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Child's Play

The legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands in 2000 was meant, in part, to prevent the exploitation of minors in the sex industry. Nearly nine years later, however, the problem of underage girls working in brothels and behind windows persists. As an estimated 1,500 girls continue to sell their bodies for money, some advocates downplay the issue, while others blame deficient government regulation and the enduring stigmatization of sex workers.
Mariska Majoor sits up straight on the black metallic stool and crosses her long, slender legs. She tenses up. As she dwells on the question about her past, silence surges throughout the Prostitution Information Center’s main room, which is enclosed by dark pink and red walls. After a 20-second pause, Majoor looks off to the right, brings her arms to her chest, and begins to recount her first experience as a prostitute in a private sex house in Amsterdam.
“He was 70 years old,” she says, wide-eyed and on the verge of laughing. “Imagine that—70 years old. And there I was, just 16.”
Majoor says that she was the youngest prostitute in the house, and concedes that her youth only increased her appeal among the diverse clientele. By that point in her life, selling her body was a survival tactic which she had translated into a profitable profession, one that ultimately spanned five years in total. She would end her career in prostitution at the age of 21.
Though she realizes that her age technically made her an illegal sex worker, though she admits that customers violated her personal boundaries multiple times, forcing her to perform sex acts that she did not want to, and though she says that the owner of the house knew he was employing a minor, Majoor—the founder of PIC and full-time prostitution advocate—nonchalantly brushes aside the obvious question: does she regret that lax law enforcement did not prevent her from entering the sex industry when she was essentially still a child? 
“Not at all,” she says quickly, “and not even in that situation, with that 70-year-old man, would I ever have considered pressing charges for child abuse.”
For Majoor, the reason to start a career in sex work at the age of 16 was a personal one, a justification she says she shares with most sex workers—whether they are of legal age or not.
“I considered myself old enough to choose to do things. I saw that it was my decision, and mine only,” she says. “If someone were to have told me I was too young, I would’ve been angry—really, really angry. And I would’ve said to them, ‘Fuck you. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.’”
Majoor’s insistence that she was mature enough to make a livelihood out of juvenile prostitution aside, she had still been consciously flouting the law. But according to Dutch law predating the autumn of 2000, age was technically irrelevant: sex work facilitated by a third party—as in brothels and private houses—was prohibited for prostitutes aged 18 or older, as well. Majoor says that a national gedoogbeleid, or a general policy of tolerance toward the sex industry, made it “really easy” to work underage in these “illegal” places. Even in the visible Red Light District, enforcement of a minimum age to work in prostitution—much less enforcement of a national ban on brothels—was irregular at best.
On Oct. 1, 2000, lawmakers sought to change that reality. After years of heated debate, the Dutch government passed the Wet Opheffing Bordeelverbod, an act that lifted the ban on brothels and consequently made organized prostitution a lawful profession. During the subsequent two years, politicians instituted sweeping measures to regulate the newly legalized sex industry. In order to remain licensed and continue operating, brothels were now subjected to routine police checks in which law enforcement officials scrutinized the documents of sex workers to ensure that exploitation, trafficking, and unsafe practices did not occur. In a 21st-century world in which human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and sexually-transmitted infections constitute significant threats to health and human welfare, the move by lawmakers, for the first time ever, ushered in an era of government regulation of the “world’s oldest profession.” 
Whether or not they supported it in the first place, critics agree that the legalization of prostitution is unprecedented. But some are quick to add that the law as it currently reads, and the way it is enforced, still do not perfectly coincide. Advocates like Majoor have praised government regulation of prostitution on the grounds that it has guaranteed sex workers access to health care and recognition as tax-paying laborers. Yet, others have countered that the regulation does not go far enough. These critics point to loopholes and unforeseen repercussions—demonstrated, for example, by the persistence of minors working in the regulated sex industry—as evidence of a deficient system. Critics say that behind this deficiency lies a reluctance on the part of both the government and the general public to view sex workers as just that: legitimate workers who number 25,000, according to estimates from the Gemeentelijke Gezondheidsdienst, or Municipal Health Service. 

