FAQ - Prostitution in the Netherlands

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

The Netherlands is well-known as being a country where prostitution is allowed. But recently there have been a number of cases of criminal activity and people trafficking. The Dutch government has responded to these illegal activities by introducing legislation that will regulate the industry more closely.


- Is prostitution legal in the Netherlands?

Yes, it’s an example of the pragmatic approach to social matters reflected in the Dutch legal system. Prostitution itself has never been a criminal offence in the Netherlands. There were general bans on brothels and pimping, but in October 2000, these were removed from the Penal Code.


- How is the industry regulated?

The sex industry is regulated under normal labour law, which increases protection of the workers from exploitation. The prostitutes have their own trade union. In future, the commercial operation of prostitution services, including escort agencies, will be subject to licensing. All self-employed prostitutes must be registered and the Government wants to make the act of soliciting for illegal prostitution an offence.


- Why is such regulation necessary?

The measures are necessary as there are still too many abuses committed in the prostitution sector. The presence of human trafficking is one of the major problems. Municipal and regional differences in supervision and law enforcement pave the way to such abuse. Only a few municipalities currently require licensing for escort services, the majority do not have such a policy. Suppliers of prostitution move to municipalities where licenses are not needed or where supervision is less strict.


- Does the Government plan more legislation?

Yes, the Government wants compulsory rules for all forms of prostitution. These rules will be laid down in a framework law on licenses for prostitution, which is being prepared by the Interior and Justice Ministers. This legislation will provide the basis on which the municipalities can build their prostitution policies. The commercial operation of prostitution will be subject to licensing and the framework law will stipulate the minimum conditions which the licensee must meet. The government wants to fix the activities of the operator as far as possible to a permanent address, permanent telephone number and a specific municipality.

In addition to the licensing requirement applicable to the escort sector, a national registration system will be introduced for the sector. Registration is required as escort services are businesses that do not have a fixed location and cross municipal boundaries with their activities fairly easily. A national register will make the task of supervision and enforcement less complex. Under the new legislation, prostitutes who offer sexual services in the escort business or at home without the involvement of an operator must register themselves or obtain a license before they can provide their services.


- What is the goal of the Government’s plans?

The aim of the Government is to set up a countrywide, all-inclusive system of licenses and registrations in the prostitution sector. The coalition agreement provides for a personal approach of clients who accept sexual services from victims of human trafficking or from prostitutes who reside illegally in the Netherlands. Strict regulations will allow clients to know the difference between legal and illegal prostitution. The Government therefore wishes to make the act of using services from unlicensed operators or non-registered self-employed prostitutes an offence. The enforcement of any penal provision is of course an important point of attention in this respect.


- Why was the ban on brothels lifted?

Brothels were banned in the Netherlands in 1911 to protect prostitutes from exploitation. However, the ban has not been enforced for the past 50 years. Action was only taken against brothels and sex clubs if they engaged in criminal activities or disturbed public order.

To end abuses in the sex industry, the Netherlands decided to change the law to reflect
everyday reality. It is now legal to employ prostitutes who are over the age of consent, and do the work voluntarily, but stricter measures have been introduced under criminal law to prevent exploitation. The legalisation of brothels enables the government to exercise more control over the sex industry and counter abuses.


- What is being done to guard against human trafficking?

Through regular inspections to ensure that brothels conform to the licensing conditions, the police are in a position to pick up signs of human trafficking. They obtain invaluable information that can be used immediately to trace and prosecute offenders in both the regulated and unregulated sectors.

A special phone line has been opened so that members of the public can anonymously report suspicious activities. Article 250a of the Criminal Code, which prohibits traffic in persons and exploitation of prostitutes, is strictly enforced. The law enforcement authorities in the Netherlands give priority to combating the traffic in persons, the exploitation of prostitutes, and the employment of minors in prostitution.

The Netherlands supports projects both at home and abroad aimed at preventing human trafficking. It is also tackling the problem in partnership with other members of the European Union.


Related articles:


- How have prostitutes benefited from the legalisation of brothels?

The legalisation of brothels has several advantages for prostitutes. It means that local
authorities can publish by-laws governing safety, hygiene and working conditions in brothels. Brothels may be forbidden to force prostitutes to consume alcoholic drinks with clients, or engage in unsafe sex or certain sexual acts. They may also be compelled to allow health services or interest groups unrestricted access to their premises.


- Are prostitutes recognised as legitimate employees in the eyes of the law?

Yes, prostitution is now considered a legitimate occupation. So prostitutes now have the same rights and obligations as other professionals. The owners of brothels operated in a grey area for many years, in that the legislation against it was not enforced. As a result, the working relationship between prostitutes and their employers differs from that in other sectors. It is up to the parties themselves to define their positions, since this is an area where the government exercises little influence.


