Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.
by Honey Rand
It wasn’t the first trip or last; it wasn’t the most memorable or cheapest, or most expensive. I went to Amsterdam for cheese, tulips, wooden shoes, and Heineken. It’s a big city. The streets are crowded and dirty, like many big cities, and there I learned that it was the smut capital of the western world. When you’re open to it, travel can be very enlightening. I was part of a couple, and together with another couple, we’d booked the weekend trip.
After tulips and cheese in the cheery countryside, the city was harsh. At the time, drugs and sex were an open secret, largely ignored by police and locals, primarily appealing to the tourists that overflowed the seedy streets. Less a secret, perhaps, than a tolerated indulgence, Amsterdam’s Red-Light District was a destination for a certain kind of tourist.
We lived in Germany, where I worked as a civilian for the American military. While living in Europe, I visited as many places a fourth-grade World Geography teacher had opened to me. Since then, I have had a bad case of wanderlust which I satisfied whenever I had the opportunity. At 17, I had lived in Greece for nearly a year after high school but never went to the Acropolis. Older, I went back to Greece and the Acropolis and planned to make the most of my time in Europe.
As we walked and talked, we noticed sandwich billboards along the street. Most of them promoted dancers and porn–and live sex shows. Women hung out of doors on the street and second-floor windows. They shouted at my friends and me; they taunted, teased, and invited us to pleasure.
Once I figured out that live sex shows were the “thing,” I needed to see one, if only to be able to talk about it later. Amsterdam granted permission for what might otherwise be unacceptable. Without much discussion, everyone agreed we would see a live sex show.
But how to choose which show to see? There were so many.
Our escorts were both Army officers and my boyfriend was a Catholic Sunday-school teacher as well. He decided that if we were going to do it, it had to be the right show. We listened to the inducements of the girls, their “business managers,” and the boys on the streets passing out leaflets. He made the big pick based on a sandwich sign outside a theater.
There was a bar, but surprisingly, when I asked for a beer, there was none. Champagne was apparently the official drink of the smut show. The guy behind the bar helpfully offered to go across the street to get me a beer. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
We trundled inside and took four seats in the back third of the theater.
It smelled musty—not moldy, though likely there was some of both. The people already there were scattered throughout the large room. It could probably seat 100 people, but, including us, there were fewer than 25. Some were couples, some loners. The house lights were up; even so, the theater was darkish.
The stage was set up like a bedroom. Bureau. Bed. Rug. Full-size, freestanding mirror. Fake pictures on fake walls. It was dingy. Depressing. On the bed was a teddy bear. He wasn’t huge, but big enough that a 4-year-old would be hard-pressed to drag him home from a store with Mom. He was brown—light brown.
A couple sat in the row in front of us. The woman was youngish, with chestnut brown hair that was shiny and clearly well-kept even through the subdued house lights. The man was older, gray-haired, and well-dressed, from what I could see. A beige Burberry raincoat was draped across both their laps. It hadn’t been raining.
We were laughing and talking about what a crazy thing we were doing. Could we talk about it? Could we tell people what we’d done? One of my jobs was supervising the Tour and Travel office…would I dare tell people what lay beyond Tulips and wooden shoes? The men joked that they were “officers and gentlemen through an Act of Congress” and wondered if visiting such a place would constitute “Conduct Unbecoming an Officer?” Probably not.
Looking around the theater, I began feeling embarrassed about the situation. About the same time, from the back of the theater, I heard, “Where’s the little American girl who wanted a beer?”
Everyone in the theater turned and looked.
I slipped low in my seat, head below the top of the seat’s back, and half-heartedly waved at the man, who cheerfully brought me the largest Heineken bottle I’d ever seen. Seriously, what was that—forty-eight ounces? My boyfriend stood and pulled out his wallet to pay and tip the guy.
Slumped in my chair and sipping my massive Heineken, I got the embarrassment giggles. They are the worst. I pictured someone telling my mother about this little excursion. I thought about trying to explain it to anyone. I started to giggle, stifling it at first. The young woman, partially covered by a raincoat, looked over her shoulder at me and smiled warmly. I could see how pretty she was even with a three-quarters view of her face. Perfect makeup.
I snorted. Giggles are contagious, and while the chestnut-haired woman began with a smile, she rolled on into full belly laughter, looking sideways at me as we snorted and laughed and gasped for air. Her companion looked back at me, as well. He wasn’t smiling. The woman looked at me as if to say, “What’s he going to do? What am I going to do?” and she kept laughing. I was out of control laughing, snatching breaths between outbursts. Then the house lights went down.