For the Money, for the Minors

For child prostitutes, even those only one or two years underage, the gedoogbeleid towards the sex industry has become, in principle, a “no tolerance” policy. At the same time that they legalized prostitution nearly nine years ago, Dutch lawmakers simultaneously increased the penalty for consumers of child prostitution.  For the first time, both the solicitation and employment of children in the sex industry were regarded as criminal offenses under Articles 240, 244 to 250, and 273 of the criminal code. In Majoor’s case, the revised criminal code, which now explicitly protects 16- and 17-year-old minors in addition to younger children, would have classified her client and the private sex house owner as child abusers. Still, despite these changes in criminal law and the increased police presence in brothels, an estimated 1,500 girls under 18 still work in the industry according to Nederlands Instituut voor Sociaal Seksuologisch, the Dutch Institute for Social Sexual Research.
The truth is that the decriminalization of prostitution first grew out of practical concerns. In the 1980s, city authorities from Rotterdam to Amsterdam took note of the sizeable economic contribution from brothels, which had multiplied throughout the country. Underpinning this lucrative spread of organized, third-party prostitution was the sexual revolution and feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. During this time, fewer and fewer people continued to view prostitution as deviant behavior, said Marie Louis Janssen, a lecturer on cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam who teaches a course on prostitution called “The Commodification of the Human Body.”
“People reacted against a double moral standard,” said Janssen, referencing the social phenomena at play during the 1960s and 70s. “While male sexuality was not really rejected, women were subjected to force and control.”
Adding to these ideological and economic trends was an increasing awareness throughout the 1990s of exploitation within the sex industry. This attention came as a consequence of immigration and so-called “sex trips.” During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, sex operators brought women from southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa, and eastern Europe, making the Netherlands fertile ground for human trafficking. Parliamentary papers from 2000 show how lawmakers addressed each of these issues—the perception of prostitution, the profitability of brothels, and the abuse occurring in these institutions—before the decision to legalize sex work. In fact, the first four of six stated aims of legalization were controlling organized prostitution by consenting adults, preventing involuntary prostitution, protecting minors against sexual abuse, and improving the status of prostitutes within society.  

A “Small” Problem?

But several reports in the last few years have noted mixed results in achieving these goals. One, a 2006 national evaluation conducted by the Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek- en Documentatiecentrum, or Research and Documentation Center of the Ministry of Justice, concluded that the number of minors working in brothels and windows cannot be definitively determined. The report observed that minors—who were singled out for further protection in 2002 amendments to the prostitution law—were found only incidentally in brothels and windows. However, it also confirmed that minors continue to work in the industry; at least five percent of the prostitutes in licensed brothels began sex work before the age of 18, 10 percent of private escorts started their careers as minors, and only half of municipalities pay specific attention to combating child prostitution. Estimating a sex worker’s age is difficult, the report ultimately found, particularly when the prostitute is one or two years underage.
The potential of a child prostitution “problem” should therefore not be understated, said Celine Verheijen, who directs the children’s rights organization ECPAT, or “End Child Prostitution, child pornography, And the Trafficking of children for sexual purposes.” Regardless of the exact number of juvenile prostitutes, Verheijen said, the fact that government regulation of the sex industry has failed to prevent even one minor from working in a brothel is cause for concern.
“If one child is allowed to sell sex for money in one of these places, it is one child too many,” Verheijen said. “I personally don’t see how anyone could call it a ‘small’ problem based on the numbers. What’s the standard, then? One hundred girls? Two hundred? We should not allow any of it to happen.”
Unlike Lianne Muller, police chief of the Beurstraat station in Amsterdam who has openly praised government regulation of the sex industry, Verheijen questions whether the system is even effective in light of minors’ continued ability to work in the regulated sector. Currently, a balance is struck between national and local control of brothels and window sex shops. But this balance is imperfect, she argues. On the one hand, top-down regulation does not necessarily mean more effective control.  On the other, while local regulation means smaller, more manageable jurisdictions and tailored strategies for enforcing the law, the downside is that each area would have its own standards, making it difficult—and expensive—for the government to streamline regulation of the sex industry.
For Muller, revamping regulation to prevent minors from entering the sex industry should not precede a simple change in the law. Although the police chief called legalization a “good thing,” she added that if she had her way, she would increase the minimum age for working in brothels and windows to at least 21.
“Even 18-year-old prostitutes are naïve. They still have the minds of children,” said Muller, who works with a staff of 12 police officers enforcing regulatory measures in the Red Light District. “They give all sorts of excuses—they think that to be a prostitute is a nice job, or they say that they’re unable to work other jobs. But they just don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Muller is not alone in advocating for an increase in the minimum age of sex workers beyond 18. In January 2008, Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin informed Parliament of his support of a proposal first advanced in 2007 by Fleur Agema, a lawmaker affiliated with Geert Wilders’ extreme right-wing Partij voor de Vrijheid, or Freedom Party. And just two weeks ago, Agema again proposed that the age be increased, this time on the grounds that a higher minimum age would cause “lover boys”—a euphemism for “pimps” who manipulate minors into working behind windows and in brothels, and profit in the process—to “lose interest” in minors.
“Lover boy practices are disgusting,” Agema, who also advocates strengthening the penalty for soliciting sex from a child, wrote on the Freedom Party’s Web site. “Girls are being exploited, mistreated, and raped. And because prostitution in our country from 18 years old is completely legal, in practice you can do little against these crooks. Considering that, we have to strengthen criminal investigation.”
Veheijen, although her stance is less politicized, agrees that the lover boy problem is reason enough to increase the minimum age. Typically, lover boys approach young girls when they are  12 or 13 years old, she said; in fact, according to Kennis en Advies voor Maatschappelijke, or the national organization Knowledge and Advice about Social Developments, a fifth of lover boys’ victims are between the ages of 13 and 15. Within a few years, after having earned the love and trust of these now-legal women, they force them to work in licensed brothels and windows.
“At this point, the police can’t do anything to save the girls anymore—they’re legal sex workers,” Veheijen said, adding that an increased minimum age would give victims more time to escape from the influence of pimps.
 
