The debate about the effects of the new act started almost straightaway, given the necessity of working out the details of the implementation. A first evaluation was already conducted in 2001–2002. The researchers of the Centre for Scientific Research and Documentation (WODC) of the Ministry of Justice, and their associates took care in pointing out that it was too early to say if the legalization was having a positive impact (Daalder 2002), but generally they were moderately optimistic. It emerged that local councils ‘froze’ the number of brothels in their precincts, not allowing new competitors to the market. Some orthodox protestant councils refused to license any sex business. Many prostitutes had little idea of their rights or duties, and attempts to reach them were inadequate. The licensing system was not yet in place in all municipalities, leading to displacement of criminalized prostitution such as under-age or undocumented prostitutes to tardy municipalities. Fieldwork in the non-licensed sector noted instances of human trafficking and coercion, but the most frequent infringement of the law was the prostitute without a work permit, required by law for non-EU citizens (Goderie et al. 2002; Daalder 2002: 41). Daalder also reported a shift to non-regulated types of sex work, such as sauna’s, (camper) cars and bars (idem, 44). Although the reports pay attention to countries of origin of the prostitutes, all reports are ‘color blind’.
Looking specifically into the social position of prostitutes working in the licensed sector for the evaluation, Vanwesenbeeck et al. (2002) reported that sex workers had considerable autonomy but wondered if this finding was not due to socially desirable answers. If the women are independent workers, brothel owners do not have to deal with income tax or social insurance contributions for disability and unemployment. Given abundant evidence of control by managers (e.g. about dress, working hours and the percentage of the earnings going to the managers—indicative of the relation of employer over employee), the question arose how many of the women were really independent workers. Most sex workers and managers were in favour of work permits for non- EU workers.
The National Reporter on Human Trafficking produced a first annual report in 2002 (Mensenhandel 2002). It noted market shifts; there was not so much a displacement of prostitution from licensed brothels to street prostitution, as a burgeoning of escort services and services provided by sex workers in their homes. Both types of sex work were hard to tackle under the new licensing system. Rotterdam and Amsterdam also had notorious zones for street workers where organized and petty crime was rife and numerous signs indicated that many of the prostitutes working there were undocumented and sometimes victims of trafficking. These zones were closed in 2003 and 2004.
In the later reports of the National Reporter on Human Trafficking, there is a noticeable increase of the cases of trafficking. In 2001, 284 cases were reported, and in 2009, 909 (Mensenhandel 2010: 100). The higher figures are partly due the broader definition of the offence since 2005, when the incidence of forced labor in sectors such as horticulture and the restaurant business were included. The new article (237a penal code) also recoded forced prostitution as human trafficking, regardless of whether national borders had been crossed (Mensenhandel 2007). It is therefore not surprising that since 2005 the most frequent country of origin of victims of trafficking was the Netherlands itself, increasing to 39 % of all cases in 2008, with a slight decline to 26 % in 2009) (Mensenhandel 2010: 101).
The research showed that the legalization led to the construction of two sectors of prostitution. Firstly, there was the licensed sector of prostitutes where under-age prostitutes, and undocumented workers were generally disappearing because of the licensing system and inspection by the police or local authority. Prostitutes working here were perceived to be white Dutch citizens, with other ‘European’ women making up the numbers. Secondly, there was the non-licensed sector, consisting of a variety of sex services, where pimping and coercion were still occurring and many prostitutes were ‘illegal’ or minors. The women working here were taken to be mainly ‘foreign’, coming from Eastern Europe and West Africa, who had taken the place of Latin American or Thai and Philippine women of earlier decades.