A heavy woman, droopy breasts visible through her fishnet top, came on stage. She was wearing satiny jogging shorts—popular in the 1980s. The sound system crackled with Elvis Presley singing Be My Teddy Bear.
She headed straight to Teddy Bear propped up on the unmade, dirty bed, where everyone could see a huge strap-on affixed to his torso. The woman danced and gyrated as we tried to stifle laughter. Oddly, with the lights down, I found it possible to gain a little control over myself.
Hidden in the dark, I was able to sit up again. I needed to be able to see the action. I had to see it to retell it. One thing I noticed was that the raincoat shared by the folks in front of me seemed to have a life of its own, bouncing along to the music blaring through the house speakers, slightly distorted.
The woman on the stage had a soft, loose body that jiggled and folded as she moved up and down on the dildo affixed to Teddy Bear.
Oh, let me be your teddy bear.
She was working it so hard that she began to sweat. Maybe it was the stage lights, maybe the physical activities. If she made a sound, it couldn’t be heard. The bear lay there, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, maybe thinking about baseball? My laugh could not be constrained. I was embarrassed being there, doing that. I tried to focus on the show, the heavy woman in the fishnet top “doing” Teddy Bear as Elvis sang, “…be my teddy bear…” and suddenly, it wasn’t funny.
I looked at the stage, and that woman was suddenly very, very real. This was no longer about a forbidden adventure. This was about someone who had sex on a stage, in front of people, for money or maybe drugs. I wondered what brought that woman to that place in her life. She was joined on the stage by a skinny man who marched straight to the bed, pulled her off bear, threw her on her back, and put himself inside her.
I was overcome by sadness.
I stared at the stage. The man was finished, the woman-on-bear action had begun again, and the “performance” continued.
I got up and left the theater. My friends stayed.
“That’s a real person,” I thought. “What brought her to this place? This time? Doing this thing?” I stood in the street alone, thinking about whether paying for the show was a good thing that supported the woman or a bad thing because she was trapped. At the time, the idea of sex slavery wasn’t in the public realm as it is today for people paying attention. As I stood there thinking about what just happened, a man bumped into me, “hashish?” he whispered.
I was troubled when I left the theater. Still, I did nothing. We were on vacation, and I was 20-something. What could I do? There was no Internet to explore. It was just a thing we did in a place where these things were done.
Over the years, I told friends about seeing a live sex show in Amsterdam, but this was to burnish my “holy crap, you did what?” image. I embellished and made my friends laugh and shake their heads, but in the back of my mind was that woman and how I felt at that moment.
At 16 or 17 years old, I was a tiny blonde—energetic, outgoing, fun, and friendly. And I didn’t want to cut up a frog. I didn’t object to biology; I just didn’t want to cut up a frog. A live frog. At least I think I think that was it. I had a rebellious streak. Still do. Sometimes I did, and still do, things to resist expectations. I think it’s a baseline trait. It was then, certainly. Some administrator or guidance counselor said I either had to take biology and dissect the frog or go to the Anatomy and Physiology teacher and beg him to let me into his class with no prerequisites. I chose the latter.
I was active in Forensics: public speaking, impromptu, informative, dramatic interpretation, and debate. In those years, I was a people person and liked everyone: I’d spent a lifetime charming adults into getting what I wanted.
I begged him to let me into his class, and he did. As it turned out, I traded dissecting a live frog for dissecting a fetal pig preserved in formaldehyde. Still, I was fascinated by the class material. I remember finding the location of the veins, arteries, and organs. I could remember the specific names of structures, but not always what they did or why there were important. From the text, I learned about how energy becomes available to cells. I started taking pantothenic acid to boost the Krebs cycle to increase my energy burn. Even though I was interested and worked hard, the material didn’t come naturally to me. Maybe I struggled to keep my grade in that class up. I was involved in several extracurricular activities, some in school and some not. Perhaps I was seeking help or extra credit. Maybe he offered to help. I met him after school in his private room, at the front of the classroom behind where he stood to lecture. I don’t remember any conversation.