Ahead of a possible change in the national age requirement, brothels in major cities have begun to voluntarily raise this threshold on their own. In the Hague, Dutch news agencies reported last year, 21 has become the minimum age for sex workers in several brothels. In November 2007, the Amsterdam city council condoned a similar proposal, although an enforceable change in the law would ultimately have to come from Parliament. La Vie en Rose—a popular brothel in the capital city’s Red Light District—has already instituted the change willingly.
But not all see the wisdom in increasing the minimum age. One employee of a live pornography show near La Vie en Rose, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said that increasing the age standard for sex workers is “unnecessary.” He added that regular police checks in the area ensure that “absolutely no minors are working in the Red Light District”—an observation which Muller corroborated.
As part of regulation, Muller and her officers routinely visit brothels and windows, where they ask prostitutes for their passports in order to determine whether the sex workers are of legal age and documented. In the event that a prostitute does not supply a passport, or an officer notices that the woman might be underage or the victim of abuse, a special report is issued.
“There is a lot of movement and control of what is happening,” Muller said in her small office, as her paging device went off repeatedly over a 10-minute interval. She added that a limited staff and “other duties” prevent police from “going to the Red Light District all the time.”
The possibility of deficient—or perhaps in Muller’s case, overstretched—police regulation of brothels and windows is echoed in a July 2008 report authored by Kinderrechtencollectief, the Dutch Coalition for Children’s Rights. According to the report, there has been “little” police prosecution of individuals who violate the revised criminal code and either sell or solicit sex from minors. Although the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child made a recommendation to the Dutch government in 2004 for strengthening police capacity to combat child prostitution, the report finds that that government “has not followed up on this recommendation.”
“The lack of priority, capacity, and expertise on the part of the police, Public Prosecution Service, and judiciary continue to constitute the bottleneck in the investigation and prosecution of the sexual exploitation of children,” the report reads.
Similarly, a report published in 2007 by the Bureau Nationaal Rapporteur Mensenhandel, or Dutch Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, concluded that routine police inspections in brothels are often insufficiently exhaustive, 

How Old Is “Old Enough?”

