although much of the media attention seems dedicated to painting the Amsterdam branch of the Occupy movement as nothing more than a haven of criminal activity, grime and menace, care for co-Occupyers was precisely one of the most positive aspects of life on Beursplein. It was ensured that no-one became under-cooled, or over-upset, that food was distributed to one and all, etcetera. During the night the de-escalating tactics of the ‘peacekeepers’ maintained a level of quiet and safety (both, in fact, mainly threatened by outsiders, in particular visitors to the red Light District and the nearby student societies, who were often particularly aggressive). For passers by and visitors to the Beursplein camp, this caring was one of the most noticeable things – in sharp contrast to the lack of care in the wider society, it was an important part of Occupy’s political engagement – care being practiced in an all-inclusive manner, without passing the responsibility onto others.

Yet walking through the Occupy camp with activist friends from the U.S. they note the absence of an active feminist presence. It’s true, unlike other Occupys – in Spain, or the U.S. – in Amsterdam the battle for sexual equality has no prominent position on the agenda. In this country, women’s rights are taken as a given, something one no longer need be concerned with, a battle assumed long since won which can now be sidelined for want of more urgent matters.

We drift toward the Red Light District – being affected by the repressive sexual mores of the U.S., they envisage liberal Dutch attitudes of ‘tolerance’ as something to aspire to. In the shadowy entrance to the Banana Bar, the doorman, who looks as though he hasn’t seen proper daylight for at least a decade, professionally catches the eye of a young man, giving him the schpeel – It costs 45 euros, for that you get to drink as much as you can for one hour, the drinks are served by naked girls, the girls are standing on the bar, if you pay them, then they will perform stuff. He gestures toward the banana on the sign, then rattles off the run-down for the shows – Woman with man, two women, two man with woman, woman with gorilla, etcetera.

The light is paling and the number of men on the streets increases. There’s a strong smell of beer as we pass a huddle in front of the entrance to another live show. These are the same young men who harass the camp at night, stumbling through the sleep-deprived camp, full of beer and bravado, threatening in loud voices to hurl brick or torch tents, cutting guy-lines.

There has been much talk about the mini-society of the Occupy camp acting as a mirror of the larger society… Our camp, it seems, is mirroring the nearest precinct – the red Light district, and one of the tents was being exploited by a woman prostitute. Within minutes of this becoming known, and without any of the usual debating, the tent was emptied and taken down. There was an overriding assumption which needed no debate, that this was something unacceptable.

But what was it that was unacceptable – the use of the Occupy camp for capitalist gain? The fact that having a prostitute working from within the camp’s confines it creates an unsafe atmosphere – encouraging the assumption that all the women sleeping in tents are making their bodies available for use by men? or simply the age old stigma of the prostitute as wicked? The argument produced in retrospect, was that she was not promoting the ideals of Occupy, not using her presence (her body) as a protest medium, but simply taking advantage of the situation (and the donated tent) to have a place for her work. I imagine though, that perhaps this was for her a safer place to work than the cars and tight corners normally available for her to take customers. Either way, she was the first to be moved on for a lack of activist intent – this same clause was later used to remove other non-activists from the Beursplein camp.

Having fled the camp for home, desperate for a night’s undisturbed sleep, and worn out but still too speedy from the evening’s activities to go to bed, I switch on the TV. The remote being buggered I have to switch channels manually, and zapping, flash for a second on something called Cupido TV – I find myself both abhorred and enthralled. A lithe blond woman is suggesting that the girl who lives next door who just turned 18 and who you fantasise about having sex with, might actually be fantasising about having sex with you.

Before zapping further my attention is momentarily caught by the next ad where the precise tones of an exaggeratedly Surinamese accent exhorts viewers to pick up the phone, and dial the number if they want to ‘tame these wild women’. As racial stereotyping is also not an urgent issue here, we tolerate this.

Recently, Vincent Tabak, an architect who grew up in the midst of a culture which views ‘openness’ as the ultimate tolerance, was sentenced for the murder of his neighbour, whom he had never spoken, whom he imagined reciprocated his sexual interest, yet resisted and was then killed by him. Why is the idea of a link between these two occurrences so much more controversial than the link between violent school massacres and violent video games? Why is it that the exposure of Tabak’s watching of internet porn has been seized on only to confirm his guilt and has not re-opened any kind of debate about the link between (violent) porn and violence toward women?

At Occupy, brushing my teeth outside, with a beaker of water and spitting into the gutter, I become aware that this activity is a telltale sign that I am to spend the night here. And, made nervous by the staring of male passers by, I deliberately take a detour around the camp before going back inside the tent.

In the morning, using the civilised toilet in a friendly, rather arty café, I am confronted, on both sides of the toilet door, by an advertising window with a photograph of a young woman, looking provocatively over her shoulder, wearing nothing but a buttock revealing, lacy-edged thong. The text proclaims – I don’t give a shit, as long as he buys me Saph lingerie. Luckily my Swiss army knife fits the vandal free screws holding down the glass.

It’s not within the Occupy community that I feel unsafe, not within the Occupy community that I experience harassment – it is in the world outside, that I continually encounter the acceptable objectification of women that has become so normalised as to cause the sense of vulnerability and harassment to feel as if it is the normal state of affairs, a given, ‘natural’ phenomenon.

And yet, until an active presence with Occupy tackles these issues, takes them as seriously as other injustices, then the real safety of the camp – the safeness of shared beliefs and concerns – will be elusive. The number of women in the camp will continue to dwindle, and a chasm will remain, around which we will all carefully navigate whilst we go on pretending all is well, because dealing with our own prejudices may require delving deeper into assumptions about the meaning of tolerance than many Occupiers – both male and female – may as yet be prepared to do.

Jimini Hignett, 23 February 2012