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The Audacity of Tolerance: A Critical Analysis of Legalized Prostitution in Amsterdam’s Red Light District
“If you disrespect prostitutes, you disrespect all women.” Metje Blaak (leader of ‘Vakbond Vakwerk’, the labor union for sex workers in the red light district.)
Ask others about Amsterdam and there is a good chance that they will tell you about the coffee shops and the red light district. People often travel here to experience the pleasures of cannabis and carnal desires in a tolerant society—the latter in the form of prostitution. Taking a trip late at night down the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, the main strip in the city’s red light district, you will witness a world unfamiliar to most people, in which sexual pleasures are easily and explicitly attainable. For the past ten years this has been the case in Amsterdam, where prostitution was legalized in 2000. By lifting the prohibition on brothels, the Dutch government sought to give sex workers more autonomy over their profession, reduce criminal activity and improve their labor conditions. Now, however, it is deliberating about making changes to the law that will enhance its oversight over prostitution. This raises a question about whether stricter regulation, in the context of this culture of tolerance, would actually benefit the sex workers, or make matters worse.
Politics of Prostitution
There are approximately 20,000 prostitutes working the streets of the Netherlands (Janssen; Hovener, 2010). Of those, 40% are active in Amsterdam with 5% working the 370 windows or in sex clubs in and around the red light district. Since 2000, prostitutes have been identified as independent workers who must register with the Chamber of Commerce and pay income tax in order to legally perform their work. In instituting this measure, the government was attempting to bring its official stance into accordance with a reality in which prostitution was already tolerated. This legalization was aimed at eliminating illegal exploitation, handicapping criminal enterprise, and improving the working conditions of prostitutes.
Even with the improvements provided by this policy, many more have been deemed necessary, and further reforms are currently under deliberation. One of these comes in the form of Wetsvoorstel Regulering Prostitutie en Bestrijding Misstanden Sexbranch (a proposed law for the regulation of prostitution and control of abuses in the sex industry). The Council of Ministers has agreed to undertake a new policy regarding prostitution, and the proposal is currently being discussed within the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament in the Netherlands. It aims to establish a better and more uniform law to be applied nationwide. If this reform takes place, the prostitutes will have to register at the national level, after which they will be briefed on issues including risks of the profession, Social Security, and alternative employment possibilities. The new policy would also raise the legal age for employment as a prostitute from 18 to 21. In addition, anyone who wishes to start a prostitution business would have to apply for a permit.
From the Top Down
Various actors involved in the world of prostitution have different opinions about the current situation, and the future of the sex trade in general. Jasper Luijs is the chain supervisor for a group of organizations that work to remove wrongs (or abuses) in the sex trade within the Municipality of Amsterdam. He has extensive contact with agencies and actors involved in this effort: the police, the tax agencies, the Chamber of Commerce, the Ministry of Crime and public prosecutors. Together, they form a central network that works to achieve this goal. Luijs is generally positive, yet critical, about the current policy:
“Since the entrepreneurs in prostitution have to apply for a permit, to start their business, we have more control on what is happening. Of course there is still work to do. All actors in the chain can create barriers against wrongs. By working together intensively we can signal problems and fight them.”
Mariska van Huissteden and Wendel Schaeffer are more skeptical about the current policy. Marika is a confidant for prostitutes and coordinator for the public health site Prostitutie & Gezondheidscentrum, PG292 (Prostitution and Health Center), and Wendel is a social worker there. They have contact with the sex workers on a daily basis. In the PG292, health services and social work resources are incorporated in a way that offers the sex workers a one-stop shop providing easy access to assistance, and a safe space with familiar faces. The organization helps prostitutes to resolve financial and psychological issues, as well as assisting them in developing small social networks. According to Mariska, PG292 also helps these workers to find other jobs:
“Being in prostitution has negative connotations in current society. It is difficult for an employer to look behind the word and see what it implies. We try to train our clients in doing job interviews and making résumés. We try to highlight their stronger sides. A lot of the girls are very friendly, good with costumers and know how to present themselves.”
According to Mariska, there are definitely positive aspects to the current policy. Legalizing prostitution increases safety by allowing a certain amount of control over the industry. One example is that prostitutes now work in secured surroundings where there are cameras in front of every window, and police, both in uniform or undercover, are always patrolling the area. In every brothel, there is an alarm system accessible at a moment’s notice and the press of a button, which can be heard from a considerable distance. Health and hygiene are also relatively well cared for. Clean linen and towels are provided, and the girls have access to unlimited free STD checks. They are encouraged to do a check-up every three months.
However, their current situation is not completely beneficial As independent workers, the prostitutes rent a window for a certain part of the day. The rents are extremely high: around 90 to 150 euros to rent a room for an eight hour shift. After factoring in the tax, this means that they need at least four to five clients per day in order to pay the rent. Moreover, they have to rent the window for at least six or seven consecutive days, or risk losing it to the competition. In times of economic crisis, it is difficult to pay these expenses. Wendel explains how this leads to problems in practice:
“You get 50 euros for a fuck and a blow job; you have to pay your rent and your tax, sometimes also your pimp. That leaves you with no money. Because the women are independent workers they can choose for themselves how much they work. If they need money they often make working days of sixteen hours. This is very exhausting for the body and the mind.”
Mariska and Wendel are ambivalent about the new proposal that the government is currently deliberating. According to Mariska, it would be desirable to know who is victimized in prostitution and who is not, but she wonders if registration provides a true guarantee:
“By registering you lose your privacy so a lot of sex workers will choose the illegal path. The results of the registration really depend on how they will work it out in practice; who is going to be able to see the register, for what purposes will they use it, what will be on the registration pass the sex workers will have to bring with them to work? The general idea may sound good, but there are a lot of ‘what if’s’.”
Certain policy changes are definitely needed to improve the current situation; privacy is one especially important issue. Sex workers suffer from social stigmatization, and a breach of privacy could potentially deter many in the profession from registering. However, there are some positives to take into account as well. Aside from removing pimps from the sex trade, a greater degree of government oversight could help to regulate the high rents, offering workers a less exploitive environment and increased income. Also, the workers could benefit from government-funded educational programs aimed at raising awareness of other potential careers and opportunities available, and educating workers on rules and proper hygiene. Greater government involvement could also influence the general public perception of this ancient profession. Only a decade has passed since the lifting of the prohibition, and much change has taken place, but according to Mariska there is still much that can be improved.
Reform through Research
Apparently, the current situation surrounding legal window prostitution in the red light district of Amsterdam is far from ideal; changes are needed. Merel van Mansom is a student with a profound interest in the effects of policy on the labor conditions of prostitutes. She wrote a paper on this subject as well as taking several courses on human trafficking, and currently works as a volunteer at BlinN (Bonded Labour in the Netherlands). According to Merel, one of the most important priorities is ‘de-stigmatization’ of the profession:
“Recognizing the profession in law is one thing. It is a different task to accept prostitution in a social context. The policy counteracts this goal by focusing on de-criminalization. Of course this is important, but we should not forget the rights of the people that choose to exercise this job out of free will.”
When prostitution is legally accepted as a normal job, society must also reflect this new-found acceptance. According to Merel, it is well and good to regulate working conditions within the industry, but when you pay taxes and work legally, there should also be the necessary resources and space to practice your work. In the past few years, the government has reduced the number of windows available through purchase and conversion, leading to a shortage in working space for many prostitutes. The idea behind this policy has been to reduce demand by reducing available supply of the product. But, given that the need for carnal pleasure has always been and will forever be in high demand, this only has the effect of reducing legal employment,. Furthermore, there should be a strong labor union to advocate for workers. At present there is Vakbond Vakwerk, but this organization is very small and lacks a significant voice. The shortage of adequate provisions for prostitutes has made the legal practice of sex work relatively unattractive. The most important improvement that Merel would like to see is the institution of policies that allow for greater governmental and non-governmental cooperation with prostitutes:
“People talk about the prostitutes but don’t talk with the prostitutes themselves. Policy makers can learn a lot from talking to them. We need a lot more then only a legal recognition.”
Word on the Street
Policy and media-inspired public opinion can do little justice to societal issues, because the deliberation process often excludes the most important actors – those whose welfare is most directly in question. The result may be a policy that ultimately does more to oppress than to empower sex workers. The prostitutes in question, however biased they may be on the issue, need to be given a louder voice on the matter of legality in order to obtain a policy more beneficial to them as independent sex workers. The stigmatization of prostitution hampers the possibility for a collaboration between prostitutes, politicians and government agencies toward an improvement of the sex industry. Metje Blaak, a former prostitute who now leads the labor union representing prostitutes and advises women in Amsterdam who seek to leave the profession, argues that the new policy under deliberation will only have negative repercussions for the sex trade:
“I am really against the registration idea. A lot of women come to me and tell me that if the registration becomes a requirement then they will go underground. I am also against putting the age up to 21 because the pimps will take more illegal routes. I have 22 year olds telling me that they are too old for the work because clients want younger women. Pimps will not wait until women are 21 so the illegal activities will grow.”
Despite the legality of the sex trade here, criminal organizations still profit handsomely from issues related to the current age limit of 18, which Metje describes in detail. Based on her intimate knowledge of the situation, one can only assume that the new policy will indeed further cripple the autonomy of sex workers. The case can be made that the “independent worker” is a myth. No one can truly work independently within a system that requires people to work in specific areas of town, and in certain establishments like sex clubs and window brothels. The selling of sex within these restrictive legal parameters, enforced through registration, detracts from the appeal of working legally. Metje mentions that before prostitution became legal, the women actually had more autonomy over themselves and their work; now, they have less freedom. They are easily controlled, not only by pimps who offer to pay rent and other services, but by the system itself.
Challenges are plentiful for the sex worker today. With the influx of migrant workers from around the world, and trafficked workers from various parts of Eastern Europe including Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania, prostitutes are faced with heavy competition amongst each other. This creates an environment in which women have become more willing to perform acts that they normally would not do. For example, many women are asked if they would be willing to have sex without the use of a condom for extra money; money which they might be obliged to take after renting a window, paying taxes and in some cases, paying a pimp. Other acts may include fist and anal sex which in most cases would be turned down, but in the current situation, according to Metje, many of these workers will accept for fear of losing clients to other prostitutes willing to perform those acts. There also seems to be rampant hypocrisy when it comes to the economic benefits of prostitution in spite of the profession’s negative stigma. Metje talked about her dealings as a prostitute and her current work as a union representative:
“What people want to see is the taxes, but they don’t want to see the prostitution that produces it. A lot of times I had clients that were politicians and we deliberated at times and they wanted to do away with it. They were saying ‘away with the prostitution’ and calling them filthy hookers yet they sleep with them...Right now I am focusing on the issue of bank accounts. Rabobank doesn’t want to open accounts for prostitutes, but another bank will open them. This is just another example of discrimination based on occupation. First Rabobank said that they don’t want to be associated with prostitutes, but then it was because they don’t know where the money is coming from. I see a lot of their clients withdrawing money from that bank though.”
The challenges she describes are being faced by an already beleaguered and marginalized subculture. The institution of prostitution is not a respectable one according to societal norms; when government passes legislation on its behalf, there seems to be a certain lack of sincerity that suggests a money-making scheme in line with capitalist ideology. While we cannot automatically assume Metje’s stories to be completely reliable, her sentiments are echoed by many sex workers, some more vocal than others.
There exists a willingness on the part of advocates such as Metje to work with the powers-that-be, in order to reform policy and improve the working conditions for prostitution. Metje would like to see more cooperation between the myriad actors that involved in the world of sex work: the exploiters (licensed owners of sex clubs and window brothels), the government, organizations like the labour union and PG292, and of course, the prostitutes. She wants these women to become truly independent workers, capable of starting their own businesses and free to operate wherever they wish in order to make a decent living. She also seeks stronger policies aimed at suppressing crime syndicates that force women to sell themselves, in order to reduce competition among the women that actually want to do the work.
Prostitution is one of the oldest professions known to humankind. Even in a modern and tolerant society, where it has become a legal practice – or, perhaps, ironically as a result of this tolerance – it ultimately falls short of its potential. This is a clear case of underrepresentation on the part of workers that have independently chosen to take up lives as prostitutes. Any legal enterprise that creates revenue for the established government deserves proper governmental representation and protection. Here, we witness an opposite scenario in which many workers end up choosing the illegal route because it benefits them more.
By attempting to remove criminal profiteering and improve conditions for sex workers, the government has created an environment that hampers those workers’ ability to independently drive economic growth and development – the definition of successful business. The new legislation looks to be more of an obstacle to the legal process than it is a help. It further stigmatizes the profession by creating a situation where women 18 years of age are able to work in almost any other capacity, yet would need to be 21 in order to be a sex worker. It also fails to acknowledge that many women do not wish to be identified as prostitutes since they might just do this as a side job, or don’t want to lose their privacy; as a result, those women will opt for illegal activity instead of registering legally. The illegal route to prostitution is more financially attractive to begin with; moreover, without stricter law enforcement to suppress the crime syndicates and pimps, this underground market will continue to expand and proliferate, potentially creating new avenues for trade and better opportunities for sex workers and investors alike. In such a criminal enterprise, proper working conditions cannot exist. The key to those better conditions would instead appear to be a new dialogue between all actors concerned, in order to produce a policy that promotes a safe and economically adequate living for the workers, while maintaining a high standard of credibility for the established legal system.
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