Oldies: Dutch approach prostitution with pragmatism

Working women, men have rights and protection — but also pay their taxes
Staff writer

The second of two parts AMSTERDAM — The Prostitution Information Centre is located in the center of Amsterdam’s red light district, across from Oude Kerk, the city’s oldest church, and just around the corner from a kindergarten.

News photo
The Prostitution Information Centre is located right across from Amsterdam’s oldest church.

Established in 1994 by former prostitute Mariska Majoor, it is a nonprofit organization where prostitutes, their clients, tourists and researchers can come for information and advice.

“Of course, a minor should never be involved in or forced into prostitution, but if two adults consent to have sexual contact and one asks for money, I don’t see how you can make it illegal,” said Jaqueline Waterman, 35, a former prostitute who helps the organization. “For me, it’s the same as saying you can’t have children or get married.”

Holland is misunderstood by many countries because it has legalized or tolerated prostitution, soft drugs and euthanasia, which are banned in other countries, as well as abortion, said Waterman, who requested that her real surname not be used.

“France is against our drug policy, but they have many more drug problems than we do. We are just putting everything into the open so they can be regulated,” said Waterman, who joined the group due to her concern over human rights.

On request, the center runs courses for both men and women — one lasting six weeks detailing how to become a prostitute, the other over four weeks and focusing on how to be a stripper. At first glance, it would be easy to imagine that these courses consist simply of techniques for satisfying customers, but that is far from the reality.

The textbook for the six-week course, “Als sex werken wordt” (“When sex becomes a job”), discusses topics such as how to deal with psychological problems, as many prostitutes lead double lives and have other jobs, a family or children. The course also gives instruction on how to file tax returns and how to handle normal, loving relationships, as well as life after prostitution.

The text states that sex at establishments where the women appear in “windows” should be more expensive, especially as taxation has become stricter since the legalization of the overall sex industry in 2000.

In fact, legalization and the 2002 switch to the euro has enabled most window prostitutes to raise the almost 20-year-old basic charge for straight sex or oral sex of 50 Dutch Guilders (approximately 3,000 yen), to between 30 euros and 40 euros (3,450 yen-4,600 yen).

Control of ‘necessary evil’

Working as a prostitute in the Netherlands has been legal since 1810. The country fully accepted prostitution as a profession in October 2000, when the operations of brothels, illegal since 1911 due to fears that they would help spread sexually transmitted diseases, were legalized, decriminalizing the entire industry.

The idea is that prostitution exists in every society, in every country, and if the “necessary evil” or the need can never be eradicated, why not bring it out into the open and exercise better control over the industry?

The pragmatic attitude of the Dutch also helps: Sex is a natural need and a person has as much right to a satisfying sex life as to any other basic right.

Marieke van Doorninck, a spokeswoman for Mr. A. de Graaf Stichting, an Amsterdam-based semigovernmental foundation that examined data and problems prior to the legalization of prostitution, said the new legislation is ground-breaking.

The organization, 70 percent government-funded, was set up in 1961 to help women escape from prostitution. The organization’s research , however, shows that women were not helped by simply being taken out of the business, said van Doorninck, who is also a policy consultant to the foundation.

“The theory that came to light in 1976 made the foundation take a radical change, to see prostitution as a social phenomenon that can be approached pragmatically,” she said.

“That is, if someone else tells you to quit your job, then it is not a positive choice of an individual, and you are made a victim instead of an emancipated person making your own choice,” she said.

At around that same time, Dutch society went through a similar process of switching from “abolitionism” — the fight for the removal of regulations — to “regularization,” which considered prostitution to be a social phenomenon that had to be limited, controlled and taxed.

According to van Doorninck, a former historian and a specialist on the issue, there was no extreme opposition to legalization because after decades of seeing the brothels and women selling themselves in windows, the Dutch public had already gone through the acceptance process.

“The issue had been discussed for 17 years, since a change in the Penal Code was proposed in 1983,” she said. “There were only two small Christian parties with a total of eight seats out of 150 in the House of the Representatives who opposed it on moral grounds. Christen Democratisch Appel, the largest Christian party, expressed opposition — not because it was against prostitution, but because local governments were not granted the right to decide whether they wanted prostitution, only where and how to run it.”

Evert-Jan Brouwer, who works in the policy division of the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, one of the two opposition Christian parties, said, “We opposed legalization because in our opinion, prostitution is against the dignity of the woman and against her sexual calling, which she got from the Creator. Our opinion is that prostitution must again be forbidden.”

Andre Rouvoet, a spokesman for Christen Unie, the other opposition party, said, “The central idea of this law is that prostitution or running a brothel is a regular profession. Well, it isn’t and we all know that. I do not know of any parents who would be indifferent (about) whether their daughter becomes a teacher or a prostitute. Prostitution is not a regular line of business. So let’s not pretend it is!”

