A Visit to Amsterdam's Red-Light District

by Elvis Little

- Babyface -
- Sugarlips -
- Agnes -

I was in Amsterdam for three nights in November of 1995 to attend the High Times Cannabis Cup, and I visited a prostitute on each of those nights. I had never been to a prostitute before this trip to the Netherlands, and had never before paid for sex except perhaps in the less-direct ways typical of the male rôle in heterosexual courtship rituals. Because of this, my eyes were as wide open as are anyone's when embarking on something novel and taboo and interesting, yet I wore blinders as thick as any worn by a tourist treading with rookie feet on foreign shores.

On the one hand, relating this experience seems worthwhile and valuable, like a travelogue introducing those on the home front to the adventures of a wanderer in lands infrequently visited. On the other hand, those men who haven't been to a prostitute probably have some disgust toward the idea that would prejudice them toward reading my tale with either red-faced indignancy or secret, shameful envy; and those who have been can at best be somewhat amused at the ignorant wonder of a tyro john. Women's reactions may vary more -- some may be threatened, some may be offended, some may wonder if they should ask for a raise.

I was talking to a friend the other day about a one-night-stand I'd had with another man a couple of months ago, and how nice it was to be able to jump through all of the preliminaries, the social foreplay and courtship inuendo that seems to be a prerequisite for even the most casual heterosexual encounters, and hop in minutes from the moment that we recognized that we were mutually attracted and horny, to rutting furiously just off the dance floor. I realized at some point after relating this that I had been misunderstood -- that I'd given the impression of preferring this cut-to-the-quick fucking over the more leisurely anticipatory eroticism that I'd enjoyed with women.

Here, I again risk being misunderstood. I really enjoyed the no-strings-attached screw that comes from a prostitute who feels well-paid, but I don't prefer it to the more tangled and mutual intimacy of most noncommercial sexual encounters -- it's just that variety is the spice of life, and the fast-forward-to-the-juicy-bits semi-anonymous gay fuck, or the freedom from social and emotional monitoring that comes along with purchased whoopie, is a different and pleasant feeling that is also beautiful and nice now and again. (It is also important from time to time to be given an object lesson on the separability of love and sex. It's easy to confuse the two; I've certainly been guilty of it).

In my attitudes toward prostitution, I myself had been in the crossover red-faced lusty envy crowd -- on the one hand wishing that I had the political freedom, intestinal fortitude, and cash inflow to be able to hire sexual partners on occasion; but on the other hand certain that the whole enterprise of prostitution was morally corrupt and physically harmful -- exploitative of women and liable to spread disease.

But if I actually heard from prostitutes talking about their work, they didn't describe it as being inherently exploitative -- in fact these women, while they may not have been happy with the financial state which led them to consider prostitution as a good moneymaking option, did indeed find it to be a preferable alternative to other ways of making a living which were either insufficiently satisfying or insufficiently lucrative.

And the more I thought about prostitution, the less I understood the charge of exploitation. Typically in a money-for-services interaction, the person walking away with the profit is understood to be in the superior position -- or at least to be on equal footing. You don't say that you exploit your barber, your mechanic or your doctor.

Actually, to be fair, the feminist anti-prostitution argument can be more complex than just a charge that prostitution is an inherently degrading profession and proof that men are cruel brutes who find the degradation of women erotic. Not that the argument is any more convincing (to me, anyway) as its branches extend from these roots, but it is more sophisticated.

I now am more comfortable with the argument that true respect for women includes respecting their choice of whether or not to charge admission occasionally for access to their juicier orifices.

The epidemiological objection has taken a beating as well. The consensus among Dutch health authorities seems to be that prostitution is of a negligible risk when compared to, say, the singles bar scene. The prostitutes that I went to were religious about the proper use of condoms -- they would have made good actresses for safe-sex education films.

Still, I had to overcome an irrational feeling of visceral contamination that I felt when I imagined myself going to a prostitute. It seemed as though it would feel dirty, like cleaning the toilet or eating a piece of food that has dropped on the floor. I imagined myself staring at a whore's squeeze box and tallying in my head how many men had been inside this night, this week, this month. The evolutionary psychologists among us can speculate as to why I might not find this train of thought conducive to erotic arousal.

