Red light, green light, one two three.

The second story: Tolerance

Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s installation, “We may have come in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now”

When I was walking to the train station from the Rijksmuseum last week, struggling to keep my new Van Gogh umbrella (“almond blossoms”) from being blown inside out by winter storm Ciara, I suddenly noticed red lights twinkling around the windows I was passing. Some kind of Mardi Gras celebration, I wondered, feeling just a teensy bit wistful. Then I saw the woman framed by the lights, clad only in a black lace bra and garters, looking bored. Of course: the red light district.

I have seen similar women as I walked from my boutique hotel in Groningen to the synagogue, and out the windows of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam, when I took students there to see an installation about refugees that had us struggling not to touch sheets of what looked like gold wrapping paper spread on the cathedral’s massive stone floor. The gold mylar blankets, frequently seen in photos of refugees after their harrowing sea crossings, serve to recall to visitors the intimate connection of this Dutch church to the sea, and to sailors, as a place of protection, blessing, and final rest.

The artist, Sara van Sonsbeeck, evokes Martin Luther King in her title, “We may have come in different ships but we’re in the same boat now,” but also reminds viewers that the church served an essential physical and imaginative role in a community dependent upon maritime industry. “The church was one of the few public, covered places where sails and nets could be mended, and a place where naval heroes were buried. The barrel vaulting was also fabricated like the inverted hull of a ship using shipbuilding techniques. And it is not for nothing that the main section of the church is traditionally known in Dutch as the ‘schip’, or nave. In the church there are actually fragments of paintings that feature motifs found on sailors’ tattoos.”

Like the installation in its local church, the Red Light District is part of a story of tolerance that is central to the Dutch narrative.The Netherlands became a haven for Jews after their Expulsion from Spain, and, despite its Calvinist outlook, adopted a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward Catholics in the 17th century.  The Dutch COC, founded in 1946 just after World War II, is the world’s oldest existing LGBTQ organization, and, on April 1, 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage. The Netherlands famously allows for the legal consumption (although not production) of marijuana, which you can buy in “coffee shops” (distinguished from cafes) throughout the country but particularly in Amsterdam.

And, of course, there’s the legalized sex trade. The Netherlands ranked 1 out of 167 countries, and was the only country to score an A, on the Global Slavery Index released by the Walk Free Foundation. But the trafficking figures in the Netherlands were reported to be five times higher than expected, with approximately 6250 victims a year, According to the report, 2 to 3 out of every thousand high school students falls under the control of a pimp, with authorities aware of only 11% of these situations.

On a more local level, my students tell me that, although sex education in the Netherlands is considered a model for other countries, access is variable. My “value creators” team (students at Windesheim Honours College are required to devote a semester to a team project designed to address one of the UN’s 17 sustainability goals) has chosen the topic of sex education for refugees. What the focus will be — anatomy and physiology, sexual harrassment, positive relationships, or how to give pleasure — has yet to be determined.

Like the complexities of the sex trade, my students remind me that tolerance is not static, but an exercise, something on which we must continually be working. Like Sarah van Sonsbeek’s golden sails, spread in the Oude Kerk, tolerance is not fixed; it must be expanded and furled and trimmed and maneuvered to catch the wind. Sometimes it needs to be mended. Sometimes there is no wind, and we all must row together.