When informed of the 2006 Ministry of Justice report’s findings that at least five percent of prostitutes in brothels and windows had at one point been working underage, both Muller and the pornography show employee dismissed the data.
“The minors are in apartments, not here,” the employee—a middle-aged man who wore tight, faded jeans and an unbuttoned purple shirt—said. “Check behind Central Station. The junkies work there. If you come to the Red Light District, you’re not going to find young girls working.”
This distinction that this man makes in using the term “young girls” is a subjective one, and sheds light on why the issue of age is controversial. Neither Majoor, the former prostitute, nor Janssen, the University of Amsterdam lecturer, believes that minors aged 16 or 17 should be considered children. Majoor’s reasoning centers on her personal experiences: as a 16-year-old prostitute, she says, she considered herself “no longer a child.”
“In the time that I started, I had a strange and wild life—but I knew what I was getting myself into,” says Majoor. “Sure, it was heavy shit all the time, but it was typical me. You know, the big mouth, the racy things, the sexiness. I was always someone who does really exciting things, and this was one of them.”
“I was independent,” she adds. “I was an adult at 16.”
But Majoor also reveals how her personal circumstances, which were beyond her control, served to push her into the profitable sex industry. As a teenager living on the streets of Amsterdam, Majoor was indigent, homeless, without healthy food and clothes, and frequently used drugs. In fact, she recounts that she often settled for speed because she could not afford to purchase cocaine.
Majoor’s economic status changed drastically when she decided to sell her body in a private sex house. She said that she had always wanted a pet dog when she was homeless, and after entering the sex industry, she was finally able to afford one.
“Before I started working, I had nothing,” she said. “But from the day I walked into that house, I had more than enough.”
Janssen sees many parallels between Majoor’s story and those of other underage prostitutes: in general, they are in dire economic circumstances and lack the opportunities to improve their condition.
“It depends so much on context,” Janssen says. “If you’re a child, 15 or 16 or 17 years old, and you’re helping your family to survive—well, what is a child in this context? If it’s the difference between surviving and not surviving, who am I to say that you should not be allowed to help yourself?”
In such a situation, Majoor says, if 16- and 17-year-old girls who work in prostitution are considered criminals, then they will resort to other illegal activities—from stealing to selling drugs—in order to make the “quick money” they need. This would be an “obviously dangerous” situation for young women, says Marjan Sax, a self-proclaimed feminist who founded the women’s empowerment foundation, Mama Cash, in 1983 and served as treasurer for the International Committee of Rights for Sex Workers in Europe from 2001 to 2006. 
“It’s not a choice between becoming a medical doctor or becoming a prostitute,” Sax says. “The government doesn’t give these girls any better alternatives. It is the best option in a limited range of opportunities.”
According to Janssen, the legal employment alternatives in this “limited range”—domestic service or restaurant employment, for example—are low-status, physically grueling, and under-paying professions. Still, not all sex workers are eyeing only these types of jobs. Some advocates say that an increase in the minimum age would be detrimental to those underage prostitutes who see their work in the sex industry as a means to an end. Two employees at a designer store in the Red Light District, both of whom asked to remain anonymous, said that several 18-year-old women they know working in brothels and behind windows are trying to better their own lives, working in the sex industry in order to pay for higher education.
The possibility of dubbing prostitution an “industry,” and intending to regulate it as a normal profession, highlights a final reason that Janssen believes 18 to be “more than old enough.” The International Labor Organization has set the minimum age for work at 15. If prostitution is “work” in this country, Janssen says, then “we should draw a firm line at 15.”
But the debate on age is not limited to international standards for employment or to the diverse set of reasons that underage girls start a career in prostitution. Both Majoor and Janssen agree that the controversy also stems from disagreement over when a person can make informed consent. Majoor says that she can speak for prostitutes who are one or two years underage because she shares many traits with them. And unlike Muller, the police chief, she believes that at 16 years of age, this “type” of person can “definitely” make a rational decision to enter the sex industry.
“The fact that they made the choice to be a sex worker means that they’re a certain kind of person: they want to live on the edge and break all the rules,” she explains. “There are a lot of complicated circumstances, but this kind of girl is strong—emotionally strong enough to say ‘no’ to people and physically strong enough to protect herself. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to be a sex worker.”