I also worried that by making the sexual experience part of a larger economic transaction, that it would become tarnished by money and made crass. I have a naïve view of sex as being sacramental, beautiful, other-worldly somehow, and I worried that by going to a prostitute I risked having a sexual encounter with all of the charm and magic of a conversation with the clown at Jack In The Box.

And how much would it cost? How much was a fair price? Was it like shopping for a car, where the sticker price is for a stripped-down model, and you have to pay through the nose for extra features? Might it be a set-up -- the prostitute glowing in the window like the antenna of a carniverous angler-fish, drawing tourists in to be devoured? I imagined being lured upstairs by some sweet young lingerie model and then being mugged by her merciless older brothers hiding in the next room or in the closet, like in some bad 1940s morality play disguised as a boot-camp sex-ed film.

I worried as well about what other people would think if they knew that I had visited a prostitute. I hoped that I could be open about it and be "out of the closet" with my friends, but I wasn't sure how they would react. Would they associate with me the same vague sort of contamination that I had been associating with the prostitutes themselves? Would they think that I was immoral or unconcerned about the plight of these poor, exploited sex slaves? Would they think that I was so sexually inept or ugly in personality that the only way I could get laid would be to pay for it? Would they be reluctant to be around me in a sexual context out of fears that I had picked up some sort of STD from one of the prostitutes?

Opposing these apprehensions were three main factors. One being my inclination to expand my horizons and try new things, especially in areas that violate my own deeply-felt taboos. Two being my obsessive, paranoid avoidance of relationships and romance over the previous several months during my slow recovery from a particularly cataclysmic disaster in my love life; a wise retreat on my part, I think, but one which was having a rather dulling effect on my sex life. Three being my literary pretensions which make me want to explore the extremes of human behavior and also explore in detail my own reactions to interesting and new circumstances as fuel for my artistic fires.

So I approached the red light district with the general gestalt of "Well, I'll try anything once -- it's bound to be a learning experience." I almost anticipated it being a chore that I'd better get through as soon as possible, not really thinking that I would enjoy it much. To my surprise, I ended up having a great time and repeating the experience, with different women, on the following two nights.

I had decided to take my time and cruise the main canal street that makes up the red-light district, along with the side alleys and some neighboring blocks. For those who have never been to Amsterdam, a brief description of the city's red-light district is in order.

The busier hunk of Amsterdam is a set of concentric horseshoe-shaped canals, with the gap in the horseshoe facing the central station. (Click here for a map.) These canals are lined on both sides with narrow (one-lane) brick-paved streets which are more often used as sidewalks or bike lanes than for motorized traffic. The buildings are three- and four-story brick structures that tend to deviate from the vertical by a degree or two, so that the shared walls of buildings often betray a lean in one or both.

In the red-light district, the bottom floors of many of these buildings have been converted into sets of small rooms -- or single rooms with small booths or chambers -- with large, door-sized windows facing the street. These windows are typically lined or overhung on the outside with red (or pink) lights. Inside, a prostitute poses (usually in lingerie or a thong bikini) under a black-light or a dim white light.

Imagine it's about eleven at night in the red-light district and you're walking along the brick-paved streets checking out the scene. To your left is the canal, to your right a series of prostitutes lit up in the windows, their lingerie like neon signs glowing white under the black-light as if illuminated from within; a live sex show with a barker out front trying to lure in an audience ("You've seen the girls in the windows, now come see the banana show!"); and an Amsterdam coffeeshop, where you can buy hashish and cannabis, magic mushrooms, poppers, space cakes, and good drinks.

Walking toward you is a flock of well-dressed Japanese tourists, including complete families, led by a tour guide walking backwards and pointing out remarkable points of interest, taking pictures and pointing at the women for rent. You hear an insistent knocking behind you. You turn and a prostitute is rapping with the ring on her finger against the inside of her window, trying to get your attention, inviting you in. You don't really like her smile, so you walk on slowly, looking at the whores one-by-one.