He was neither attractive nor compelling in any way. He had a Lincolnesque face that was all sharp angles with a perpetual five o’clock shadow and sunken eyes. He had dark, curly, salt and pepper hair. Shaggy. Ungroomed. Balding on either side of his forehead, a shock of mop in the middle. He was likely more than twice my age. I remember nothing about his personality or demeanor. He was, on reflection, a big nothing.
Which is probably why he preyed on young girls.
Though I remembered what he looked like, it was recently reinforced when I found a picture of the Para-Med Club, where students interested in medicine grouped like chess or theater. There he was, slouched on the end of the top row sporting hairy, overgrown mutton chops, the sponsor. I was beside him, at least 18 inches away, hands folded in my lap. I looked like I was trying to stay as far away from him as possible.
When it happened, I was at his big, tall (to me) lecture table. Alone with him. Surely he locked the single door to the class. I remember he kissed me. Dead, dry lips. His old, dry tongue in my mouth. I remember him bending me forward over his lecture table; his pants quickly dropped, mine on. His hard-on was between my thighs. He encouraged my thighs to close, creating a tighter space for him. He thrust a few times, pressing hard against my backside. I do not recall being panicked or scared. I was startled, my brain on overdrive, trying to think about how to get away.
I pushed back from the table, grabbed my books and purse, and ran.
Eventually, I went to a social studies teacher I loved. “I don’t want to hear it,” he said.
At a party, I walked into a room where he was under another teenager. I excused myself, “I’m sorry,” I said as I closed the door behind me. She rolled off him, reaching for her clothes. She dressed and found me asking that I say nothing.
I said nothing about what I’d seen. I told no one what happened to me.
It’s not just that was so long ago. It’s that he was one in a series of men, mostly older men, who thought that they could take what they wanted. Who tried to, anyway. He wasn’t even the first. Maybe that woman on the stage in Amsterdam had no power or felt she had none, and maybe that’s why I reacted as I did and why she is so vivid in my memory, even today.
Because human trafficking is often in the news because of #MeToo, and younger men are enculturated differently; a woman’s response to male aggression can be different. Women have more effective alternatives that didn’t exist until recently. There can be consequences today though not always.
Not every performer is a prostitute, and not every prostitute is a sex slave. This sad ecosystem provides a wide range of services and payments, and like any lifestyle, people come to it from many places, some willingly, others not. Their stories are as diverse as their cultures, economic status, ages, genders, and sexual orientations. Pornography and the sex trades provide equal-opportunity degradation, live or video. No country is safe. No community is safe. No one is safe.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Amsterdam was all about sex and drugs, though today official tourism sources say the Red-Light District is a place to hang out. Still, a quick online search reveals touristy blogs and posts within the last five years that tell individual stories about live sex shows staged as dinner programs or peep shows. It’s more refined than when I visited. The scene has taken the frame of “entertainment,” likely with stratifications of filth and costs—production values. With enough money, you can wrap yourself in a cloak of entertainment without being troubled about how the men and women got into that performance.
Children are another matter altogether. Most sex tourists, at least those in Amsterdam, are looking at adult entertainment. The seamier places and countries traffic in children. Children are snatched and sold. Adults are tricked by inducements for modeling or work. They are promised jobs in foreign countries, waitressing or farm work, or cleaning–honest work that would allow them to send money home. Sometimes they are promised the chance to marry. There are as many promises as there are reasons to escape the lives that leave them and their families impoverished. But, when they get to their new location, promises are revealed as illusions; often, their papers are taken, and they are forced to work until their artificial, accumulated debt is paid. Sometimes there are beatings and rapes and unspeakable emotional and physical brutality.
Is that what happened to the woman with the teddy bear?
One of the first clients for my public relations firm was a man who was creepy and brilliant. He was very wealthy and accustomed to having things his way. Like wealthy men do.
He had a thing for younger women. Russian women. He’d bring them to the U.S. for a few months, and then they were gone. None stayed long, and I never asked where they went. I have to admit; they were beautiful. I knew he “ordered” them online, not a dating service, but a website where women were listed and said they were looking for husbands. As he explained it, he could bring them to the U.S., pay them for companionship, and then send them back or introduce them to his friends.
I met several of them. The girls seemed happy living in comfort. They smiled when I showed up at his house for meetings. I referred to the Russian girls as “the nymphs.”
When I first met him, he lived in a hovel. It was an old ranch-style house, dingy inside. Smarmy and dingy were two sides of the same coin. He added a million-dollar improvement to the hovel. It was a beautiful two levels, a gourmet kitchen, a massive bedroom and bathroom with marble countertops, and surrounds on the bottom floor—a two-story closet.
