Running the Red Light

As we strolled by the famous Theatre Casa Rosso, Amsterdam’s mecca of live sex shows, our Red Light District tour guide, an American expat with an aptly ribald air, offered the small group a couple of tips. 

“I strongly suggest you go to a live sex show, where you see people actually having sex on stage. And I think you should try the nearby peep show, where you can watch various sex acts through a little window at a cost of 2 euros for two minutes. It’s a riot.”

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Red Light District canal lined with lust and live sex shows. The fabled Casa Rosso on the left.

She chuckled at her naughty proposals, but she wasn’t kidding. While others in the tour vacantly snapped photos, she took me aside and stressed what a kick the peep shows are in language I won’t share on this page. 

Of course I took the bait. I was in Amsterdam last week and, as always in my travels, I strive for an immersive experience. I’d already caught one of the live sex shows during a previous visit to the city years ago. (It was one of the least sexy spectacles I’ve ever seen.)

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Perhaps the oldest coffeeshop in Amsterdam, The Bulldog, where pot and hash are sold and smoked. It’s also the most touristy.

So I went for the peep show, because at 2 euros ($2.37) there’s little to lose. The peep show theater is like most of the live sex show venues on the lip of the canal — dark with black walls and a few colorful lights. I walked into a broom-closet-size booth, dropped a coin into the slot, and a small window slid open. The whole thing smelled of disinfectant.

On view was a young woman in a thong bikini writhing on the floor, occasionally shaking her tush at my window, then writhing some more. Immediately bored, a tad nauseated, I lasted about 52 seconds. It was unsexy, unsavory, underwhelming. Moral qualms weren’t at play; aesthetics were. Yet I didn’t feel burned as I left. I didn’t know what to expect, although the tour guide promised miles more than what I saw. Glad I missed it.

Next to the fierce, hands-on-hips prostitutes rapping their glass windows to get my attention, that was the extent of the “sexy” side of the Red Light I endured on this visit. I skipped the ultra-raunchy Sexmuseum Amsterdam (I did that on the last trip; one word: bestiality) and the softer Erotic Museum, and eschewed the glut of tawdry sex shops selling so much rubber, leather and latex, eye-popping erotica so loony it was comical.

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Red-lighted brothel windows where sex workers showoff their merchandise.

Shot through with Instagram-ready canals and curling medieval alleyways, the Red Light District is so iconic it’s practically a cliché. Pot-peddling coffeeshops, bondage and condom stores, coitus and cannabis museums — a cornucopia of no-no’s that happen to be gleefully and legally A-OK. It’s a degenerate’s playground, a voyeur’s wonderland, and an exotic otherworld for the blamelessly curious.

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Oude Kerk

Rinsed of its notorious junky past, the Red Light is safe, clean and aggressively touristy. It can be enigmatic, and incongruities abound: Next to the Princess Juliana Nursery School, where children of sex workers attend, are not only brothels, but also the gothic 14th-century church De Oude Kerk (The Old Church), once Catholic and now a bastion of Dutch Protestantism. It’s the oldest building in Amsterdam. Around the corner is the city’s comparatively staid Chinatown, crackling with ethnic eateries, whole cooked ducks dangling in windows.

While pot-smoky coffeeshops and party-hearty bars lace the neighborhood — see The Bulldog chain — hidden gems are nestled amid the mild mayhem. Just off a canal, tucked in a snug alley, sits the jenever (Dutch gin) tasting tavern Wynand-Fockink, a 17th-century distillery of international renown that packs ‘em into its W.C.-sized room. 

The flavored and unflavored jenevers — scores of varieties line the back wall — are poured liberally in tulip glasses for free tastings. I tried a range of five, settling on a lemon-infused concoction that was as refreshing as lemonade, but with snap. 

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Some of my samples at the jenever tasting at Wynand-Fockink.

Frankly, it had more bite, imagination and personality than the pallid peep show I stumbled out of moments earlier. A good stiff drink is always a powerful antidote to a spirit-sucking sex show.

The Red Light District can’t quite transcend hard-stuck stereotypes. Yet physically it’s startlingly pretty, graced with old, skinny gabled houses, tree-lined canals and cobblestone pathways. It’s one of the city’s homiest hoods. Bicycles asphyxiate streets with a collective smile, wind-blown hair and the musical clangching of tiny bells.

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The District bristles with fast food stalls and it’s prime for the mandatory frites, or fries, drowned in mayo. A mad confusion of tourist shops tout the gamut: T-shirts and postcards, psychedelic mushrooms, pot-infused lollipops, trip-happy Space Cakes, bongs, pipes and papers, condoms and cock rings.

You can’t help smirking at this uninhibited XXX Disneyland, which broadcasts its checkered past in blazing neon and, with equally cheeky pride, trumpets a checkered present aspiring to smutty heights. Yet if it knows no limits, it’s clear that most of its visitors do. (As you’d expect, the later it gets, the rowdier it gets.)

The District is hardly running amok (see these safety measures for sex workers), even if some imaginations do. With few exceptions, the place is shrink-wrapped, condom-coated, safe and, counterintuitively, good, clean fun. It’s naughty, but nice.

 

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