Legalised prostitution: a dying trade

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The Dutch prostitutes' pressure group De Rode Draad (The Red Thread), reports that the number of brothels in the Netherlands has decreased dramatically since they were legalised. The organisation notes, however, that the number of saunas and massage parlours has increased. It seems the illegal sector is growing.

Legalising prostitution seemed like a good idea on paper. In the year 2000, when the law banning brothels was abolished, it was believed this would significantly improve the working conditions of prostitutes. However, the Rode Draad was recently commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs to investigate the effects of legalising the trade. Against all expectations, the investigators came across all manner of abuses.

Employment contracts
Officially, legal prostitutes are free to work as self-employed business people, but in practice most work for sex companies where the owner (usually male) calls the shots. The Rode Draad says they have often signed crippling contracts that require them, for example, to work 16 hour shifts, to obey clothing requirements, never to turn down customers, et cetera.

They also discovered that the number of brothels has decreased. The number of women working in windows in the red light districts has nearly halved in six years time. Young customers, in particular, are put off by the "depressing atmosphere". The Rode Draad's spokeswoman Metje Blaak says the brothels are facing increasing competition from other illegal businesses in the sex industry.

"There are so many things - there's internet and lots of disguised brothels, like partner clubs and what have you, which also involve prostitution, although they keep that quiet. Then there are massage parlours where men are stimulated to ejaculation by the masseuses - all new developments - so there is less work for real prostitutes."

Escort agencies

The investigators do not believe prostitution has moved elsewhere. Escort agencies would be a logical choice, for example, since you do not need a licence to open an escort agency. The Rode Draad points out that the escort sector is not that attractive: it is more expensive and it has a poor reputation. The question is whether they are right, given that their investigation was limited to legal brothels.

Sex slavery
Even though prostitutes complain about their working conditions, things are much worse in the illegal circuit. Amsterdam councillor Roel van Duijn, who represents the GreenLeft party, has spent several years looking at the illegal sex circuit and the trade in women.

Although he admits figures are hard to arrive at, he estimates there are 10,000 prostitutes in Amsterdam. Only a few thousand work in the visible legal circuit. The illegal circuit is rife with sex slavery, as it is mostly illegal immigrants who are bought and sold. Roel is not only looking to end illegal prostitution, he also wants to abolish legal prostitution too.

"There is a tendency in the Netherlands which believes that prostitution is a normal economic activity which should be made legal. I don't agree. In practice, prostitution has always been an illegal area, one which often attracts women from problem backgrounds. It is a fact too that women who have worked as prostitutes often continue to suffer from their traumatic experiences."

If you go along with Roel van Duijn's argument, the responsibility has to shift to the prostitutes' customers. A bill is being readied in Germany which would make it an offence to visit a brothel where women have been forced into prostitution. In Sweden the customers are already regarded as the offenders. In other words, visiting prostitutes is not regarded as a normal activity in these countries. As long as it is still regarded as acceptable in the Netherlands, the position of prostitutes will not improve. Neither the legal nor the illegal prostitutes.


Translation: RNW Internet (imm)