As he showed me around the spectacular new addition, I said, “Whoa, buddy, there’s not a lot of room to chase the nymphs.” “Baby, by the time they’re here, they don’t want to run,” he responded.
How different is the situation of Russian girls brought to the U.S. for companionship, maybe husbands, from the woman in the live sex show? Degrees of exploitation? Level of coercion? Whether they really get paid? Do they have a choice, those Russian women?
There are many kinds of slavery. Sex slaves and those forced to pick fruit and vegetables. There’s forced marriage and domestic workers. They share that they are not there by choice, they are not fully compensated for their labor, and they are shamed, beaten, and abused. They are trapped.
Was that woman in Amsterdam trapped? Did she need drugs? Did she have a baby or two to feed and seemingly no alternatives? Was she in an exploitative relationship? Surely starring in a sex show couldn’t be what she wanted.
I live in Tampa, home of the lap dance. During his first term, Mayor Buckhorn vowed to crack down on the nude dancing clubs that peppered the community. He and the city council had televised hearings about it late into the night. Some dancers spoke, and many people who didn’t like the dancing did, too. I lay in bed watching with my husband. “I want to get in the car and drive down there to support the girls,” I told him. But it was late, and I lived about 30 minutes away. Still, I was furious. Who was hurt here? Those girls made a living dancing; if the men wanted to pay them for a close dance, why not? If the places are correctly policed and licensed, so minors and traffickers are not there, why should people insert themselves and impose their values on others?
The dance clubs, according to those who study such things, are less an issue than massage parlors where some women, and it is usually women, are physically and emotionally trapped. But they are also trapped by the system. Having been transported from one country to another and had their papers confiscated, caught up in law enforcement raids, they are immediately sent for deportation as illegal aliens. The International Labor Organization estimates that worldwide human trafficking is a $150 billion-dollar industry. That doesn’t include organized crime money, laundering activities around the industry, or drugs that are frequently part of the business.
While pornography, performance (video and live), and trafficking can intersect in the U.S and elsewhere., they don’t always. And porn has its place in this space. Consider Stormy Daniels. She stars in porn films, has directed nearly 100 of them. She began her career as a 17-year-old stripper. In 2019, she launched a multi-state strip show, Make America Horny Again. It would be hard to argue that she is a victim except that she was molested when she was nine years old.
Because they think it will be easy money, some women turn to stripping. How hard can it be dancing in front of adoring men who slide dollars into what’s left as you peel off clothing one seductive piece at a time? Quite a few stripper memoirs are available today. Some authors focus on their own experience, and others focus on strippers they worked with. Many of these are told by close-to-middle-class or middle-class-wannabe white women. Some were stripper-curious and decided to write about it. Some talk about the challenges of linking their self-esteem directly to the money they make each night. A few address the seedier side of the business, like the fees paid to the house before work begins and the disgusting behavior of some men, women, and bridal and bachelor parties. It’s terrible, but mostly a choice for the women in the memoirs.
On the other hand, in the last few years, women have started telling their stories of being trafficked. A few years ago, Teresa Flores described being sold by boys in her high school. She was drugged at first; incriminating pictures were made, then she was shamed into doing as they asked. By day she went to high school. By night she was sold to strangers, groups of men, and singles. When she went to college, it was a relief. But then it wasn’t. Unable to sleep, she would get up and run. Unable to work off the anxiety, she went to a rape counselor who wasn’t equipped to deal with it and sent her to a group. The women in the group told their rape stories, but Teresa couldn’t relate, so she quit. She found her way to healing by trying to find and help other women. She began by distributing soap to the hotels where women like her might be taken. The soap was small and wrapped with an 800 number to call for help.
But help isn’t always forthcoming.
I was stationed at the American Forces Korea Network headquarters in Seoul, Korea. When there were community events in Osan, Taegu, or other remote bases, they often requested that I participate in the remote broadcast. I felt protected at events and even out on the town. Events took place on Air Force bases, so safety should never have been in question, but this once, it was.
We were trying out our new wireless mics. We had a small van and were connected to network headquarters, but we were free to walk around the event and talk to people. Korea wasn’t always an unaccompanied tour, so there were some soldiers and Air Force personnel with families, and there were always people who married locally with native wives and occasionally husbands. I walked around talking to people commenting on food and fun, generally trying to share the ambiance.
