A Tour of the Last Wanking Booths in the Netherlands
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
With access to more porn than you could watch in a lifetime only a few clicks away, it's hard to imagine why anyone would still get in their car, head to a sex shop and pay actual money to sit on a sofa in a small room, watch porn and masturbate.
This universal truth is why wanking booths in porn shops around the world have been mostly boarded up – but there are a few of them still standing.
I wanted to how these booths remain profitable enough to stay open, so decided to visit the last ones in the Netherlands, speak to their owners and find out about the erotically nostalgic souls frequenting them.
Erotisch Warenhuis Mme Mercedess, The Hague
Mme Mercedess is a family-run business started by a woman who went by "Madame Mercedess", and was later run by her sister. The sex shop is located in an old stately building in the Hague, and the booths and the screening room are on the first floor, right above the shop. Current owner Simon tells me they used to have eight booths and are now down to four. In the early days, they showed Super 8 films. Behind the modern flat screen TVs in each booth, you can still see the large holes that held the projectors.
For €10 (£8.64), customers can pick out a DVD in the store and watch it privately in one of the booths. When it's busy, the time limit for renting a booth is restricted to two-and-a-half hours. But when the store is quiet, Simon might extend the slot. Most of his customers, he tells me, are straight men who want to watch porn outside of their own home and gay men who often have a family and are living a sort of double life. Some male customers turn up with a large bag full of women's clothing that they change into before heading for a booth.
For some people, the shop fulfils an important social need, Simon adds. It offers the sort of opportunity for small talk people used to have at the butcher's or the baker's, which they can't have at a self-service check-out in a supermarket.
Sexshop De Dom, Utrecht
According to its owner Dennis, Sexshop De Dom is the oldest sex shop in the country. He found a newspaper article in the attic that mentions the sale of sex toys at this site as far back as the 1950s. That's noteworthy because it's widely believed that the world's first sex store opened its doors in 1962 in the German town of Flensburg.
Dennis has worked at De Dom since 1994. His dad and grandfather also owned sex shops, in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and his younger brother has his own store in Rotterdam.
De Dom has six booths, including two two-person booths, which are located on the first floor. Up there, you can walk around naked and fool around. Dennis doesn't really go upstairs during the day. "It was cleaned this morning and the door handles sparkle, but I wouldn't lick the doors," he smiles as we make our way upstairs.
In the 1990s, the place was full of customers from the early morning until the evening. These days, that only happens one day a week, if at all. Too few people show up for the booth alone; if there are only two or three people there, it's not exciting enough for his customers.
Erotheek Marilyn, Hilversum
Of all the places we visit, Erotheek Marilyn feels the most like a community centre. Owner Rory and three customers are having coffee at a large round table in the middle of the store. Behind a black curtain is a hallway, leading to a booth with a door, several open cabins facing a screen that shows porn, a small screening room and a darkroom.
Chandeliers and table lamps give the place a homely vibe. It's the only place where the photographer and I mingle with the customers – older men with towels around their necks. "Time for a cuppa," says a sweaty man as he squeezes by.
Erotheek Marilyn has been around for 23 years, and a lot of its customers are regulars. According to Rory, some people visit up to four times a week. If they can't make it, they call the shop to let him know. On average, Marilyn has about 50 customers a day, though that number used to be much higher. Every time the city closes a space popular for outdoor sex, more customers flow in. Marilyn welcomes people from all over the country, from all social standings. Often, they stay all day - for €12 (£10.37) you can come and go through the black curtains as you wish.
Rory tells me he and his customers sometimes eat together. "We used to all have soup together on Friday afternoons. A cup of instant soup followed by a wank – a great way to start the weekend."
Erotica Cinema, Hilversum
"Holy shit, these are some high-end wank cabins!" says our photographer Chris as we enter Erotica Cinema. The four single-person booths in this sex store are on the same level as the merchandise, which feels a bit less anonymous and wank-cavey than the other shops. The place looks tight, up-to-date and clean. In the basement, there's also a small movie theatre.
When owner Carla Verkade bought the building 19 years ago, after it had housed a different sex shop for many years, her initial customers included some guys who didn't take great care of themselves and weren't always on their best behaviour. That wasn't Carla's style, so she cleaned the place up: men who were pushy or annoying got a warning or were just kicked out.
According to Carla, people who show up to watch a DVD on their own – which costs €11 (£9.50) and gives them access for as long as they desire – are interested in learning about gay porn, or are afraid that online porn will infect their computer at home. She doesn't like the fact that porn booths are often seen as dirty and shameful.
"Sometimes people with a disability come here, together with someone who accompanies them, to watch a movie," she says. "That's another need we fulfil."
Sexy Amsterdam, Amsterdam
The booth in sex shop Sexy Amsterdam is one of the few remaining in the Red Light District. There used to be 12 of them in there, but now there's just the one. The tiny, bright red booth is located in the back of the store, next to the DVDs. According to employee Cissy, they still sell a fair amount of these, especially to tourists from the Middle East who visit from countries where porn isn't as widely available. Some of them drop up to €500 (£440) on movies.
Cissy mentions he even has customers from London, who visit a few times a year. And – or so he says – there is a famous former politician who stops by regularly to watch porn. The shop doesn't serve as much of a community purpose as some of the small town sex shops we've visited – many customers hop in to get horny before they disappear behind one of the windows down the street. Others come in to have sex in the booth, or just to watch films.
"I had a customer once who sat in the booth from morning until evening, and kept renting new movies," says Cissy. "At times, he'd spend more than €100 (£86). And then he'd show up again the next day."