- Do prostitutes have employment contracts?

Most brothel owners are unwilling to enter into employment contracts. The rationale is that they provide support services to self-employed prostitutes, and are therefore not obliged to pay income tax or social insurance contributions. The authorities can, however, verify the nature of the working relationship and take action against anyone operating under false pretences.

The rights of prostitutes are more explicit, as the industry now has to comply with labour laws. It has the same obligations as any other sector, relating to tax and social insurance contributions. The government publishes booklets for prostitutes and their employers, containing information on social insurance and related matters. They examine the comparative advantages of employment and self-employment, and their respective rights and obligations.


- How has the lifting of the ban on brothels changed the industry?

A study was conducted two years after the ban on brothels had been lifted, but it was too soon to draw any conclusions about its impact. Rehabilitating a sector that had been operating illegally for almost a century requires more than new laws or new policy. Prostitutes and their employers need to be sufficiently informed about their rights and obligations, and the social position and status of prostitutes must be improved. The outcome of the study will be useful in this process.


- Are the police allowed to keep a register of prostitutes?

No. This would contravene the various laws protecting personal privacy. However, the police may keep a temporary register for a specific law enforcement purpose, for example to investigate human trafficking. They are obliged to report this to the Data Protection Board.


- But now Amsterdam wants to reinstate the ban on pimping. Why?

The Mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, says the ban is needed to prevent exploitation and human trafficking, and sees it as the next step in cleaning up the city’s Red Light District. Ten years ago a parliamentary commission established that the district was controlled by around 16 people with "serious criminal histories and/or contacts". In recent years, an increasing number of stories have been circulating about human trafficking and forced prostitution in the Red Light District. The mayor and city council concluded that the district was no longer a tourist attraction to be proud of.

Mr Cohen believes the legalisation of prostitution in the Netherlands seven years ago hasn't had the desired effect. Many prostitutes have not become "ordinary employees" or self-employed businesswomen, but are still exploited by pimps. The mayor is therefore calling for a ban on pimping.

Related articles:



- What about prostitution in the rest of the country?

In 1999 there were estimated to be 25,000 prostitutes in the Netherlands, with 12,500 working at any one time at a total of 6,000 locations. Many were migrants. In the 1970s the majority of foreign prostitutes were from Thailand and the Philippines, in the 1980s from Latin America and the Caribbean. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s, many came from Central and Eastern Europe.

No more than one third were Dutch nationals, the remainder representing 44 nationalities. The majority were from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Poland. No figures were available on illegal residents.

At the time, an estimated five percent of prostitutes were male and five percent transsexual, the majority being migrants. Ten percent of all prostitutes were drug addicts, the majority Dutch nationals or former Dutch nationals.

No recent estimates are available of the number of prostitutes in the Netherlands. Their numbers are assumed to have declined over the past few years, as a result of frequent inspections of licensed brothels by the police and tax authorities.


- How widespread is prostitution in the Netherlands?

Prostitution exists in almost a third of Dutch municipalities. It is concentrated in and around the big cities and in the border towns in the regions of Limburg, Groningen, Twente, West Brabant and Zeeland.

Prostitution occurs in various forms: ‘window’ and street prostitution, clubs, escort agencies and home-based prostitution. ‘Window’ prostitution occurs in 12 cities in the Netherlands. It is estimated that on average some 2,000 prostitutes are engaged daily in this form of prostitution.

Street prostitution exists in 10 Dutch cities and involves on average some 320 prostitutes daily. Between 3,500 and 4,000 prostitutes are employed daily in 600-700 clubs and private brothels.

The extent of other forms of prostitution such as escort agencies and home-based prostitution is less clear. The police, municipalities and municipal medical and health services do not have sufficient data on this. The only certainty is that home-based prostitution occurs in at least 17 municipalities and that escort agencies exist in at least 28 municipalities. The police estimate that over half of the total number of male and female prostitutes in the Netherlands are from abroad.


- How much power do local authorities have in regulating prostitution?

Local authorities formulate their own policies on the establishment and location of brothels and can therefore decide whether they may be established and, if so, where they may be located. They may also refuse to allow certain forms of prostitution, such as window soliciting. They may for example withdraw a licence or refuse to grant one if:

  • the owner of a brothel is unable to produce a police clearance certificate issued by the local authorities
  • the intended location conflicts with zoning plans
  • the brothel employs a minor or an illegal resident or any person under coercion
  • it is in the interest of public order
  • it makes the area less desirable to live or work in.

Permission to run a brothel may not be refused on moral or ethical grounds.

Related articles: