Does legalising prostitution work?

Heleen Mees | Feb 2, 09 11:57am

Prostitution is virtually the only part of the personal services industry in the Netherlands that works. One can’t get a manicure in Amsterdam without booking an appointment two weeks in advance, but men can buy sex anytime – and at an attractive price.


The legalisation of prostitution in October 2000 merely codified a long-standing Dutch tradition of tolerance towards buying and selling sex. But is legalisation the right approach?

amsterdam prostitution 010209 01Even in the Netherlands, women and girls who sell their bodies are routinely threatened, beaten, raped, and terrorised by pimps and customers. In a recent criminal trial, two German-Turkish brothers stood accused of forcing more than 100 women to work in Amsterdam’s red-light district ( De Wallen ).

According to the attorney who represented one of the victims, most of these women come from families marred by incest, alcohol abuse, and parental suicide. Or they come from countries in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia and have fallen victim to human trafficking, lured by decent job offers or simply sold by their parents.

These women are Amsterdam’s leading tourist attraction (followed by the coffee shops that sell marijuana). But an estimated 50-90 percent of them are actually sex slaves, raped on a daily basis with police idly standing by.

It is incomprehensible that their clients are not prosecuted for rape, but Dutch politicians argue that it cannot be established whether or not a prostitute works voluntarily.

Appalled by their daily routine, police officers from the Amsterdam vice squad have asked to be transferred to other departments. Only this year, the city administration has started to close down some brothels because of their ties to criminal organisations.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the average age of death of prostitutes is 34. In the United States, the rate at which prostitutes are killed in the workplace is 51 times that of the next most dangerous occupation for women, working in a liquor store. Other studies show that nine out of 10 prostitutes urgently want to escape the job. Almost half have attempted suicide at least once.

Sweden’s approach

In 1999, the Swedish government decriminalised the sale of sex, but made it an offence to pimp or to buy sex.

Under Sweden’s so-called ‘Sex Purchase Law’, paying for sex is punishable by fines or up to six months in prison, plus the humiliation of public exposure. According to the Swedish authorities, the number of prostitutes in Sweden has dropped 40 percent as a result. Human trafficking rings tend to avoid Sweden, because business has gone sour.

Norway, a country that has a reputation to lose when it comes to women’s rights, carefully compared the Swedish and Dutch models and concluded that Sweden’s was the one to follow. It has now changed its legislation accordingly.

The success of the Swedish approach is not so surprising. According to a study in California, most men who bought sex would be deterred by the risk of public exposure. For example, 79 percent said that they would be deterred if there was a chance that their families would be notified. And a whopping 87 percent said that they would be deterred by the threat that the police might publish their photographs or names in the local newspaper.

amsterdam prostitution 010209 02Most of these men showed pathological behavior towards women. One in five admitted to having raped a woman, while four out of five said that going to prostitutes was an addiction. Prostitution is often dubbed ‘the oldest profession’.

But this is merely a way of justifying the exploitation of mostly vulnerable women (there is also a much smaller number of male prostitutes in the Netherlands, but they are not pimped out like female prostitutes). It takes leadership and a vision of true gender equality to put an end to prostitution.

The Swedish practice of naming and shaming is quite un-Dutch. But, for some men, part of the pleasure of buying sex may be the humiliation conferred on the woman involved.

For others, like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, the promise of discretion and anonymity may be the most appealing aspect of buying sex. In any case, pillorying the clients is both a just punishment and an effective deterrent.

HELEEN MEES is a Dutch economist and lawyer. Her most recent book, Weg met het deeltijdfeminisme!, examines third-generation feminism. She is also the author of a book on European Union law and founder of the women’s action committee ‘Women on Top’.

One thought on “Does legalising prostitution work?

  1. Our film about decriminalized prostitution is going to be shown in New York on Feb 28th at 2:00 at the Film Anthology Archive (32 Second Ave) I would love to see a wide variety of people there to see if the film spurs any debate on this subject.

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