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What does legalization actually look like? – The Netherlands » Sex Trafficking and Prostitution

What does legalization actually look like? – The Netherlands

May 20th, 2010 by seguraciara Leave a reply »

Prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since January 1988, and has since been defined as a “legitimate” profession – in that one’s income is taxed and accounted for. The current view is that prostitution is a reality that will not disappear from society, which has led the government to take a realistic approach to the problem. Stemming from this is the belief that prostitution takes on two forms – voluntary and forced. By drawing a strict line between the two, the Dutch believe they are better able to address organized crime. The overarching idea behind decriminalization and legalization, then, is that by allowing individuals to work as prostitutes, it is easier to use administrative and legislative measures to prevent them from being exploited[1].

Sex workers now have access to the social security system, and since 1996 have paid an income tax; by 1999, reforms gave prostitution the same status as any other form of labor[2]. Prostitutes are not registered and are not required to get health checks since this is considered a breach of privacy. However, the police may keep investigative records in connection with trafficking cases as approved by the Data Protection Board[3]. Sex club owners may not hire underage or illegal immigrant prostitutes (the age of consent is 16). The extent and locations of prostitution are vast and varied, taking place in sex clubs, behind display windows, in hotels, in bars, as escort services and on the streets.

It is not known how many sex workers participate in the industry, but a study conducted in 2000 estimated that as many as 25,000 prostitutes work in the Netherlands, many of whom are migrants[4]. In the 1970s, most immigrant prostitutes came from Thailand and the Philippines, and in the 1980s from Latin America and South East Asia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall many more prostitutes came from central and eastern Europe. By 1999, not more than 1/3 of prostitutes were Dutch. According to the Foundation Against Trafficking in Women (STV) and the police, the majority of women working in the prostitution business in the Netherlands are from former communist Eastern European countries.[5] The number of illegal prostitutes is unknown, but some estimate that many of the foreign sex workers are illegal. New legislation has made it illegal for non-EU citizens to be sex workers. As a result, many of these women were sent home because of lack of work or residence papers.

In 2000, the prohibition on brothel activity was repealed for the purposes of providing better mechanisms of controlling and regulating brothels, to better combat forced prostitution, and to guarantee that underage persons were better-protected from sexual exploitation[6]. The legislation entailed that sex clubs and brothels may operate as legal entities as long as they meet certain conditions. However, decriminalization of brothels did not entail regulation of prostitution at the national level, since it is a municipal issue. With the change in the law, stricter conditions were put on those promoting and profiting from prostitution[7]. Furthermore, street prostitution has been regulated more closely since the repeal on brothel activity. There are now official “zones” where prostitutes may work so as not to disrupt the residential areas, in addition to providing prostitutes more security.

The decriminalization of brothel activity is closely connected with the prevention of human trafficking. Human trafficking is forbidden under article 250a of the Dutch Penal Code.  The purpose of article 250a is to criminalize involuntary prostitution and gains from that type of crime. Currently, offences include sexual exploitation of minors and of non-consenting adults (forced or involuntary prostitution), the transportation of a person over a national border with the intention of bringing him or her into prostitution in another country (whether consenting or not), as well profiting from such exploitation. Article 250a defines trafficking as an offence that involves placing and holding human beings involuntarily in prostitution by means of force. It is important to note that the Dutch emphasize force as an identifying factor in involuntary prostitution to remain consistent with their domestic prostitution policy.

The intended effects of the decriminalization of prostitution in the Netherlands were to gain control over organized crime in the form of trafficking and pimps, in addition to promoting transparency. Experiences from the police suggest that prostitution has become more transparent and it is easier to control legal brothels[8]. It is much easier for the police to obtain information and to establish contacts within the prostitution industry[9]. However, some municipalities function more successfully than others. For example, even though the amount of brothels has halved in the Netherlands, the illegal brothels without licenses that still exist cannot be regulated. Thus, trafficking is made easier since illegal brothels are under the radar. Another example is that the focus on the legal prostitution market gave rise, for a period, to an increase in the number of illegal women in the market, many of whom were most likely victims of trafficking[10]. Presently, the Netherlands is one of top destination countries for human trafficking, which suggests that legalization that organized crime has increased since the legalization of prostitution. This may be a result of how legalization is structured around municipal governance, leading to a wide range of practices and implementations.

