Nothing sexy about Amsterdam's Red Light district

Cameron Atfield finds that, despite efforts to clean it up, Amsterdam's infamous Red Light district is still seedy and sad.

As I watch the couple having sex in front of me, I can't help but feel a little self-conscious about my new surrounds - and my fellow spectators.

“Yee-haa - drill her!” comes the cry from the rowdy, drunk Englishman across the room.

“Woo yeah!”

This is my first taste of Amsterdam's famous live sex shows – and it's not quite what I expected.

The natural assumption was that it would be just like a porno, only live, in person.

But within the walls of this dark, dingy theatre, I realised this was very different. This was a shared experience with strangers - not particularly pleasant strangers at that.

And, while I am no prude, the whole thing was more than a little ... wrong.

About 40 people are seated in the rows facing the stage. There are a few couples, a small group of women and one man sitting alone in the corner, with an overcoat probably at least three sizes too big.

I don't look in his direction again.

But in the main, the theatre is full of boozed-up men who left their manners at the door.

They whoop and holler their way through the entire "performance" - one even violently rips off his shirt.

The large security guards, discreetly positioned at the back of the room, watch with eagle eyes but don't make a move.

Onstage, the couple go through their choreographed routine, almost robotic as they switch positions with utmost efficiency.

Fifteen seconds here, then change.

Fifteen second there, then change.

All along the way, the obnoxious drunkards yell out words of “encouragement” to the man on stage.

But not to the woman. Never to the woman.

As they do this, I look at her face.

Is this where you wanted to be? Where you thought your life would end up? Do you enjoy being watched? Or is this a means to an end, borne of financial desperation?

I'll never know. But I will always wonder. And I'll always know that I contributed to the industry when I - along with the rest of the buck's party - shelled out the €30 admission fee.

When the couple is done (sans happy ending, from what we can tell), they stand, smile and wave as they accept the applause (well, whooping) of the audience.

They're followed by a succession of women performing various acts that can't really be described in any detail - needless to say, I'll never look at fruit salad the same way again.

So it's with a sense of relief that we exit the club and return to the hustle of De Wallen - Amsterdam's famous red light district.

There's no sugarcoating it - the place is seedy. Very seedy.

Some places are seedy but endearing. De Wallen is just seedy and sad.

The women in the windows gesture to the drunkards in the street, offering their wares with all the seduction they can muster.

We see seven men - yes, seven - pile in through one of the doors after a lengthy negotiation with a single prostitute.

It's a district that is synonymous with Amsterdam - but that's not a situation that sits well with all the locals.

In recent years, there have been moves to limit the size of the district. And the number of windows in which prostitutes can display their wares.

And there is concern among elected officials about Amsterdam being a hub of human trafficking, particularly from eastern Europe - which I may be about to come face to face with.

Somehow, in a futile search of decent food, I get separated from the rest of the party.

I lean over a bridge railing, spanning a canal, and observe the red light district in all its glory.

The drunkenness, the drugs, the prostitutes. The noise, the colour. The sadness.

It's not at all titillating - not at all sexy.

As I look down the canal, I hear a tapping to my left.

The scantily clad woman in the window has me in her sights, and she's tapping on her window to get my attention.

As she beckons me, I can feel my face blush. I'm not quite used to this caper.

“No thanks,” I sign emphatically, shaking my head and waving her away.

But she's insistent, so I walk over.

“Look, I'm really not interested, thank you," I tell her.

"In any case, I've only got €10 on me and you seem like a classy woman, so I really couldn't afford you.”

It wasn't until the sober light of the next morning that it dawned on me how condescending those comments were.

“But, how's your night going?” I ask.

"Busy," she says.

She tells me her name is Nathalia. She's from Romania, she's 42 and she's a single mother.

Nathalia has displayed herself in Amsterdam's windows for two years and charges €50 for every "encounter" – and she does it all for her daughter.

“I want her to have a better life,” she says.

Our conversation is interrupted by a northern Englishman.

“Hey, you gonna do her or what?” he says to me.

“Nah, she's all yours,” I say, and they disappear through the door. From the darkness, a large man is watching me.

I get the impression talking and not buying is frowned upon, so I make tracks and go off in search of a cab.

Several weeks later, on my long flight home, I watch the movie Taken on my in-flight entertainment system.

In it, Liam Neeson plays a father whose daughter is kidnapped in Paris by a prostitution ring, to live in sexual servitude for the benefit of wealthy men.

As I watch the movie, my mind wanders back to Amsterdam. And Nathalia.

De Wallen is an experience for sure. But not a pleasant one.

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