There is a great variety of ages, races, body-shapes, and come-ons. Some women sit on chairs looking out at the canal with bored expressions on their faces; others pose, dance, gyrate like "exotic dancers;" others eat fast food or do their nails; others open their doors and call out offers to interested-looking passers-by. You see a man in front of you walk up to a lit window and knock. The door opens and a price is negotiated. The man enters the room and takes off his jacket. The prostitute closes the door and shuts the drapes over the window.

Two policemen walk by casually, patrolling the area, trying to scare off the pickpockets and the hard-drug street vendors ("Hash, Ex-ta-zee, Coca, real good prices. What do you want? We've got good stuff") who try to get your attention as you cross over the bridges from one side of the canal to the other. You stop in at a sexual novelty store to get your bearings. Videos galore, magazines for every conceivable taste (for instance, the "animals" category is subdivided into specialties -- women with dogs, women with donkeys, men with cows, etc.; there is even a set of nudism magazines ostensibly made for kids in the naturalist subculture but which are obviously a compromise solution for making relatively non-threatening child pornography available to the pedophile set), dildoes, butt plugs, bondage supplies, poppers, desensitizing lotions for the premature-ejaculate/sore-anus crowd, lewd postcards of all varieties, video viewing booths equipped with leather couches and rolls of tissue.

You slip around the corner and into one of the zillion falafel restaurants that prey on cannabis-zonked tourists with raging munchies, ordering some inexpensive middle-eastern carbohydrate storm and sitting down to roll a doobie and think over your next move.

Okay. That mood set, we can switch back over to my recollection. It's Thursday night and I'm preparing, with some butterflies flitting about the digesting falafel in my gut, for my first outright sex purchase. I want to experience it fully, slowly, and in detail, so I window-shop carefully, walking slowly along the canal street, looking at the whores one by one and imagining myself bumping uglies with each of them. Some I don't give a second glance -- they're not my type in some superficial way. With others, I don't know until they make eye-contact with me whether or not I'd be interested in slipping behind their window curtain.

Men seem to have a much easier time than women in predicting how enjoyable a sexual encounter with a person might be based only on how the person looks. Women seem to need more input, or to rely on a larger variety of equally- or more-important factors. This may be the main reason why there isn't an equivalent red-light district for heterosexual women on the prowl. Usually, I knew with some certainty whether or not it was worth inquiring about a price within a few seconds after the prostitute noticed me checking her out and made eye contact with me.

Some, when they notice you eyeing them, will look at you with all of the amorous charm of a vulture-like used-car salesman -- others will give you one of a variety of "come-hither" lips-pursed, eye-blinking glances, and some even affect a shy, innocent, "Blush, Smile and Look Away" act (I found this the most alluring). Some are horribly pushy, opening their door and yelling down the street after you, demanding that you come back to haggle even if you aren't the slightest bit interested.

I approached one window for a price check. I knocked on the door frame and asked "How much?" when the door opened. "Fifty guilder for a fuck; fifty for a suck; one-hundred for both." I let this register and then said, "thank you; I may be back." "Whatever," she replied.

By the time I had visited all of the windows on the main canal-street and side-alleys, I had picked out two women whom I thought were the loveliest of the bunch -- a young woman, thin and in good shape, with long brown hair and a pretty face, a fashion-model type in a green neon thong bikini; and a petite baby-faced young woman with beautiful eyes and a soft, sexy voice. The prices held pretty steady from window to window, so I walked around the block to take a look at both again before deciding.

I ended up choosing Babyface. Given the 50 Guilder suck/fuck offer, I chose the latter, and she showed me the way to her small bedroom/office, escorting me ahead of her up the stairs. The room was windowless and small, with a low ceiling, and just enough space for a small bed, a sink, and a narrow dresser. I sat down on the bed and started to take off my shoes and Babyface asked where I was from. I told her I was from California and that I'd come into town for a few days for the Cannabis Cup, and asked her where she was from. She told me that she'd come over from Great Britain about a year and a half ago, that she loved it in Amsterdam and was never going home to her boring island.

