Bringing Back the Prostitution Debate

Since the beginning of the 20th century, brothels were outlawed in the Netherlands. Yet, that’s not to say that prostitution was against the law. The Dutch had adopted a gedogen, also known as ‘pragmatic tolerance’, on the affairs concerning its red-light district.[1] Rather than turning a blind eye, one could say that the Dutch believed in the policy of non-intervention as long as prostitution was controlled and did not bring about any public nuisance. Hence, for a long time, prostitution in the Netherlands prospered as prostitutes plied their trade amongst the community.

However, the phenomenon of pornography, gambling and drugs soon crept in and resulted in a concoction of vices that plagued the Netherlands in the late 20th century. It transformed the prostitution industry as local prostitutes soon left the red-light districts for greener pastures. In place of these prostitutes came a wave of illegal immigrants from developing nations. The regard for pragmatic tolerance was almost immediately tossed out of the window as the new group of prostitutes took to soliciting on the streets. On the other hand, money-grubbing pimps had sensed a growing market and began to set up brothels and escort services despite the ban. This had in turn ignited an upsurge in organised criminal activities.

In a bid to rein in the flourishing prostitution industry, the Netherlands repealed its prohibition on brothels and started to regulate the market.[2] In fact, to provide some sort of understanding on the magnitude of the issue, at the time of the abrogation of the ban in 2000 there were about 25,000 prostitutes in the Netherlands, of which 68% comprised of immigrants. Under new legislation put in place at that time, brothels are deemed legal as long as brothel keepers comply with the licensing regulations. Unless entry into the trade resulted from some form of manipulation and/or exploitation, prostitutes are recognised and protected under the labour law.

Even so, the legalisation is not one without debate – some have questioned whether the Dutch legalisation is the right approach to tackling prostitution. Indeed, ever since the legalisation came into effect, there has been no shortage of comparisons between the legal frameworks of the Netherlands and Sweden – both of which were enforced at about the same time.

Now, on to the crux of the matter: Why did the Dutch legitimise prostitution?

To begin with, the primary reason was to protect prostitutes from commercial exploitation or trafficking.[3] The Dutch legislation distinguishes voluntary and exploitative prostitution so as to allow authorities to criminalise perpetrators of coercion and combat human trafficking. Additionally, the recognition of prostitutes in the eyes of the law permits them to the same social, legal and political treatment as other citizens. Thus, should they ever encounter any violence or threats at work, they could easily seek the assistance of the jurisdiction. Moreover, decriminalising brothels meant that the Dutch government would be able to keep a lid on pimping activities and look out for any underground criminal occurrences.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, cynics have shot down the merits of the Dutch legislation. Even though health care and legal support are now accessible to prostitutes, proponents against legalisation contend that it did little, if any, to mitigate the stigma and marginalisation associated with the trade. Another prominent argument going up against the prostitution law is the apparent proliferation of human trafficking. Indeed, a report published last year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that the Netherlands is one of the top origin- and destination- countries for human trafficking.[4] If so, then it appears that using legalisation to tackle the human trafficking issue is a paradox.

Now contrast this with the Swedish legislation which appears to be a bastion against prostitution, having adopted a neo-abolitionist stance. The legislation criminalises consumers of prostitution instead of the prostitutes. In other words, rather than regulating the supply of prostitutes (as it is with the Dutch legislative model), demand is controlled. Well, Sweden has observed remarkable results; street prostitution has been halved and organised crime rates are more or less stable.[5] Along with the media sensationalisation, it is no wonder why some might be quick to censure the Dutch legislative model.

However, it would be prudent to avoid making such a sweeping judgement. At first blush, results of the Dutch legislation pale in comparison with the Swedish one. However, it is crucial to bear in mind the cultural context embedded within the jurisdictions, which is unfortunately overlooked by most people.

I believe the promising outcome from the Swedish policy is partly due to the predominantly gender-egalitarian attitudes inherent in its culture.[6] As such, the Swedes are more likely to favour and support the criminalisation of prostitution because they believe that prostitution ultimately perpetuates gender-inequality. On the other hand, looking back at the Netherlands’ legislative history, prostitution has never been illegal. In fact, it was succinctly noted as a “social necessity and part of city life”.[7] Now, before anyone jumps on the criminalisation bandwagon, just think about this… Would criminalising prostitution in a culture that perceives it as essential like the Netherlands turn out to be as successful as one might hope for in the case of Sweden?

[1] Chrisje Brants, “The Fine Art of Regulated Tolerance: Prostitution in Amsterdam,” Journal of Law and Society 25, 4 (1998): 624.

[2] Laura Barnett, Lyne Casavant and Julia Nicol, “Prostitution: A Review of Legislation in Selected Countries,” Library of Parliament 115, E (2011): 9.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, published December 2012,

[5] Barnett, Casavant and Nicol, “Prostitution,” 13.

[6] Niklas Jakobsson and Andreas Kotsadam, “Gender Equity and Prostitution: An Investigation of Attitudes in Norway and Sweden,” Feminist Economics 17, 1 (2011): 54.

[7] Brants, “Fine Art,” 621.