“All laws which can be violated without doing anyone any injury are laughed at.”

This blog was originally published on July 16, 2013 on the site Sexuality in Amsterdam, a series of blogs reflecting on a study abroad trip in the Netherlands by a small group of James Madison College at Michigan State University. The blog has since been deleted.

This morning, our group was first walked to our university with the help of Grace. Upon arrival, we were informed about the history of the building in which we would be primarily studying. It was the birthplace of the first multinational corporation, the Dutch East India Company. In addition to being extremely historically relevant, the building is also very beautiful. Our group then was introduced to our program’s liaison to the university, Casey Butler, who explained his own journey from being a “corporate slave” to deconstructing everything that he learned as an undergraduate business student. His journey reminded me of my own journey being a James Madison College student, and it was reassuring to hear that he was able to find his niche in the world. After hearing some information about the University of Amsterdam, and specifically the Graduate School of Social Sciences, we then were introduced to our first guest lecturer, David Bos

Professor Bos attempted to summarize and introduce us to the complex culture of the Dutch into a two hour lecture. It focused on the acceptance of homosexuality and tolerance more generally, including the legalization or acceptance of coffeehouses and euthanasia practices, and most prominently, the high level of secularization in the Netherlands. After his lecture, we finally came in contact with Gert Hekma whose several publications have prompted serious discussions in our group. His lecture, although he was sometimes hard to understand, focused on how pillarization allowed for the legalization of same-sex marriages in the Netherlands, but marginalized other sexual minorities. After his lecture, we were taken on another tour geared towards giving a visual representation of sexual citizenship, and while the tour was hard to hear, we were introduced to the government’s controversial gentrification plan called Project 1012, which is an attempt to centralize the Red Light District, reduce the number of coffeeshops, and revitalize districts which have fallen into disrepair. After our first day of classes literally exhausted our group (I can only speak for myself, however) we were rewarded with a dinner at an Indonesian restaurant, Sampurna, which was delicious and included in our program fee, which I enjoyed.

Delving more deeply into the first lecture, I will honest and say that I was surprised with all that I didn’t know about the Netherlands, specifically about their policy regarding drugs, prostitution, and euthanasia. I took for granted that smoking, selling, and growing weed was legal in the Netherlands, and I was shocked to hear that only smoking weed is legal, which made the existence and the worldwide recognition of Amsterdam coffeeshops very confusing. I was glad that we were first introduced to the fundamentals of Dutch culture, because we were introduced to an important quote that I really liked by 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “all laws which can be violated without doing anyone any injury are laughed at.” To me, this quote expresses quite a lot about the Dutch demeanor, as coffeeshops are technically illegal but because they encourage safe (“soft”) drug usage, and they’re good for the Dutch economy-we also learned that the Dutch are a very practical and profit-motivated people-their existence is “tolerated.” Branching off of this tolerance concept, I really enjoyed the distinction that David made between “tolerance” which is half acceptance and half rejection, and “acceptance” which is full acceptance and no rejection. Lastly, I think that it’s important to remember that although the Netherlands, and more specifically, Amsterdam, is generally more liberal than the United States, there are a lot of fronts (i.e. women working full time for equal wages) in which the Dutch are still grappling with reaching social equality. And this idea perfectly segways into Gert Hekma’s lecture.

After reading his articles, I was expecting Gert Hekma’s lecture to be very explicit and “out there” for lack of a better term. However, I was intrigued by his lecture as I continued to be exposed to the nuances of Dutch culture, acceptance, and tolerance. Predominately, I was stunned at the extent to which Gert was displeased with the gay rights movement-although we had heard that it was arguably the most successful gay rights movement in the world. Similarly to Gayle Rubin, he argued that “we” as mainstream citizens are afraid of the sexuality of young teens and children, and thus try to project them in various ways through abstinence campaigns or programs emphasizing normative sexual behavior. In fact, to me, he seemed to make the point that to some extent, the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Netherlands reinforced sexual normativity in the way that it didn’t support polygamy or other forms of sexual deviancy such as bestiality or inter-generational relationships (i.e. 13 year old gay man explores his sexual desires with 21 year old man). Overall, his lecture reminded me of the Gayle Rubin’s article that we read before class, specifically about her concept of “fundamental constitutional” or that legality of something like same-sex marriage doesn’t’ necessarily translate into social equality or acceptance, as a large proportion Dutch citizens are not okay with seeing two men kissing in public, but approve of same-sex marriage. And this leads me to wonder: do you really approve of same-sex marriage and relationships if you are uncomfortable to with seeing two men or two women showing affection in public?

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed living and studying in Amsterdam, and I’m excited to grow as a person as I learn all of the complexities involved with human sexuality. One “message of the day” that I’ve tried to embrace in light of the first few days in Amsterdam is: be careful with your word usage. Twice I’ve noticed that word choice has been a problem with the Dutch academics. The first time that I noticed this is when we were doing our introductions when a lot of us (including myself) referred to the United States as America, and we were then informed that referring to the United States as America is complicated-and arguable offensive-as America is comprised of two continents and several countries. The second time that I had to think about my use of vocabulary was in Bos’s lecture when he made a distinction between “gay marriage” and “marriage for same-sex couples.” It seems to me that the term “gay marriage” inherently implies that the marriage is different, separate, or less than more traditional forms of marriage. Also, the first day of class has left me with a couple questions:

  1. After our first day of lectures, we were taken on a tour of the red light district, and we spent a long time in front of the windows. Many people that I’ve talked to have expressed that it felt like we were observing these women like “animals in a zoo.” As academics, is this type of observation acceptable? Is it better to avoid spending a lot of time in the Red Light District while studying it? Or, should we treat these women as they are (i.e. working women) and thus, pay no attention to the fact that we could be hurting business by standing as a large group outside of their windows?
  2. In Gert Hekma’s lecture, he talked a lot about the sexual minorities in the Netherlands that have been left out of the equal rights agenda. Is it politically feasible to fight for the rights of perceived pedophiles? Has the gay rights movement been framed too inclusively to monogamous gay couples?

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