I fumbled quietly with the rest of my clothes and she dropped her thong undies. I wasn't quite sure how to proceed, having never learned the prostitute/john negotiation protocol, and I guess it showed, because after exchanging some small talk about our travels, countries of origin, and vacation plans (she was planning on going to Turkey with a few other working girls with the money she'd saved), she asked "you aren't nervous, are you?" and I confessed that this was my first visit to a prostitute and that I was, in fact, a little nervous.

When I took off the last of my clothes, she noticed my tattoo and asked about it, and I told her the story behind it. I was trying to get to know Babyface through conversation, to be more comfortable with her, to help build the fantasy that she was here as a friend, not a professional. I reached over to her and put my arms around her and rubbed her very nice ass with my hands. "Can I take off your top?" I asked. "That costs 25 more," she told me. "Sneaky," I said, "but it's worth it." She took off the top and exposed two small, beautiful breasts that I spent some time nuzzling and kissing. "You have beautiful breasts," I told her (she did -- why give insincere complements to a prostitute?); "thanks," she said.

She sat down next to me on the bed and started playing with my cock with her hands while I nibbled on her neck and ran my hands down her back. "You can kiss me, but not on the mouth," she told me. "Okay," I said. When I was sufficiently stiff, she pulled out a condom, "would you like to put it on, or should I?" This turned out to be the only option I wouldn't be asked to pay extra for. I opted to have her put it on for me, but she had trouble unrolling it after it got past the glans and I took over.

She then lay back on the bed and spread her legs. "Could we do it doggy-style?" I asked, but she said that any deviation from the missionary position has another 25 Guilder charge, so I said, "forget it," and settled down. She was a little tight and dry, but eventually I built up a head of steam and we went to it. She was delightful to hold and delicious to fuck, but before long I got the two-minute warning -- "You have to finish pretty soon," she said. "Already?" I asked. "I have to pay the rent," she replied.

Thanks to some medication I'm taking it typically takes me a good deal of time to reach orgasm, and missionary position is not one of the best positions to bring me to climax, so I worried that for my seventy-five Guilders I wouldn't be able to come. That worry didn't help me relax enough to concentrate on sex and orgasm, so of course I didn't come in the allotted time. I asked if she could give me a hand job, but she insisted that she had to get back to her window. Finally, we agreed on another 25 Guilder payment which would allow me to masturbate while we caressed one another.

So much negotiation! Hardly a moment to relax and just fuck! And 100 Guilders (approx. U.S. $60) was a bit steep for a couple of minutes of rutting and a self-administered hand-job. (Actually, I just heard from a stripper in California that strippers who do a little extra work for tips charge $150 for a hand-job -- $60 seems like a bargain now for what I got. And a recently-busted call-girl ring based in Nevada was charging about $3,500 for a rent-a-twat) Still, it was fun, exciting, interesting, and I learned a lot from the conversation....

After I'd shot my wad and we were recomposing ourselves, we spent some time talking again. She said that she'd always wanted to visit the United States, and asked me about what the prospects for sex workers were there. I told her that there wasn't really a safe area for freelance prostitutes in the U.S., but that we of course had streetwalkers and also "escorts" and "private dancers" which were often covers for prostitutes. I forgot all about the legal brothels in Nevada until later. (I stopped by Babyface's office again on the third night, just to say hi and to tell her what I knew about the brothel situation in Nevada -- inviting her to call if she needs a place to crash while she's doing America).

I asked about how business was in Amsterdam, and she told me that November was a very slow month. "People are saving money for the Christmas season," she said. Still, she was doing okay. About 60% of her income was split between the house (rent) and a bodyguard/protector whom she said was hired "to protect me from the pimps." What the difference is between such a bodyguard and a pimp was too subtle for me to comprehend, but she clearly made a distinction.