On the Ground Fighting

Linda van Kooy isn’t the type of person to raise her voice. But the reasons cited by advocates like Janssen and Majoor for lowering the minimum age to work in brothels and behind windows are enough to make this calm mother of three visibly enraged.
Van Kooy works as a project leader for Asja, a shelter and rehabilitation center for young women between the ages of 14 and 21 who are seeking to end their careers in prostitution—careers that are usually started and subsequently exploited by a lover boy. According to Van Kooy, most of the girls assisted by the shelter fall within the age range that Janssen and Majoor suggested as a new standard for the age minimum—they are 16 and 17 years old.  She adds that for the most part the girls are native white Dutch, and if a lover boy is involved, he typically has an immigrant background. 
“At that age, girls are young—not too young—but they’re extremely vulnerable,” she says. “I can understand that there’s sometime a reason they’re vulnerable, like when they need money to help their family. But when we are talking about making a free choice, we need to clarify one thing: if a girl needs money to survive and prostitution is her only option, then that is not a free choice, and she is not being rational.”
The girls she has helped since last year, when van Kooy began working for Asja, come from broken homes in which domestic and sexual abuse are routine occurrences. Divorce and cases of incest are common in these households. Though Van Kooy says that several of the girls have become “indifferent” to sex because of the abuse they suffered, making it easier for them to exchange sex for money, she is quick to point out that this apathy is abnormal. When given the choice between working in a brothel and receiving aid from the country’s welfare system, “not a single woman would choose to sell her body,” van Kooy says. 
The realization that minors working in the sex industry often suffer from mental illness is why Asja begins with psychological evaluations upon admitting a girl, and subsequently provides each girl with her own therapist. Currently, Asja shelters between 35 and 40 young sex workers per year at several houses throughout the country. Plans are underway to establish another house in eastern Holland.
At each of the houses, girls are subjected to several rules that support Asja’s mission of preventing relapse into prostitution. The girls—who can stay for a maximum of six months at the house—are not allowed to use drugs, leave the house, or speak to anyone on the phone. Moreover, they are required to present their case to the police. If a girl refuses to adhere to the restrictions, then the organization asks her to leave. Van Kooy, who says she has worked with girls as young as 11 years old, adds that she does not know how often girls relapse into prostitution.
“When they think they don’t need our help, we can’t force them to take it,” she says..
Compared to similar organizations, Asja is unique in both its initiatives and its fundraising. The shelter’s policy for admitting girls is need-blind; van Kooy says that paying for an admitted sex worker’s treatment is “never an issue.”  The organization’s philosophy, she adds, is that “when somebody needs help, we help them.” Asja also partially finances itself through private donations, freeing the shelter from having to rely exclusively on government grants and therefore giving it the leeway not to “just do what the government asks.”  Although she specifies that Asja’s relationship with the government is not strained, van Kooy identifies key problems with the way in which the law confronts child prostitution.
For instance, the government has established a firm deadline for minors to react to incidents of sexual abuse: children have six weeks to obtain help from shelters after such an incident occurs. Like Veheijen, the director of ECPAT, she questions the government’s overall approach to combating child prostitution. The Dutch Coalition for Children’s Rights has urged lawmakers to implement a “more structural” model, and suggested expanding educational initiatives throughout the country. Van Kooy argues that while that is necessary, educational programming should not center only on the victims, but must also address the root problem—adults who solicit sex from minors.
“For me, that is the biggest problem. As long as men want to have sex with young girls, they’ll find a way,” says van Kooy, who advocates raising the minimum age for working in the sex industry to 24.
“The question I want to ask is, ‘How can I tell pedophiles, look, it’s not normal for someone who’s 40 or 50 or 60 to have sex with a 16-year-old girl.’ That’s not a discussion we have, a discussion about why so many men look for young girls,” she continued, adding that she wants to pursue a career in politics in order to “get child prostitution on the political agenda.”

The Victims of a “Whore Stigma”

Janssen, Majoor, and Sax agree that a tendency to view sex workers as victims constitutes an underlying problem in the industry of legalized prostitution, and that this problem is often exacerbated by focusing on select cases of child prostitution. 
“It is always easier to speak about victims and human trafficking than about women fighting for their own rights,” Sax, the Mama Cash founder, says.
Like Janssen and Majoor, Sax believes that prostitution—which is still perceived against a framework of morality in spite of its legalization—is a profession, and is not exclusively defined by abuse and exploitation. Even in the Netherlands, society has continued to value virginity, monogamy, and the control of women, and current laws mirror that trend. 
“All legislation is about control. In this case, it is how to get more control and diminish sex work,” Sax says. “But this is the wrong approach. If you really want to change things, improve the condition of sex workers, acknowledge them, and support them.”
Seen in this way, the issue transcends acknowledgment: it centers around women’s rights. Prostitution advocates and workers in the sex industry often lack a certain respect when they speak about the prostitutes themselves. 
“I am proud of our Red Light District,” the live pornography employee said.    
“The whores that are working here are their own boss, they are their own company,” he continued. “There are a lot of bitches coming from Eastern Europe, and they earn in one day what they would earn in a month in their own countries.”
Because of this tendency to see prostitution as something dirty, disgusting, and cheap—albeit tolerable—Majoor, the former child prostitute, says that she would never want her own 12-year-old daughter to become a sex worker. The persistent “whore stigma” thrives, she says.
Although Dutch law has recognized prostitution as lawful labor and granted prostitutes the rights to a pension and health insurance, government support is often more based on theory than reality. De Rode Draad—The Red Thread, a sex worker advocacy organization founded in 1985—claims on its Web site that brothel operators often flout their employees’ labor rights, and government regulation fails to prevent this.. Brothel operators tell sex workers they are self-employed, but then exercise extensive authority over them, forcing sex workers to work at certain times, wear certain attire, and charge certain prices. 
It is in this climate of little recognition and low status in which abuse and exploitation is able to occur, affecting arguably the most vulnerable group—minors—the most. And so, regardless of the debate on age, efforts to prevent minors from working in the sex industry should start by giving prostitutes more rights in general, some advocates say. 
“There is a group of minors in the sex industry,” Majoor states. “If we see that this is happening, then we need to take a few steps back. We can’t just blame the sex industry. We have to look further. Part of that is making sure women can stand up for their rights, can be stronger. Let’s put some money there for a change.”
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Netherlands Netherlands 2009

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