The opponents, however, are apparently in the minority.

Tax cash from prostitution

According to Dutch news reports from around October 2000, the socialist and rightwing parties were eyeing increased tax revenues when they legalized prostitution.

It is believed that this perceived revenue increase was a major driving force in the Dutch state’s decision, which has a history of making the most of trade and business.

Before the industry was legalized, levying the 19 percent value-added tax on prostitution was not easy. Now, however, the laws are strictly applied and the cash is collected, just as in any other legal industry, according to Waterman of PIC.

When the man and woman in the street are asked their opinions on the legalization of prostitution, most display the Dutch pragmatism and say they have no problems with it.

Michelle Bobeck, a 30-year old civil servant working for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said, “It’s a good thing that they are now part of society and not looked down on. Everyone should be given the right to choose for themselves what they want to do.”

But not all agree: Rene van Dijk, a 43-year-old company director, is apparently one of those believed to be in the minority.

“If people want to destroy their lives (by becoming or going to a prostitute), it’s their problem. It’s better for them to go to prostitutes than doing something to my 8-year-old daughter,” he said.

A German window prostitute in her early 20s cheerfully said, “For me, it’s a great job, as I have the freedom to choose my customers and only need to work a few hours a day.”

Modern dancer Leonie Houwen, 30, said, “I understand it (prostitution) is a profession, but it’s a profession in which you have to give something of yourself. I think the fact that there are courses on how to deal with psychological problems says something — that is, there is a dilemma attached to the job.”

Three states in Australia and a few counties in the U.S. state of Nevada have legal prostitution, but apart from Germany — which also officially recognized prostitution as a job in January — no other nation comes close to the Netherlands in pragmatism.

Probably because they do not know how best to handle the matter, many countries often treat the sex industry with convoluted legalities. Sweden, for example, treats prostitution as legal, while the clients of prostitutes are acting illegally.

But what at first glance seems a very bold policy, the Dutch decision to legalize the trade is considered by some as a subtle way of controlling and even diminishing the number of women working in prostitution.

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Justice in 1998, there were between 25,000 and 30,000 prostitutes in the Netherlands. Of these, around 2,000 worked from “windows,” 15,000 were in clubs, 4,000 at home and 3,000 worked streets designated by local authorities. About 15 percent of all female prostitutes worked for escort agencies, while 10 percent of the total were men.

Legalization enabled authorities to strictly enforce the laws, and brothels that did not meet legal requirements were closed down. No new brothels were permitted to open after October 2000, and all migrant prostitutes without permits — believed to have made up 50 percent of all prostitutes at that time — were banned from working. Though no official figures are yet available, the number of women working in the industry has clearly fallen, Waterman said.

Better working conditions

Holland’s legalization of the industry has been considered instrumental in achieving another goal — improving the working conditions of prostitutes.

Stichting De Rood Draad, founded in 1985 by a group of prostitutes and based in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, is a 100 percent government-subsidized organization that helps prostitutes by negotiating with authorities and their employers if a problem arises.

There are many other groups supporting the men and women in the profession.

News photo
Christy Ten Broeke

But Christy Ten Broeke, 40, the treasurer and member of the board in charge of public relations at De Rode Draad, said much greater efforts need to be made to improve prostitutes’ social environment.

“It is still very difficult for prostitutes to have health insurance or obtain a mortgage,” said Ten Broeke, another former prostitute who believes the trade is like any other job.

For van Doorninck, of Mr A. de Graaf Stichting, the most alarming problem is the situation of illegal immigrants.

“Though they had no working permits, these people were tolerated, and settled in the Netherlands for years. But they were suddenly driven out when the law took effect. Many have gone underground with false passports, increasing the risk of them being exploited by traffickers,” she said, adding that most of the illegal immigrants are from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Prostitutes from European Union nations are eligible to work in Holland.

“As they can no longer rent windows themselves, they have no choice but to work for criminal organizations or buy expensive false passports from them. And they are forced to work for months to pay off their debts,” she said, adding that Holland should grant some of the illegal immigrants legal residence.

“Accepting even a small quota of them will be, in fact, one of the very few measures we can take against the traffickers,” she said.

However, Wijnand Stevens, a 34-year-old spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said, “We are afraid that if prostitutes from abroad are allowed (to work here), traffickers would send in many women who would not come here voluntarily to work in prostitution.” He said the ministry does not consider prostitution a normal job, but added there is not enough justification to make it a crime.

The Japan Times: Saturday, March 16, 2002


  1. Any idea where the first part of this story is?

  2. Hi Alexa!
    Have been looking for it, and just found it. Will post it shortly!

  3. […] See Part Two […]

  4. OK- click on “See Part One” above!

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s