Renate van der Zee (57) is a Dutch journalist, writer and feminist activist. She writes for leading Dutch newspapers and magazines and for the English newspaper The Guardian.
Her main focus is on women’s rights. She has done extensive research into the Dutch sex industry and has written many articles and several books on human trafficking and prostitution.
She takes the position that legalization (as introduced in The Netherlands in 2000) has proved not to be a solution for the serious social problem of prostitution and is an advocate of the Swedish prostitution model.
“EU Member-States: Presentations on international practices” session
In 2000, the Dutch government decided to legalize prostitution. The aim was to improve the position of women in prostitution and to combat human trafficking, illegal prostitution and prostitution of minors.
Practically, it meant that the old ban on brothelkeeping was lifted. It became possible to legally run a brothel – if the owner applied for a license and complied with a number of rules, of which the most important ones were that he was not allowed to employ underage girls and undocumented women. The brothelkeepers were submitted to regular controls by the police.
The philosophy behind this measure was that you could divide the sex industry into two different worlds: the world of forced prostitution and the world of free prostitution.
Of course, forced prostitution was considered problematic and the Dutch wanted to seriously address it by a law against human trafficking.
But the so called ‘free’ prostitution was seen as something one should not be moralistic about. It was considered to be the woman’s choice and one believed that women should be free to make that choice. According to the Dutch government it should be considered a form of work.
The legalisation of prostitution was seen as a pragmatic approach. Prostitution was considered an unavoidable phenomenon and the best thing one could do was to try to reduce the harmful aspects of it.
By legalising brothel keeping, regulating it and submitting it to regular inspections the Dutch wanted to create a ‘clean prostitution sector’ where women could work freely, unhampered by pimps.
The idea was that if prostitution would be normalized and considered as work, the stigma would vanish and the women could become independent, self employed ‘sex workers’ who payed taxes. They would become entrepreneurs who could fend for themselves and pimps would simply disappear – because the women ‘wouldn’t need them anymore’.
This change in policy was advocated by left wing parties and feminists, who maintained that women have the right to do ‘with their bodies whatever they want’.
They were completely blind for the fact that most women in prostitution are extremely vulnerable and cannot do with their bodies what they want, simply because their pimps won’t allow them.
The Dutch system was based on many false assumptions. This caused the Dutch minister of internal affairs Lodewijk Asscher to remark years later: “We have been reprehensible naïeve when we legalised prostitution’.
The first false assumption was that one could make the division of forced prostitution on the one hand and free prostitution on the other hand.
The overwhelming majority of the women in prostitution are neither chained to the bed post, nor happy hookers. They belong to the vast grey area of women who are are tricked or manipulated into prostitution, often because previous experiences of domestic or sexual violence or homelessness have made them extremely vulnerable.
One cannot simply say: we are going to combat the world of forced prostitution and clean up the world of free prostitution – because there cannot be such a distinction. There are no two different worlds. It is one sex industry and within it, everything is intertwined.
Secondly: obliging brothelkeepers to obtain a license and submitting them to rules and police controls does not do way with pimps. Human trafficking can easily continue in spite of police controls. It’s easy to check if a woman has a passport, but it is difficult to prove that she’s in the hands of a pimp.
So after the legalisation, pimps simply continued their activities. And brothelkeepers who didn’t want to obtain a license and stick to all kinds of rules, disappeared underground.
And that’s the third problem with the Dutch legalisation system: it only applied to brothelkeepers with a license, but it did nothing to address unlicensed prostitution. Which is according to the Dutch police a growing sector.
What the Dutch wanted to do was impossible: you cannot create a clean prostitution sector. You cannot normalize prostitution. Simply because the act of paying for sex can never be normal. It is an expression of deep inequality between women and men, poor and rich and black and white. You cannot normalize this inequality, just like you cannot normalize slavery.
The sex industry is an industry where an incredible amount of money is to be made. This will always attract organised crime. You can’t beat organized crime by legalizing the brothels in which they operate. In fact: legalisation has certainly not made things more difficult for organized crime. To the contrary: they can simply put their women in legalized brothels with a license and exploit them at will. All they need to do is to ensure the women are not underage or undocumented. It’s easy. This happens all the time in the Dutch sex industry.
The Dutch believed that their approach was pragmatic, but in reality it was based on an idealistic image of the situation of women in prostitution. It totally underestimated the power of organised crime in the sex industry. It did nothing to reduce any harm whatsoever.
Almost 20 years after the legalisation, there have been several government and police reports that have shown that this approach did not improve the position of women in prostitution and did not diminish human trafficking.
There is a general consensus now in The Netherlands that the legalisation has been a failure. Since 2008 the government has been discussing a new prostitution law – because the legalisation simply hasn’t worked.
When Amnesty International advocated the total decriminalisation of prostitution in the summer of 2016, the Dutch national rapporteur on human trafficking criticized the human rights organisation, saying that there is no proof that legalisation of prostitution is an effective policy.
A recent survey of the Dutch organisation SOA Aids has shown that 90% of the people in Dutch prostitution experience violence. A recent report of the Amsterdam Court of Auditors concluded that human trafficking still occurs regularly in the red light district of Amsterdam. That’s the reality of legalisation.
Amsterdam still is an important destination for human traffickers and legalisation did nothing to change that. In fact, there are experts who believe that human trafficking has grown since the legalisation.
Boys in The Netherlands grow up with the idea that buying sex is a thing you can simply do. It’s legal, isn’t it? The presence of window prostitution in the middle of several Dutch cities is an encouragement for men to make use of women. By legalising prostitution the Dutch government has issued a statement: we accept prostitution as an unavoidable phenomenon in our society. This has an impact on the mentality of men and on the equality between men and women.
What is needed is a policy that adresses the buyer and makes men aware of what they are actually doing when buying sex. Prostitution is an industry that is driven by demand – therefore you need to address the demand, like the Swedes do. Contrary to many Dutch feminists who see prostitution as an expression of the free choice of women, the Swedish feminists understand that prostitution is only a free choice for the buyer.
What is needed as well, is sexual education that teaches boys that buying sex is not something you can simply do. That teaches them that women cannot be objectified and that their orifices cannot be bought.