Seeing Red in Amsterdam

Mannekin in the Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands
The shops of Amsterdam's Red Light District cater to a not-easily-scandalized clientele.
By Rick Steves

With just a slight swing off Dam Square, I start walking down Warmoesstraat, one of Amsterdam's oldest streets. Lining the street are sex shops, a condom shop with a vast inventory, men-only leather bars, and a smartshop selling "100 percent natural products that play with the human senses." There's no doubt I've entered into Amsterdam's famous Red Light District.

The Red Light District is located in the old sailors' quarter. In fact, the city seems to have taken everything sailors did, put it in a jar, and let it germinate for 200 years. Today that jar is open, and browsers are welcome.

The Dutch have a similarly practical approach to prostitution as they do to the recreational use of marijuana. Rather than criminalize it, they control it with a policy they call "pragmatic harm reduction." Generally, prostitutes (or "sex workers") pay rent for their space and run an independent business with no need for pimps. They are unionized and get their business license only if they are periodically checked by a doctor and are not spreading diseases. If a prostitute has a dangerous client and needs help, she pushes a button to summon not a pimp, but the police.

By the time I reach the area around De Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam, I've hit the neighborhood's most dense concentration of prostitution. The church is the holy needle around which the unholy Red Light District spins. Rooms with big windows under red neon lights line the narrow alleys. In window after window, I see women in panties and bras winking at horny men, rapping on the window to attract attention, or looking disdainfully at sightseers. As the steeple chimes, women from Jamaica holler, "Come on, dahling."

Rubbing shoulders with a hungry gaggle of Dutch boy regulars, I rubberneck my way to the most popular window on the street. There, framed in smoky red velvet, stands a sultry blonde. Her ability to flex and shake her backside brings the slow, gawking pedestrian flow to a stuttering stop. And it makes me just one of the faceless, rutting masses. Next up: an exotic woman wearing a black lace power-suit and enough lipstick to keep a third grader in crayons. Just making eye contact leaves me weak — and ready to rejoin the cute and quaint Holland back in the sunshine.

The Dutch remind me that a society has to make a choice: Tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons. And they always follow that up by reminding me that Americans — so inclined to legislate morality — lock up seven times as many people per capita as Western Europeans do. Either Americans are inherently more criminal people, or we need to reconsider some of our laws.

By the end of my walk, I've seen a lot — from prostitutes to the ghosts of pioneer lesbians to politically active druggies with green thumbs. This is Amsterdam's hardcore, nonstop, live-couples, first-floor-straight, second-floor-gay paseo. The kid in me delights in the spectacle. The tour guide in me jumps at this opportunity to give readers such a unique memory as this red light ramble. But the father in me cringes at the sight of a 10-year-old schoolgirl, book bag on her back, studying a window full of vibrators, whips, and sex toys.

In truth, the Red Light District seems to have something to offend everyone. Whether it's in-your-face images of graphic sex, exploited immigrant women, whips and chains, passed-out drug addicts, the pungent smells of pot smoke and urine, or just the shameless commercialism of it all, it's not everyone's cup of tea. Amsterdam is a bold experiment in 21st-century freedom: It may box your Puritan ears. And though I encourage people to expand their horizons, it's perfectly OK to say, "No, thank you."

Now, it's time to go back to my hotel and take a shower.