Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Down in the District

Curious, silly, ugly, and legal: It's Amsterdam's sex industry.

By Paul Gerald

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  The Japanese businessmen move nervously, as a pack, down the street. This is what they've come for, but now that they're here, they have a collective fit of shyness.

They pause in front of the big woman in the first window. They giggle and nudge each other. The woman stares back at them blankly. They move on. A barker for a sex show assaults them, throwing out some key Japanese vocabulary that makes them giggle. A few gasp and talk in hushed tones. Their body language says, "I might like to see that." They linger, discuss the price, but move on.

In the next window is a 5-foot-9-inch blonde, curvy and wearing very little. She smiles. The businessmen weeble and wobble. Body language says, "Actually, she's pretty hot!" More smiles from the blonde, a blown kiss, a crinkled finger. More nudging and punching on the street, more nervous laughter. An ambassador is picked to discuss prices. His report leads to a conference.

Another moment of group hesitation, then, reluctantly, they move on. The blonde waves. A couple wave back, then giggle. "I think she liked us." Around a corner they go. But at the last moment, one of them breaks away. The pack buzzes. Back to the blonde's window, and in. The trap is sprung, the curtain drawn.

Desires on display, a fetish parade, carnal commercialism: All this is the Red Light District in Amsterdam, a city whose collective reaction to such things is a prideful, and seemingly reasonable, tolerance. Every major city in the world has prostitutes; Amsterdam licenses theirs and allows them to work in clean, safe neighborhoods, with plainclothes cops everywhere. The women rent their windows by the night, and for the most part -- at least in the touristy areas -- don't seem to be the drugged-out slaves from clichéd assumptions. But appearances can be deceiving, especially under the red lights.

No matter who you are or what you're into sexually, you can get it in Amsterdam. The Red Light District, actually one of several in town, is a perfect microcosm of the city. By day, it's a neighborhood -- a lovely one, in fact, with canals and old buildings and cobblestones and quaint bridges. People live there. They walk through on their way someplace else. They eat lunch. It's at night that the show begins.

Like many other neighborhoods, this one has a dominant industry. Covington Pike has lots of car dealerships, Union Avenue downtown is loaded with restaurants and bars, and "De Wallen" in Amsterdam is home to the local sex industry. In Holland, it seems just as simple as that. If you're into such things, you know where to go. Otherwise, you'll never see it.

They've got sex museums with displays like early S-M gear. They've got sex shows with maybe a stripper of each gender and then various combinations of people having sex on stage. No sign of animals or anything seriously twisted. They've got places like the Banana Bar, which claims its waitresses have "a trademark banana routine." A fellow traveler proudly showed me a postcard which his waitress had written without using her hands. He winked and nudged like a Japanese businessman.

The "window girls" are just what they appear to be. You pick one and negotiate prices. It's in the details that most people eventually hit their own shyness barriers. Each position, each act, each turn of the clock, each of her garments removed -- each has a price. She closes the curtains, you both hit the bed that's within feet of the street, and you have what must be one of the least romantic experiences of your life.

The whole range of the sex industry is available in Amsterdam, from the window girls to "party houses" to "escort services." An Internet site (worldsexguide.org/Amsterdam.html) trades reviews of various girls and offers tips on the best places for everything from older, obese women to lesbian orgies. It's disturbingly frank.

So, for that matter, is the price negotiation with the window girls. I asked a couple for the rundown and was told that the most basic acts start at 100 gilders. That's about $60, and your time limit is 15 minutes. With the shows charging $30 admission and window girls at a $400-an-hour rate, it's clear that women's clothing isn't the only thing being stripped in De Wallen.

The whole scene manages to strip away whatever "romance" there ever was in the deal, leaving something that's part curiosity, part silliness, and part ugliness. It is, therefore, a must-visit if you're in Amsterdam. It is certainly one of the great people-watching areas in the world, and the first time through can be truly entertaining. The second time is odd. The third time, you might have some issues to work out.

Or you're just a customer, to which Amsterdam would seem to say, "Whatever," and then go on about its own business. Then you'd be like that Japanese businessman, who emerged 15 minutes later to a combination of applause and eager questions from the pack on the street -- as if he had either accomplished something great or been to some exotic land.

He hadn't, of course. He was just down in the district with the rest of us.

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