I visited the Sex Museum in Amsterdam.
It is positioned as the Venus temple and the world’s first and oldest sex museum. The museum is hard to miss. It is located on Damrak street, in the heart of Amsterdam about 100 metres from the Dam square, normally filled with tourists and pigeons and a 6 minute walk to the centre of the red light district. The Sex museum pops out like a flasher on a street that is dominated by the mundane sight of supermarkets, tour operators, eateries souvenir and forex shops.
This is typical Amsterdam where sex work is decriminalised and has earned respectability as legitimate work.
During the regular Corona press conferences to announce new restrictions and regulations, sex workers enjoyed legal recognition. I watched the news with a mix of amazement and amusement as sex workers held their own in the recurring anti-lockdown protests and presented their counter proposals of how to handle their corona hygiene protocols. For most of 2021, one could visit a brothel, while museums and cultural theatres remained closed.
Despite this progressive face, the city of Amsterdam has been debating the uncertain future of a red light district that still draws in hordes of tourists eager to ogle and take selfies in front of the red curtains, where scantily-clad women stand behind the glass like flawless mannequins.
Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amsterdam’s mayor Femke Halsema had threatened drastic steps to curb the flow of European budget tourism by reforming the district to protect the sex workers from rambunctious visitors. Other radical propositions included moving the red light district to a different city and cracking down on cannabis cafes to dissuade tourists who turn into a public nuisance for residents.
Some changes have been made. The window brothels have reduced and other businesses have taken over. The city council has purchased buildings in an effort to slow down the visitors who had before the COVID-19 pandemic overrun the oldest and one of the most beautiful parts of the Dutch capital.
The district is not all sleaze and if you happen to stray past it in the daytime, you find an idyllic Dutch urban neighbourhood. Known as the De Wallen area, the red light district is a network of interconnected narrow streets that is also a residential area and there is an old church, the Oude Kerk in Dutch, right in the middle of it.
Smoothie bars are found next to sex shops. Strip clubs and condoms shops stand alongside indie art galleries and hairdressers. On the upper floors, you sight residents doing ordinary things like airing duvets out of their windows or tending to potted plants on narrow balconies.
Historically, the proximity to the docks has made the Wallen district home to prostitution for centuries and in an interesting plot twist, the city trying to protect the sex workers and its reputation from the avalanche of low budget tourism. There is the issue of human trafficking and drug running underlining this concern and the city appears to be leaning towards the comforts of its wealthier residents.
The spread of gentrification marches on in Amsterdam and I am sure in the next 10 years, the Red Light District will be barely recognisable.
On this wintry morning, I walked into the Sex museum unsure of what to expect. I stepped on the red carpet leading to the ticket booth to meet the friendly older face of the man behind the glass barrier. He was lean and wore a white shirt and black trousers and could have easily passed for a bus driver. He scanned my ticket and asked for my Corona pass which is a compulsory requirement for access to all public venues in the Netherlands, after which he warmly ushered me in.
I read that this is one of the busiest museums in Amsterdam but I appeared to be the only visitor at midday.
The museum is modelled out of a 17th century building and designed to be a labyrinth of rooms and corridors to mimic the experience of a walk through time. There are glass displays on both sides, numbered arrows to guide you along and spiral staircases that lead to a large collection of erotic objects, sculptures and art dating back to the 15th century.
A few steps in and I heard whistling. Out of a narrow brick wall alleyway, a wax figure of a middle aged European male with long sideburns and a bushy moustache mechanically emerged. He wore a floppy hat, a shirt and tie underneath a tan trench coat and before I could register his presence, the coat was flung open, bearing all his naked glory and then he retreated as abruptly as he emerged, back into the dark alleyway.
I had just been flashed by a wax figure.
The museum is filled with these sort of robotic wax figures enacting scenes of the wide range of sleazy sex that were readily available on the streets of old Amsterdam. I met seductive courtesans in their boudoirs and enamored royals who fell for their charms. Some of the scenes are subtle and artistic but in the upper floors, the display becomes explicit as we explore the history of pornographic films and erotic photography.