[1]. “The Purchase of Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands. Regulation and Experiences. A Report from the Working Group on the Legal Regulation of the Purchase of Sexual Services”. Regjeringen.no. 21 Dec 2004. Justis-og politidepartementet. 2 Jul 2009. http://www.regjeringen.no/nb/dep/jd/dok/rapporter_planer/rapporter/2004/purchasing-sexual-services.html?id=106214

[2] Galiana, Carmen. “Trafficking in Women”. Directorate General for Research, European Parliament. Brussels, March 2000. Working Paper. p.55.

See http://www.europarl.europa.eu/workingpapers/libe/pdf/109_en.pdf

[3] Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Dutch Policy on Prostitution, Questions and Answers. 2004. http://www.mfa.nl/contents/pages/743/prost.pdf.

[4] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dutch Policy on Prostitution, Questions and Answers, s. 7.

[5] Galiana, Carmen. “Trafficking in Women”. Directorate General for Research, European Parliament. Brussels, March 2000. Working Paper. p.54

[6] Purchasing Sexual Service in Sweden and the Netherlands, Legal Regulation and Experiences. p.26

[7] Purchasing Sexual Service in Sweden and the Netherlands, Legal Regulation and Experiences. p.27

[8] Purchasing Sexual Service in Sweden and the Netherlands, Legal Regulation and Experiences. p.54

[9] Purchasing Sexual Service in Sweden and the Netherlands, Legal Regulation and Experiences. p.41

[10] Purchasing Sexual Service in Sweden and the Netherlands, Legal Regulation and Experiences. p.54



  1. naikhoba says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post because I think it presents an example of how globalization can be shifted to have its positive aspects (if they exist in the sphere of prostitution) outweigh the negative aspects. Like the 4 cornered diagram of change presented in class, the Netherlands have attacked the issue from a law and policy standpoint. Except, as we realized, it is necessary to effect changes in beliefs, attitudes, access, and culture among many other things in order for the effects in government to take hold at a broader level. One thing I will definitely agree with however, is that prostitution has become a deeply rooted industry on an international level – as horrific as it is, especially for minors and women who are forced into it, the industry itself will probably not disappear. I think that other countries need to realize, such as the Netherlands has done, that persecuting the women involved in sex work is a futile way to address the greater issue. Those women should be supported, especially given the fact that, if provided with a different option, they would not choose prostitution.

  2. svernez says:

    Like our visitor from the Global Fund and Anne said on Monday, I think that the key to fighting for women’s rights is to champion her right to make choices of her own. Just like I reserve the right to choose abortion should circumstances push me to make such a decision, I reserve the right to make a living by any legal means. Therefore, I thought that I came down on the side of legalizing prostitution. If a woman wants to use her resources (her body) in order to maximize her earning power, she should. There is a demand for sex work and so, why shouldn’t women capitalize on that demand?

    But as I read this post and started to consider my position more seriously, I began to see problems with my reasoning. First, it follows from the above philosophy that selling one’s body is like selling any commodity. It allows for the idea that a woman’s body and sexual favor can be bought and owned. I see these notions of objectification as fundamental to women’s inferiority. No matter how you spin it as empowering women to have control over their body, you can’t escape the fact that that control can be bought if the price is right and while I try (and mostly fail) to be practical rather than idealistic, I see no way of overcoming such injustice without enforcing what should be normal and everyday rather than idealistic: that women are human beings, not objects of sex.

    Second, it presumes that sex work can be effectively monitored and its workers protected. The whole reasoning behind legalization is to eliminate safety concerns for women working as prostitutes and furthermore to help to eliminate illegal trafficking. However, from what was said in your post, neither of those goals are being achieved. Trafficking has increased and likely along with it more human rights abuse and more infringement on women’s choices. So, it seems to me that the legalization of prostitution is an ineffective means for fighting against social and practical subordination of women. So this leaves us with the question, if we can’t monitor a legal system, can we hope to monitor and illegal one?

  3. amariagreer says:

    I find it incredible that despite having legalized prostitution for regulation purposes the Netherlands have what sounds like a large black market for prostitution and a strong draw for traffickers. I am really curious why the illegal brothels exist. Are all of the women in these brothels trafficked? Do some of the women in these illegal brothels want to be prostitutes but are underage or do not have the right paperwork to be working in the Netherlands? How does regulation of prostitutes and brothels work to try to ensure women are not victims of trafficking? How did the legalization of prostitution lead to an increase in illegal prostitutes?

    Obviously this topic is very interesting for me. I wonder how the Netherlands should be viewed by other countries interested in changing how they deal with prostitution. Is there a way to improve upon this model so that other countries can regulate prostitution for the improvement of safety, health and social services? Or is it better to maintain prostitution as an illegal occupation but only prosecute the pimps and traffickers? I don’t have the answer.