Many major cities have one. The Red Light District in Amsterdam, Rue St Catherine in Montreal, Chinatown in San Francisco… the sexy/seedy part of town that tourists flock to in spite of themselves. It may be to indulge in some sexual deviance that they save for travelling, or it may be just to get a glimpse of the naughtiness that hides in these sections of big cities.
Last night, my wife and I visited the Pigale district in Paris. A few observations:
First, that Pigale exists at all. Paris is suppose to be the city of love and sexual liberalism. Yet, outside of Pigale you will rarely find a sex shop or strip club or other North American-styled ‘adult’ entertainment. Maybe Parisians are simply above the frat-boy juvenility of it. Paris is not fearful of sex… they have more lingerie shops than anyplace I have ever visited and displays of sexuality in advertising and entertainment are prolific. Sex simply simply don’t seem naughty enough to keep it in special shops or clubs. Except for tourists.
Secondly, Pigale must be one of the tackiest places in the world. I’ve been to the sex districts of many cities, but none is quite as florescent, seedy or in-your-face as Pigale. Massive neon signs advertising ‘sex shows’, ‘sex shops’, sexy movies’ are absolutely everywhere. Hawkers trying to get you into their show are loud and aggressive. And any pretense of class or romanticism is very clearly left at the door of Pigale.
Finally, it seems like a massive sham. The sex shops sell the crappiest, cheapest sex products you can imagine; Lelo and ‘phthalate-free are definitely not in the lexicon of these places. The sex shows are veiled in mystery and deceit; in Amsterdam, sex shows are proud and transparent on issues of cost and content; in Pagale, you are asked to pay an outrageous cover charge, told the minimum number of drinks that must be purchased and assured the show will be ‘very sexy’… the real cost and the actual content is all left unknowable. And for good reason… by all accounts the prices are exorbitant and the shows uninteresting.
I know I sound uptight writing this. But quite the opposite is true. I love a good sex district. I like the idea that a part of a city is left open to vice and sexuality in a way that might be too edgy or alienating from the rest of the city. I love Amsterdam’s red light district and Montreal’s Rue St Catherine is a blast. They are places you can go to enjoy the fun side of sex.
But Pigale left me feeling dirty… And I think that is by design. I believe Paris hates Pigale; it is a place that’s been taken over by swindlers prying on naïve and sexually repressed tourists that can’t do better than the cheap – yet crazily expensive – thrills that Pigale exposes them to. And the rest of Paris simply laughs at their desperation.