Sex workers say 'no' to licensing law

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It’s been 60 years since the United Nations drew up a treaty designed to put an end to people trafficking, and 74 countries have ratified it. The Netherlands is one of the few European Union member states that hasn’t - but now it's come up with its own plan to tackle the problem.

Listen to a report by Marijke Peters


The UN Convention on the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation and Prostitution of Others sets out the need to protect women’s dignity, describing human trafficking as “evil”.

Today Brigitte Triems, President of the European Women’s Lobby, urged all UN countries to ratify the document:

“For the European Women’s Lobby it is the ideological and humanistic basis of our action for women’s rights and human rights and prostitution, an intolerable form of male violence.”

Criminal sanctions
Amsterdam and prostitution have for a long time been bedfellows, and the city’s red light district attracts thousands of tourists who come to take advantage of the liberal laws. But these thrill seekers may soon have to get their kicks elsewhere, because the Dutch government wants to criminalise sex tourism.

Although the Netherlands hasn’t put its signature to the UN treaty, it has proposed a Prostitution Regulation Law targetting both those who buy sex as well as those who sell it. Lawmakers say it will identify women who are forced into the industry against their will.

Forced registration
At the moment only prostitutes who work in brothels require a licence – many choose to work as escorts or provide services from their homes instead.  Under the new law, all women working in the industry would be forced to register, and their details would be available to the police and justice department.

The idea has caused concern in a number of organisations including the Red Thread, which represents sex workers. Jan Fisher is its chairman:

“It will be the reverse. The ones who want to work know how devastating the stigma could be, and will be. They will try to work outside this system and they’ll be vulnerable when they’re detected by the police and tax office, and the ones who are trafficked may be forced by their pimps to register so they have a kind of legal status.”

At a recent conference in Amsterdam to discuss sex workers’ rights, women were divided on whether they would sign up to the scheme. One prostitute, who refused to be identified, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide she would register, but her colleagues probably wouldn’t:

“I think a lot of people are afraid of registration because they think they will lose their anonymity and there are very bad consequences from that.”

Swedish model
Another major fear is that the Netherlands will move towards the Swedish model, where it is a crime for men to visit prostitutes. Pye Jakobsson, who has worked in the Swedish sex industry for several years, says the Dutch plan is “even more stupid” than the restrictive regime she works under.

“The Swedish experience tells us that if you’re vulnerable or under the radar – as you will be if you’re unregistered – you’re more prone to meet dangerous clients as the good ones, the decent ones, will want to buy sex from registered workers. And there will be women, for one reason or another, who don’t want to register and they won’t have the choice to say ‘no’ to bad clients.”

Increase in violence
Pye believes there will be an increase in violence against sex workers if the law is introduced in the Netherlands and is urging lawmakers to rethink the plans. If the idea is to combat people trafficking, she says, the government should use existing labour laws. Pye argues most women in the trade do the job through choice.

“It’s a strange concept built on this idea that no one has the right to buy someone else’s body, but when I sell sex I don’t consider myself to be selling my body, I sell a sexual service. I think that’s a bit different.”