Can a Prostitute Be a Sight?

By Rick Steves

Along with cafés filled with the sweet smell of marijuana, the second of Holland's touristic "oh wows" is legal prostitution. Around De Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam, practitioners of the world's oldest profession tempt souvenir-hunters. As the steeple chimes, girls from Jamaica holler "come on dahling..." Popular girls can charge €25-50 for a 20-minute visit and make around €500 a day. They fill out tax returns and many belong to a loosely organized union called the Red Thread.

All these red lights sprung from Amsterdam's old sailors' quarter on Zeedijk Street. Amsterdam seems to have taken everything sailors do, put it in a jar, and let it germinate for 200 years. Today that jar is open and browsers are welcome. (But keep your camera stowed. Sneak a photo and you're likely to endure the humiliation of a line of angry prostitutes screaming obscenities at you and pelting you with fruit or worse.)

Amsterdam's Red Light district is a hardcore, nonstop, live-couples, first-floor-straight, second-floor-gay, parade of humanity at its kinkiest. Americans who feel goofy gawking should remember that the area's streets are clogged with countless others — mostly from Asia and other parts of Europe — who are just as wide-eyed as you. The tour guide in me jumps at the opportunity to give a group such a unique memory as a Red Light ramble. The kid in me delights in the spectacle, while the father in me cringes at the sight of a ten-year-old schoolgirl, bookbag on her back, pondering a window full of dildos, whips, and inflatable orifices.

I've never seen a prostitute in my hometown. But when a tourist is "on the road," that road is often Skid Row. And in the old town centers, the sight of women selling their bodies can be hard to avoid. To be honest, I am powerfully fascinated by the drama of well-worn women in a male-dominated world, humiliating lonely men in grotty little rooms by charging them a day's wage for ten minutes of sexual fun. Still not exactly clear on who the "victims" are, I can barely resist swinging through the red-light-illuminated streets that border many European train stations.

Prostitution is everywhere in Europe. It always has been. In London, "models" keep the lanes of Soho crawling with lonely men on the prowl. In Paris, the impossibly friendly waitresses in Pigalle's velvety bars do their best to make a bottle of cheap champagne worth $100. Along Lisbon's Avenida da Liberdade, nubile girls compete coyly with Edith Bunkers wearing little more than a vest and panties. Oslo's prostitutes seem more drugged out than most. Beyond even covering up their needle marks, their eyes have a hollow Viking spaciness to them. Just off Barcelona's Ramblas, foul-mouthed ladies of the night fire off obscenities at gawkers. Just a condom shot from the Columbus statue, they congregate around a statue honoring the Canadian scientist who invented penicillin. And Frankfurt's towers of sexual power keep travelers — whether horny or just curious — with down-time between trains plenty busy. Several six-story "love towers" rattle with the commotion of men, parading like lusty chain gangs, up and down the fire escape-type stairs between corridors of girls. Sounding like someone selling a pig on the taste of corn they promise, "I'll make you very happy."

I'm just one of the faceless, rutting masses, rubbing shoulders with a hungry gaggle of Dutch boy regulars. We're gathered around a window featuring a sultry blonde, whose ability to shake her backside brings the gawking pedestrian flow to a halt. Faced with an exotic woman wearing a black lace power suit and enough lipstick to keep a third grader in crayons, eye contact alone leaves me weak — and ready to rejoin the cute and quaint Holland back in the sunshine.