Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Discovering the Other Side of The Red Light District: Amsterdam Exposed by David Wienir
By Kat Thomas
As you'll see from this interview, timing is everything in life. And so it was absolutely fitting that within hours of heading to Amsterdam for the first time, I sat down to interview David Wienir for his upcoming book: Amsterdam Exposed.
Welcome to an intimate look at the world's oldest profession! Wienir's latest book, Amsterdam Exposed: An American's Journey into The Red Light District, is an original and provocative travel memoir detailing his time in Amsterdam as an exchange student from Berkeley Law in the late 90's. Amsterdam Exposed tells the true one-of-a-kind story of an innocent exchange student who moves to Amsterdam hoping to write a book about The Red Light District and everything that ensues. While abroad Wienir befriends a prostitute named Emma, forever reshaping both of their perspectives on intimacy, commerce, sexuality, one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world, and the women who work there.
David Wienir is a business affairs executive at United Talent Agency and entertainment law instructor at UCLA Extension. Before UTA, he practiced law at two of the top entertainment law firms where he represented clients such as Steven Spielberg and Madonna. His previous books include Last Time: Labour's Lessons from the Sixties (co-authored with a Member of Parliament at the age of 23), The Diversity Hoax: Law Students Report from Berkeley (afterword by Dennis Prager), and Making It on Broadway: Actors' Tales of Climbing to the Top (foreword by Jason Alexander). Educated at Columbia, Oxford, The LSE, Berkeley Law, and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, David is married to Dr. Dina, a pioneer of the medical cannabis movement and the inspiration for the Nancy Botwin character in the show Weeds.
How did you get into this story?
I was on this path to being a lawyer, but I've always been artistic. Yet, I never thought about being an author till I became one. I studied Philosophy as an undergrad, so I'm a searcher. I'm looking for answers to questions. I think sometimes as an author you get tapped. You become a vehicle for sharing a story or conveying a message or opening up a world because you're uniquely situated to do so.
Ironically yesterday, I found the journal of the first time I backpacked through Amsterdam at age 20. It was kind of devastating to see how threatened I was by the space; what my preconceived notions were about that world. My first time there, Amsterdam was a place that when I got there I wanted nothing to do with it. I remember bragging in my journal to myself, how I went to these coffee shops and only drank that coffee and let everyone else smoke "the weed" because that wasn't the world I was brought up in. Fast forward my first year of law school where, I went to the Mustang Ranch briefly. There I spent a few hours just talking with one of the woman who worked there. That encounter really changed my understanding of prostitution. It dawned on me, she's really she's no different than I am. These are issues we're entrenched in. It took me time to to figure it all out, which I think shows there's hope for all of us.
And I think that's one of the major premises of the book. We often hear about women who are prostitutes and we want to label them. We want to judge them. We want to turn them into these two-dimensional beings and stick them on the lower tiers of society so we can be superior to them. I think that's one of the main problems when it comes to prostitution. We're not going to change industry, it's the world's oldest profession, but we can do a whole lot better as a society to recognize them as human beings.
What's one of the preconceived notions of The Red Light District you'd like to change?
Often it doesn't have to do with sex. Yet because people perceive that it's all about sex, they see it as such a threatening world. This book is surprisingly provocative by showing innocence in this space. It's challenging by talking about the the place sexuality holds in people's lives. Prostitution in Amsterdam has gone on for hundreds of years, but there's only been a couple little pamphlets and guidebooks written about The Red Light District. It's almost like they're completely forgotten the women working there. I think most people look at The Red Light District as either hating it as this evil thing or they romanticize it. The thing that I think is probably the most threatening about this book, and the thing that I'm the most proud of, is how non-judgmental the book is towards the concept of The Red Light District and prostitution.
How has The Red District changed since you were there?
It's a very different Amsterdam than was in this book. Today, the District is fighting for its survival. It's the subject that people are really wrestling with. When I was there in 1999 there were 520 windows in Amsterdam, as of 2016 there were 324. That's a 25% reduction. In Arnhem, where Emma started, their Red Light District used to have 300 windows when I was there, now it no longer even exists.
What do you think is the bigger perspective of this book?
The fact that we had a human connection in a place where that wasn't permitted, that really took me off guard. To be able to build trust with one of these women in the windows is unheard of, it doesn't happen.
At the end of book I reference the idea from Eastern culture called "The Red Thread of Fate," which is the idea that this energy connects two people together. They are meant to be in each others life for a reason and change each other for the better. It was something that was definitely there. The way I connected with Emma was I bought all these flowers and presented them to her. In that moment, almost with a sense of desperation, I felt I had to give them to her. I needed to change her day, to brighten it just a bit. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. It lead to something pretty spectacular and I hope that that moment is inspiring. Not just to people who go to The District, but to human interaction overall.
What do you make of the fact that you didn't write this book for 20 years?
This book for me is about providing voices to the women in the windows, but even so it took me a long time to get to be able to do so. It was about getting to a point where I was able to share myself.
Early in my career I was working at a big formal international firm. This was followed by working at the two top talent boutiques representing Madonna and Steven Spielberg. That was an environment where I felt I would be judged. It wasn't until I got married a couple of years ago that I could fully put myself in the book and realize it was as much about my transformation as it was about Emma's. I really acknowledge my wife for allowing me, and pushing me, to finally embrace this story.
What do you think this book says about sexuality?
It's not a sanitized book. Sex is a very taboo subject; it's a world that most people don't want you talking about it. It's obviously respectful, but I didn't let the PC culture make me write a PC book about a non-PC world.
It's not a scientific book, it's about opening up a world and telling one tale behind one of those windows. Even though I have a background in public policy from the London School of Economics, this book is not trying to be social science. I'm not trying to speak for every women in Amsterdam who works in a window, as I shouldn't.
At the end of the day, it's a sweet simple platonic love story between a 26 year old law student and an Amsterdam prostitute.
Kat Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Edible Skinny, a site dedicated to making your life postcard worthy. She is also the CEO of the creative media company This Way Adventures. You can find more about both brands at http://www.thiswayadventures.com