The sky was spitting in the freshness of the evening.  A slight breeze wandered down the narrow streets and caressed the small, arched bridges of the city.  The night was to be yet another of reasonable weather and fair social happenings in this sprawling urban area.

My walk through the circular streets of the central part of the city had carried me round and round, breathing in the late fall air while enjoying the sights and sounds.  Yet it was that corner, that turn into a certain place I will not soon forgot.

Short and terse was the man as he asked, ‘How much?’ to the woman through the half open door.  It was a simple question, thinking back to the day now, yet it stuck with me so – the sight, the sound of their voices, the quandary of the questioner.

Her reply, without hesitation, was ’60.’

The man chose not to pursue, closed the door, and took the three concrete steps back down to the narrow lane.  My steps continued to take me past him and the woman in the window; I, an unnoticed passerby.

He, an obvious foreigner perusing the few isles of windows looking for something only he could tell of.  She, a woman sitting in a red-lit window waiting for her next customer.  A man and a woman, both seeking to fill some pleasure or need or want or desire.  There would be no romance had their relationship persisted; simply sex or some derivative thereof.

I never intended to find myself in the red light district of Amsterdam.  My time in this wonderfully unique and beautiful city was split by an excursion to Germany to visit a friend over a long weekend. When I land in a new city, or arrive in a new place, I enjoy simply walking the streets to get a feel for the culture, the people, and this place I’m in.  Occasionally I use a map, or at least carry one, but more often I go without and, well, just go.

Earlier in the day I had looked at the map, making a mental note of the location of the designated red-light district, and hoping to avoid it at all costs.  The city has so much more to it – so rich with history, quaint houseboats, canals, bicycles, people, French fries covered in mayonnaise – absolutely so much.  Yet this city remains widely renowned for the presence of prostitution.

Perhaps I was worried about how it might appear if I did purposefully walk through the red light district.  I’d been volunteering overseas for some time with a non-profit organization up until just recently at this point in my life, and was finding accommodation with a similar organization while in this ringed city.  How would it sound to say to my newly acquainted fellow workers that I was just off to go and check out the red light district?  Not a sentence I could imagine speaking with my values and beliefs.

The red lighting in this skin-alley betray a slow sadness that creeps in this part of the city.  A part of the city where prostitution is legal.  A part of the city where red fluorescent lights hide the lines in women’s faces.  A part of the city where women wait for their next customer, their next trick.  It is a part of the city where men find no shame in their lust and commoditizing of women.

The reality is that I feared what I did not know – feared that I, as a man, would be drawn to impulse and also find myself not seeing the woman, the fellow human, in the window.  Rather my eyes might see only the soft lines of the flesh, eyes that would caress the exposed skin from a safe distance, and an imagination that may go elsewhere leading to an internal place I should not, and could not, go.

I’m a man, through and through.  Attracted to women, captivated by them, and in love with them.  But, I’m a man.  Visual beauty is the first that I notice, the beauty within has become the second treasure to unearth, and is oft lost to the overt attention paid to the physical form standing before me.

This I know, that my journey to value a woman for all that she is has been a hard fought battle, continuing to this day.  Walking through the valley of pornographic addiction has cast a great shadow upon my own journey.  Overcoming such obsession has allowed great freedom emotionally and physically, yet the mark has been made – a tattoo on my soul that forever is a reminder from whence I came.

Some say scars are there to remind us of where we once came from.  In ancient days it was a practice among some Middle Eastern cultures to build a pile of stones to commemorate a significant event in a certain place – stones that would remind generations what took place here.  The journey bringing me through the haunting valley of pornography has ended in a place – a place where I have built my memorial stones.

It’s been nearly ten years ago since my addiction to pornography ended.  I can’t say how or why it ended, it just began to fade.  Not to say that it ended in a sudden moment of time, only that it finally began to subside as my personal disgust and desire to reach beyond such a shameful place outweighed any desire to stay in the midst of the desires that breed the lust for pornography.  It was not that I fought alone, certainly help came along the way, but I had to make conscience decision after conscience decision.

The addiction, the visual stimulation, the images, the objectification of women – it’s all nearly accepted as part of our ‘modern’ culture. This has all served to kill my ability to enter into healthy relationships – or it had anyway.  I failed to have many relationships where I could learn what it might take to romance a woman.  This is what saddens me most – the personal impact my journey has had on my own relationships and view of women.

Knowing now that pornography can lead to other heinous and vile actions, such as men seeking pleasure through prostitution, or in the very worst cases, becoming involved as the unwitting demand for sex trafficking.

You see, I can write about Romance & Sex, but I can’t speak with great authority on the subjects because I’ve yet to step into a relationship where I’ve fully embraced either.  What I can speak to is what has inhibited the ability of a young man such as myself to find himself confident to step into a place of vulnerability in a relationship due to the journey that I have walked.

My confidence in who I was became hollow and shadow-like as I passed from high school into college.  I’d always struggled with self-confidence as I grew, but this secret of mine became an internalized weapon cutting and wounding the values and the worth of who I was.  I struggled to relate to women for who they were – it was scary to talk to them and it worried me more that I would not be able to relate to them except in the two-dimensional images I was embarrassed to be familiar with.  Too scared to try and too embarrassed by my secret to admit I needed help.

Women fail to understand what pornography does to a man.  Actually, I think that men fail to understand what pornography does to a man.  I’ve had to learn, and have come to believe in recent years that my view of women is lacking – as if I’m missing something.  Women are beautiful – their eyes, their laughter, their natural tendencies for nurturing and compassion, their fashion, their bravery, their immense passion.  I am learning to value women for all that they are and I’m still learning.

I’ve also found as I’ve walked through a number of relationships with women recently, that it is our confidence in who we are as men and how we visibly value ourselves and value others that significantly impacts the intimacy of the relationships we hold dear.  We men also have a role to play in this Romance – a strong humility, a rugged passion, a purposed journey.

You see, I didn’t value who I was walking this road I’ve walked
in past years.  I didn’t value the fact that I was attractive, that I was worthy of relationship.  Nor did I understand that my actions of seeking out sexual fantasies through what appeared to be harmless pornography would lead to such shame of myself, and to looking at women not for who they are but for how they look.  It’s an addiction that is not easy to heal from.  Years later I feel the wounds are nearly gone, but always sensitive.

I’m thankful that I’ve not been that man peeking his head in the doorway to inquire of how much a woman would cost.  Yet I’m acutely aware that my thoughts have hardly been different in moments over the years – it was only my actions that prevented me from taking his place. Thankful I am, but heartbroken that so many seek sex and romance in so dreadful a manner.

We, as humans, are intended for relationships.  We are intended for intimacy.  Romance and sex can be so rich, so powerful, yet when we remove the intimate relationships, the committed partners, the communication of one another’s needs and desires, we become pleasure seekers who never find fulfillment nor find that which we believe we are looking for.  The great sabotage of allowing pleasure to be sought through impersonal means is that not only does it harm who we are and how we think, but it can destroy how we view and relate to those we care about most, the human we love.

I don’t know where the man ended up that night.  I suppose that he found what he was looking for and thought little as to the ripple effect of his actions.  His words still sound in my head.  Fresh, poignant, and terribly sad.  May we no longer seek the shadows and the shades of red.

Photo by Joel Filipe