"How old do you think I am?" she asked. I guessed 19. "24," she said, triumphantly, "it's my baby face." "Must come in handy here," I said. It was the feature that had most attracted me to her. My erotic fantasies are often riffs off of pleasant reminiscences of the intense, chaotic maelstrom of high-school-age sexuality, and so frequently my fantasy objects are teenagers (and I play the part of a teenager in these fantasies). I guess this youth fetishism isn't too unusual; I notice that the birthdates of Playboy centerfolds are starting to slide into the late 1970s.

The second night when I was walking around the red-light, I came upon one window occupied by a woman who seemed barely pubescent -- flat hips, seedlings pushing nipples up through the soil of her ribcage where one day breasts would bloom -- I almost expected her to be wearing braces or an orthodontic retainer. At first I thought that this was probably a woman in her late teens who just looked very young for her age and was augmenting this to her advantage to catch customers like me who dig the younger set. I leaned against a wall opposite the window (this was one of the alleys, not the main canal street) to look her over and decide whether I wanted to negotiate a price. But the more I looked, the more it seemed as though she were genuinely a kid; and as much as the idea of porking this teenybopper excited me, it also disturbed me too much to actually go through with it, so I moved on.

I don't know whether or not this woman was actually of age. I remember seeing two or three in my wanderings who seemed questionably adult. My first instinct is that with prostitution so above-board in the red-light, officials should be able to keep an eye out and make sure that all of the prostitutes are adults (I think the age of consent in the Netherlands is 16, but I don't know whether prostitution among girls that young is officially condoned). But I'm not sure this is the case, and while I could have used an argument like this to justify renting a pubescent body, I was feeling like exercising my sense of ethics instead.

In any case, on night number two I went to Sugarlips (the first two nights I superstitiously didn't ask the names of the prostitutes I visited, and only made up names for them afterwards). She was a sweet looker, possibly of North African descent, with a big, wild head of hair (that caused her no end of troubles when she was trying to freshen up between johns), big eyes, and olive-brown skin. Very friendly and cuddly, with an eager physical closeness -- whereas Babyface had enforced a prohibition on mouth-kisses, Sugarlips initiated delicious kisses and seemed to want to turn work into play.

Forty Guilders for a fuck was the price, but I was leery about another scene like the night before when I seemed to have spent more time bargaining than banging, so I offered 100 Guilders and proposed a scenario in which we would not be rushed and she would either flatly refuse to do something I asked or agree to it, but would not name any supplemental prices. After this initial negotiation (which was difficult -- her English wasn't very good and I don't know anything but English well enough to hold a conversation), we went upstairs.

Because of the orgasm-delaying side effects of my medication that I mentioned before, I had spent some time masturbating at one of the sex arcade video booths earlier in the evening, lighting up a joint and jacking off on the leather couch while watching dutch teenagers boinking one another on the screen. I probably spent a good 45 minutes to an hour bringing myself to the edge and backing off, so I was good and prepped by the time I picked out a whore.

True to our agreement, I was unrushed and never found a toll booth blocking my path when I was with Sugarlips. When she put on the condom, she immediately started sucking me off, without any prompting from me. I'm usually uninspired by vulcanized blowjobs, but this one was nice. After a while she stopped and I asked her to roll over on her side so I could enter her from behind. This took some effort, with the language barrier and all, but it was fun watching her assume all of the intermediate positions as her understanding of my request became more and more solid. ("Like this?" she'd ask, buns up, head down between her elbows. "No, not quite," but what a view...)

She gave my cock a vulcan death grip at the base with her fingers while I fucked her. I was curious as to why, but wasn't in the mood to try to negotiate the language barrier while we were boinking away, so I never did find out. My guess is either that she was sore or small and didn't want me to thrust that last inch or so inside of her, or that she had learned this technique as a manual cock-ring to elicit orgasm more rapidly.

It was amusing in retrospect to what extent I felt obligated to follow through on my rôle responsibilites as if the fuck I had just had were the culmination of the human mating ritual, instead of the goods delivered in an economic transaction. What you're buying is the fantasy, but the risk is that if the fantasy is delivered well, you'll be deceived. And if you're deceived, you're liable to do some silly things.

