I first visited Amsterdam’s Red-Light District on a free-walking tour as an excited, innocent nineteen-year-old. Bright eyed, I wandered through the cobbled streets and ogled at the women standing in the windows under the eerie red lights. Our tour guide, a fellow Australian, explained how in 2000, the Netherlands chose to transform the culture of tolerance towards the sex industry into legislation to legalise prostitution and brothels. He proudly spoke of how a sex worker was empowered to register her profession at the town hall, seek help from the police without fear, get access to appropriate healthcare and form unions to lobby for further protection. Furthermore, both, the Dutch society and its government were prompted to have constructive conversations and provide appropriate education. They also hoped that the regulation would help sever the sex industry’s ties to other forms of organised crime. I was profoundly impressed by Dutch’s liberal culture and legislation, and believed that as a result of this policy, the forced exploitation and trafficking of women endemic to the sex industry had been curbed.
Three years after my first visit, I returned to the picturesque canals and cosy streets of Amsterdam as a more committed feminist and an inquisitive policy student. I believed in the premise of the 2000 legislation; that the transaction of sex, between two consenting adults, was not a crime. I was ready to be further impressed by the liberal culture in the Netherlands and encouraged by the progress that the legislation was making in respecting, protecting and empowering sex workers. However, one simple statistic printed on the wall of the Secrets of the Red-Light District Museum upended my belief in the effectiveness of legalising prostitution and brothels. It read,
“Police believe that between 10% and 90% of the women in the Red-Light District are trafficked or coerced into their jobs.”
This statistic highlighted two concerning actualities to me. First, that up to 90% of the prostitutes in the Netherlands were not there of their own volition. Second, that police and government, despite nearly twenty years of legalisation, all of their intelligence, regulation and resources, continued to have almost no idea how many women were continuing to be trafficked, coerced and exploited by the industry. Many inquiries into the sector run by non-profits and the government report this same lack of concrete knowledge. Incredibly, a report on human trafficking by the National Rapporteur in 2017 represented the first substantiated estimate of human trafficking in the Netherlands . The National Rapporteur was established almost twenty years ago as part of the 2000 liberalisation policy.
Concerned about the safety of these women and interested in the effectiveness of legalisation in tackling this issue, I delved deeper upon my return to London. My research showed me that despite the lack of precise statistics about the safety and freedom of sex workers, journalists, sex worker unions, large NGOs, intergovernmental organisations  and the public in the Netherlands (and in other developed, liberal countries) overwhelmingly believe that sex work and brothels should be legal. For example, Amnesty International conducted a two-year inquiry into the global sex industry and concluded that the decriminalisation of sex work allows the workers to seek help from law enforcement without fear . Most of these sources acknowledge that as one of the oldest industries in the world, it is easier to regulate it than attempt to stamp it out.
I believe that the legislation, although rightly founded, is slightly too optimistic in what it hopes to achieve. In 2017, the National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking reported that 6000 human trafficking victims were rescued in the Netherlands, five times higher than what was originally assumed . Of the victims rescued, 5 out of 6 were women . Local Dutch girls, who are not required to undertake immigration and other administrative formalities, make up the largest portion of these victims . This reflects an issue that those opposing sex work legislation in the Netherlands use to advocate for their cause – that legalising prostitution has increased demand for their services and distorted the tourism industry in Amsterdam.
Due to the potential increase in demand for sex and the lucrative nature of the industry (with most prostitutes earning more than £350 a day ), many argue that legalisation has resulted in an upsurge of women being trafficked into sex work. Again, the lack of information surrounding the number of women trafficked into sex work today and over the past 20 years make it difficult to verify this argument.
Both as a nineteen-year-old and on my recent visit to Amsterdam, I was confronted by the sexualisation of the women standing in lingerie under the iridescent red lights. I believe I would feel dehumanised and humiliated to stand behind the glass and have someone commoditise my body. However, it is not for me to impose these views and assume that those who chose sex work feel the same. However, this view constitutes another important argument against legalisation of prostitution – that it signals to society and tourists that it is okay for women to be seen as a commodity . Many argue that the legalisation of prostitution reinforces a patriarchal society, harming the feminist movement, and that the sale of sex is detrimental to women’s mental health. Whether this is an intrinsic harm or a consequence of the social stigma against prostitution is hard to determine. With a vast majority of sex workers in the Netherlands and globally being women, it is easy to see how the sexualisation is highly gendered and how it could have spill over effects into wider society. Counter to this, there are numerous stories of women who feel empowered by the opportunity to freely and legally choose prostitution as their career. Many profess that the legislation has been successful in allowing them to be self-employed instead of relying on ‘pimps’ to find clients. As a result, sex workers are able to be more selective in the services they provide and to whom, improving their physical and mental health.
I am wholeheartedly in support of these women as long as they are able to truly make the choice freely. If this is the case, then they should be able to use their body as they see fit. While these stories could represent the ideal outcome created by the legalisation of prostitution and brothels, I believe they are only experienced by the truly empowered minority that can afford to be the most vocal, not by the average sex worker and certainly not by those forced or coerced into the industry.
Despite my critical assessment of the effectiveness of legalising prostitution and brothels, I have continued to believe in the aim and liberal ideology that was introduced to me on my walking tour in Amsterdam: that it is better that realities are acknowledged, and conversations facilitated. I believe that this conversation, between government, sex workers and the public, although slow, is helping to direct further resources into making the sector safe. Furthermore, it has already directed resources into catching human traffickers and violent pimps, protecting vulnerable women and girls across Europe. I think that the lack of robust statistics on the number of women freely working in the industry reflects a greater need for further funding and trained personnel, as well as mutual respect between law enforcement and sex workers, to effectively collect data. As far as I am concerned, the most important part of the complex policy issue of regulating the sex industry is the safety and well-being of the women involved.
Feature Image Source: https://www.timeout.com/amsterdam/en/nightlife/casa-rosso
Phoebe McClements is a second year Master of Public Administration Candidate at the LSE. She has a specific interest in youth and education policy. Phoebe holds a Bachelor of Commerce with majors in Economics and Finance from the University of Western Australia.