Dressed in satiny hot pink and turquoise shorts and a Wild Honey T-shirt, I also had a blonde afro. I stepped away from an interview, having “thrown it” back to the van…
And I was grabbed by four men. One each on arms and legs. They were laughing. People were watching. I struggled to break free. One stuck his hands down the back of my shorts. He had ice in his hand. I twisted and turned and struggled to get away. It was the middle of the day, with hundreds of people in the area. I flipped over trying to loosen their grip. With the microphone hand free, I hit one of them in the head. Hard. That shoulder dropped to the ground, the others lost their grip, and I was in the dirt before I knew it. Crying.
“What is wrong with you,” I sobbed. “You just treated me worse than you treat the whores downtown.”
One said, “We thought you’d be more fun.”
I returned to the van, crawled up to the roof, and stayed for the rest of the afternoon. I have a picture of myself sitting on the truck, microphone in hand.
Because I’d “thrown the broadcast” back to the van, the only witnesses were those attending the event and who didn’t come to help me. But, one of them reported the incident, and when asked, I could identify markings on their uniforms.
The following week I got a call from one of those men begging me to intercede on his behalf before the Air Force took disciplinary action against him.
“Think of my wife and kids,” he begged.
“Were you thinking of them when you had your hands down my pants?” I asked and hung up.
Polaris, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery, released a report detailing the extent of human trafficking in massage parlors. In the U.S., of the 32,000 cases reported to the national trafficking hotline, illicit massage accounted for 2,949 incidents, second only to escort services. It’s a $2.5 billion business where thousands of women are trafficked daily.
The report says women are not locked or chained inside these places yet are not free to go. They are mentally trapped. Recruited, frequently from Korea and China, with limited English, they are controlled through debt bondage, shame, and the manipulation of cultural cues. Most trapped women are 35-55 years old moms under excessive economic pressure, like the woman in Amsterdam.
On my last assignment in the Army, I was 20 years old and worked on the post newspaper. I was assigned to do a story on twins that were officers in the Corps of Engineers. One twin was set to take me to a curve in a river, and the other would paddle by with his team. I was to shoot pictures and interview them both about training. We stood in the woods talking and waiting. He stepped behind me and put his arms around me at some point. I came to the position of attention, and immediately, the officer in him knew he was in a no-go zone.
The woman onstage and the Russian women who came to the U.S. for opportunity all got to a place where their bodies were currency. A choice perhaps, but no real choice at all. Then there are those of us who were simply subject to male power and male privilege, their sense that they could take what they want. From women. From a woman. From me. Some of that is cultural, but it’s also about power. Men felt powerful when they touched, kissed, and rubbed against women who couldn’t resist or thought they couldn’t.
The last time a man touched me uninvited, I was 30 years old–well after that live sex show and well beyond when I thought of men, any man, touching me without permission. And yet, when the professor in charge of graduate admissions at the University of Washington informed me that I’d be admitted into the program, he took the liberty of slapping my ass as I left his office. I drove home, repeating to myself, “he slapped my ass.” And I did nothing about it.
That was about power. Maybe it’s all about power.
Memoirist and poet Mary Karr was raped as a child. Thereafter she was touched and taken until she called a halt to it. In her book Lit, she wondered, “Did I ask for it?” I wonder, too. My friends say that I am small, and cute, and vibrant, and some men take what they want until they cannot. Still, my position is privileged. That woman in Amsterdam likely didn’t have my options, my opportunities, my alternatives. The same for Russian women.
When I was assaulted, I could escape. Physically. Could she? Could they?
I remember these assaults. But I didn’t think of them as assaults until someone else gave them that label. I will always remember them because how could I not?
Even so, I’m not sure that physical escape is a complete break from whatever happens. What these men did to me, with me, no longer affects me; at least, I don’t think it does. Then again, I’m putting it on the page, letting them go. But what about her, the woman in Amsterdam? What about them, the Russian women? What about the others? I have no idea how that woman on the stage in Amsterdam got there, but I hope she found a way out, a way beyond, a way to get free and then to let it go.
Honey Rand has been published in newspapers and magazines for many years. She is the author of the book Water Wars: A story of people, politics and water. She’s been published in E Magazine, Bookends, Persimmon Literary Journal (forthcoming), Metronym Journal, Police One, Nurse Magazine and 50-word stories.