For example: When leaving the prostitute's office (like "doctor's office" is how I mean it, but it doesn't seem to work well in this context), I felt compelled to stop after opening the door to the street, turn around, and kiss her cheek before going on my way. As if she were my lover and my lunch hour was over, or I Ward Cleaver and she June. "Have a good day at work, dear!" Smooch

And stunningly, every time I turned, the cheek was there, was presented for kissing without protest, alarm, shock, mockery or disdain. And each time the kiss seemed familiar, expected, normal. This must happen all the time. I'm not the only one who does this. And the prostitutes either know this and give away the kiss free with any purchase as a marketing gimmick, or they subconsciously coöperate with the john's own subconscious to honor this element of the Homo sapiens mating dance with biological sincerity, defying the dominance of the impersonal standards of the marketplace that presume to rule even over our most primal instincts.

I think in fact that I recognized several such shared courtship rituals that were superfluous to the cash-for-services transaction. Perhaps this is a shared need between the john and prostitute to join in at least some of the moves of this dance; or maybe the prostitute merely feigns compliance with the steps, humoring the john, understanding at some level that the dance, more than the intercourse or the orgasm, is really the key to keeping the customer satisfied.

Agnes, my night #3, wasn't wearing lingerie or a bikini like the rest of the prostitutes; her style was to combine blue jeans with the top buttons undone and a white bra. Sexy, and reminiscent (in her freckles, frizzy hair down to the middle of her neck, and her bubblegum) of the Madonna-esque slut-fashion that swept my high school in the mid-1980s. Again she was in one of the side alleys that radiate away from the main canal street of the red-light. It seemed as though the district was informally divided into different types of women, as groups with similar ages, builds, and races were often found together. My favorites always seemed to be found in the dark, crowded alleys.

I rapped on the window-frame, Agnes opened the door, but we were thrown into another of those "this damn American only speaks English" things. I was trying to communicate how eagerly I wanted to get all of the financial negotiation out of the way before we hit the bed, and that I was willing to pay extra just to be unhurried and to be given carte blanche for a half-hour or so. I had to come up with a half dozen ways to express this before the message got across: "You don't want to fuck?" "No, I do want to fuck, I just don't want to haggle at the same time." "It costs the same if you don't want to fuck." "No, I do want to fuck!"

Where Babyface had been shrewd and friendly, and Sugarlips had been randy and delicious, Agnes was aloof but acquiescent -- distant, but in a way reminiscent of the sort of passive acceptance that often shows up as an artifact in the early development of a woman's sexual expression. In other words, I was able to fit the sort of blasé feedback I was getting from her into my fantasy by interpreting it as just another facet of a cultivated high school Madonna/whore image.

Although I had negotiated an "anything goes" half-hour, I was feeling more like exploiting the relatively unhurried aspect of it than the creative one. I spent some time going over her body with my hands and my mouth, became erect, put on a condom, asked her to lie on her stomach, and slowly banged away at her backside for the remaining time. The marijuana I had smoked that evening was coming on just perfectly for a good fuck, and I milked it for all it was worth, ending up with the best orgasm I'd had in months.

Meanwhile Agnes lay there passively, chewing gum, lost in her own thoughts, taking in the gasps, shudders and spasms of my long orgasm with total detached neutrality. I can imagine times when this would have disappointed me, but I didn't mind at all. Be as passive and daydreamy as you want to be, Ag, enjoy your bubblegum, just let me roll my thighs against your butt and sink my cock deep inside of you and hold your small breasts in my hands and I'll be happy.

Each night was interesting and special in its own way; I can't say which one I enjoyed more. Babyface was so gorgeous and personable that her ruthless, perpetual contract negotiation was more amusing than annoying, and I learned a lot from talking with her about business and pleasure. Sugarlips more than anyone scratched the fantasy itch of emotional intimacy and mutual lovemaking with her eager lips and plausibly genuine purring. Agnes was purely professional, but really hit the spot. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't skip a step.

Free speech court decision
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