09/08/2016 04:27 BST | Updated 09/08/2017 06:12 BST

The Warped Gender Politics of the Red Light District

Thomas Janisch via Getty Images

Amsterdam is a strange city. One's most debauched and warped fantasies are not, as they should be to one with decidedly English sensibilities, squirrelled away somewhere secret under a cloak of polite embarrassment. They're right there, at eye-level, for €10.99. Never before have I seen so many model penises (and I've been to Rome), sex shops and, frankly, such a brazen acknowledgement that sex exists.

But, although this might seem a perfect opportunity to declare one's unwavering liberalism, it has a real dark side (as does the decriminalisation of cannabis, another liberal favourite - it stinks). The majority of the paraphernalia we see in the Red Light District by day is constructed for the male gaze, whilst the night-time's famous red-lit strips offer a shocking lesson in gender politics.

There are, of course, the prostitutes themselves: nearly-naked women separated from the casual customer by a thin sheet of glass and fifty-odd euros - a third of the €150 price tag on hiring a window out per night for business. And whilst there are strong arguments for decriminalising the profession to protect those involved, this doesn't seem to be a reality in Amsterdam where, according to the Red Light Secrets Museum, up to 90% may be forced to work. And no, they don't get state welfare.

In the museum we heard harrowing tales of forced abortion, rape and even murder. Whilst prostitution could be a much safer and legitimate profession - perhaps it could even be empowering - its legality doesn't mean much without serious changes in attitude. Like porn, this is an industry built around aggressive male fantasies with little consideration for women: the only male prostitutes available in the Red Light District are for gay men.

Whilst visiting the Red Light District with an all-female group of friends, we were cat-called nearly fifty times. Nearly fifty. It was such a regular occurrence that we started counting out loud (and because "hey, sexy ladies" "forty-three" is wonderfully perplexing). Harassment is extremely common in an all-female group, and particularly on holiday when you're likely to go clubbing and meet other tourists; it wasn't the only inappropriate behaviour we witnessed in the city, but its high concentration in the Red Light District spoke volumes.

The men who made sex noises and heckled us throughout the area were surrounded with enormous visual reminders of what, in their eyes, spelled out the fact that all women are sexual commodities at their disposal. It is this belief, pervasive to varying degrees throughout our society - from rating MPs' cleavages in the Daily Mail to blaming victims of sexual assault - that underpins an awful lot of the everyday sexism women face.

Unwanted touching, unwanted sexual comments, obsession with female appearance, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, lads' mags, cat-calling and even rape all boil down to this idea that, although women aren't supposed to want or enjoy sex, men are entitled to it. Now, I'm not saying that Nuts is a gateway drug to rape, but I am saying that to curb misogyny's varying effects we have to hit it at its source. And I'm also saying that rape doesn't disproportionately effect women because men are animals who can't control their sexual impulses, but because some have been infected by this notion of entitlement.

It's this entitlement that makes cat-calling so common. If you're walking down the street, minding your own business, the subconscious of misogyny-infected men is saying "remind that woman that she exists to please you". It might come out as "I want to finger you" (real example) but it isn't a compliment. It is for this reason that Nottinghamshire Police Department's decision to recognise verbal manifestations of misogyny as hate crime is promising, and why its backlash was so inevitably pathetic.

But what can we do to challenge the status quo? We're already doing a pretty good job of proving that women are real human beings and not tits and arses inconveniently attached to a brain (no matter what this shot glass I saw on holiday would have you believe) and raising awareness for everyday sexism. Perhaps, as Obama himself has suggested, it's time we looked to men because, after all, misogyny isn't women's mess to clear up - and because gender stereotypes also damage them.

In the Red Light Secrets Museum there were personal stories of teenage boys who had paid a prostitute for their first ever sexual experience: a sad transaction for both parties, considering that these boys most likely feel ashamed of their virginity in a society which equates masculinity with sexually dominating women. It is the flip side of the coin which relentlessly sexualises women - someone's going to have to ogle all those Page Three models.

So when people belittle gender issues and roll their eyes at anyone who dares mention feminism, what they're saying is that they don't care that both women and men are forced into cruel and rigid gender roles, and all the implications that go with them. They're happy to ignore the very present reality that misogyny still lingers under every unturned rock in our society, an ugly remnant of the days when women's legal rights were restricted because, as I said before, attitudes don't change so quickly.

The Red Light District is effectively a safe space for creepy men; a place where they feel comfortable to openly air their sexist behaviours and leer at women because, being dominated by other creepy men, it feels like their territory. But I hold out hope that their backward views on masculinity and femininity are being eroded, even if it is only through the voice of one young guy who, looking around at the sex clubs and the brothels in bewilderment, said sadly that it's the weirdest place he's ever been.

Disclaimer: The Red Light District is one small part of Amsterdam, which is a beautiful city.