Phalluses of all sizes call your attention throughout the museum.
The museum houses Amsterdam’s long prostitution tradition, tracing its evolution and influences, from a repressed sexual culture in the middle ages in Europe to the sexual revolution of the 60s. There is a section dedicated to eroticism and the allure of the East.
I hate to admit it but the museum felt like a walk down memory lane, at least for the 20th century part of the collection and this is coming from a kid who grew up sheltered in Nairobi in the 80s. My sexual education, long before I knew better was drawn from these popularised images of Western sexual debauchery.
I remembered the first black and white pornographic magazines that I encountered in the hands of risqué school mates and watching B-rated and grainy porn flicks at the only house with a VCR player in the estate. A gang of adolescents would fill the sitting room, staring at the small screen in fascination as white people had sex while the adults were away at work.
In college dorms, enterprising students held private screenings of porn movies in their rooms as part of the regular weekend entertainment. The rooms were always packed with a lively bunch of male students who commented through the scenes in the nonchalant manner you would assume when watching a weekend Premier League football match you had no stake in, such as Watford against Burnley.
The one item that got my mind racing was a movie poster from the 70s that I came across, titled the Sex World with the following log line,
“Welcome to the future…where every fantasy can be yours – for the taking”.
This movie poster was from an American sci-fi porn flick, set in a fictional pleasure resort where the invited guests were allowed to drop all their inhibitions and indulge in sexual fantasies aided by android sexbots. The movie was released in 1977.
I marveled at the power of imagination.
That future had come to pass. The commodification of sex through internet porn, artificial intelligence algorithms, adult dating apps like Tinder and the adult toy industry has legitimised the unquenched thirst for sexual gratification.
We now live in a world where the driving force of technologies that define everyday life are pioneered by the military and the porn industry. Pornsites are able to accumulate data that helps them create content that appeals to precise tastes. To put things in perspective, 125 million people visit Pornhub daily and its not even the pornographic site with the most traffic.
While in my teens, VHS pornographic videos influenced our sexual culture. It is now algorithms that normalise and drive sexual trends. Our very ideas of sex are algorithm generated and fed back to us as manifestation of our deepest desires. The sexual future of children is getting designed by artificial intelligence and it is sex that will be unattainable and unrealistic.
The Western world’s sexual perversions have become universal and sexual education is dictated by the porn industry. Nudity is equated with pornography and body image insecurities are pervasive and entrenched in society. Sex is celebrated as unbridled energy that finds no avenues for healthy expression.
How on earth does a young person learn to rise above this miseducation towards transformational intimacy and healthy sexual awareness of self that informs relationship with others?
The representation of blackness in the porn industry has grown into a waking reality. Black men and women identify with the physicality of their bodies and there is hardly ever any discourse on the function of energy. The Mandingo myth is still here with us and those who do not fit the stereotype develop all manner of inadequacies or accumulate compensation objects to increase self-worth.
Racial sex archetypes have a long and dark history but young black men still aspire to images of hypersexual and hyper masculine body types as the epitome of desirability.
We have internalised a pursuit of the orgasm and are divorced from our very essence. The capitalistic sexual model that rules the world is white and male and we have inherited the desires of others.
Thus, throughout adulthood, the sex lives of African men are governed by imitation, constraints, fear and guilt. Dating coaches occupy the vacuum created by the discontent and loss of connection to their true sexual selves. On social media, we read the stories of hurt and witness contests for power.
Our sex lives have to return to a place of wholeness and balance and it starts with an examination of the roots of our individual dysfunction. Sex is pleasure but it is also energy. Its value as a life force has to be rediscovered and rituals found that return us to its sacredness.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, author of, The Sex Lives of African Women (2019), blazes a trail with the curated stories of African women defining new norms and narratives of lived sexual experiences across cultures and geography.
We have been paying attention to the stories of other cultures for too long.
The audacious task ahead is to challenge these practices that we have accepted as universal norms, as we build a new body of knowledge that might save the next generation from skipping down this predetermined pornified path, like lambs to slaughter.