The Public Debate
Although the WODC evaluations were amply reported in the press, public indignation was first roused by several popular publications in the mid-2000s, which cast doubts on the official findings. First of all, a social democrat member of the Amsterdam City council, Karina Schaapman came out as an ex-prostitute by publishing a book about her past (Schaapman 2004). She made the case that most prostitutes do not choose to go into prostitution, but are more or less pressured into it because of drug addiction, debts or a past (sexual) abuse. With her colleague Amma Asante, she published a policy report for her party (Asante and Schaapman 2005) that denied the existence of voluntary prostitution (save for a very small group of sex workers) (idem, 3). Although they assured that they did not want to repeal the 2000 settlement, they explicitly declared it ‘bankrupt’. The position of prostitutes had not improved, and many prostitutes had moved to ‘invisible types’ of prostitution, such as escort services and trafficking, violence and pimping were still widespread (idem, 5). The authors estimated that half of all prostitutes in the Netherlands were of ‘foreign’ descent (idem, 10) and driven to do the work by economic factors and therefore willing to work under bad conditions and for low wages. Exiting prostitution is difficult, as many have debts or do not speak Dutch. There is considerable drug abuse and many prostitutes have no health care insurance, while they run the risk of STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Asante and Schaapman’s major recommendations were to license the escort services, criminalize pimping once more as traffickers of humans and raise the age of consent for sex work from 18 to 21 years. In 2007, Schaapman took up the issue of clients in another book (Schaapman 2007), framing the buying of sexual services as ‘not normal’ and casting further doubts about current policies. Her work set off the campaign of the leading social democrat alderman Asscher and his fellow party member Cohen, the mayor of Amsterdam, to clean up the Red Light district under the guise of fighting forced prostitution but also to gentrify the area and attract more upscale tourists (Asscher 2010; Weitzer 2012: 159–166). The Amsterdam party had direct access to the national government when the social democrats formed the new cabinet Balkenende IV with the CDA and the Christian Union in 2007. In its coalition pact, the new cabinet promised a new and stricter prostitution law (Regeerakkoord 2007).
Secondly, public concern was fuelled by a series of publications. Journalist Ruth Hopkins wrote her ‘Ik laat je nooit meer gaan. Het meisje, de vrouw, de handelaar en de agent ’(‘I will never let you go. The girl, the woman, the trafficker, and the police’), in 2005. It received widespread publicity, notably in the quality evening paper NRC Handelsblad that devoted a whole special to her findings (NRC Handelsblad, M bijlage, 7 November 2005). Her study is a strong indictment of how the authorities, notably the police, fail to deal with the trafficking of women. Although Hopkins is critical of the moralist view usually reserved for trafficking and of the estimates of the numbers of victims, her own construction of trafficking, focusing mainly on women from the Balkan, reproduces the classic narrative of how young women’s hopes for a better life are fostered by ill-intending intermediaries who transport them over borders and coerce them to work in a brothel. This is ironic, as she accuses ‘politics’ of utilizing the simplistic story to strengthen ‘Fortress Europe’ and legitimate tough migration policies (idem, 2005: 242). Work permits for migrants who want to work in prostitution is, in her view, the best way of stopping trafficking of women, and it would dissolve the categories of the innocent victim and the guilty prostitute. A serious anthropological dissertation, based on extensive fieldwork among Latin American women who migrated to the Netherlands to work in the sex industry for economic reasons (Janssen 2007), received scant attention in the media.
Thirdly, there was the moral panic about ‘loverboys’—young men forcing vulnerable young girls into prostitution, giving rise to new welfare projects to ‘save’ them (Bovenkerk et al. 2006). The phenomenon led to much media attention, and a book by a victim (Mosterd 2008) sold more than 200,000 copies (it was later exposed as a fraud). The research of Bovenkerk et al., however, discovered few ‘loverboys’, but abundant evidence of regular pimping. In a deconstruction of the term, the researchers show how ‘loverboys’ are portrayed as young men, usually of Antillean or Moroccan descent, who set out to talk young white girls into prostitution. The researchers argue that pimping is no longer the preserve of white Dutch men who have moved on to more profitable criminal activities such as drugs trading. Pimping has become a niche for deprived young migrants for making a career in crime; the vulnerable white young girls are reminiscent of the scare of ’white slavery’ of previous days. Bovenkerk et al. conclude that the aims of the 2000 enactment have not been met and that, given the omnipresence of pimping, there is little to suggest that prostitutes are working under improved conditions.
Finally, two researchers of the Red Thread, Altink and Bokerman (2006) did extensive fieldwork in licensed brothels but also irregular locations as Thai massage parlors, escort services and pick-up bars, to see if the working conditions of sex workers had improved. The Red Thread collected addresses of 633 of the estimated 800 sex businesses in operation; the researchers visited about half of those still in operation in 2005 (idem, 20). Their results show that proper working conditions are nearly non-existent and prostitutes still very dependent employees and hardly ever independent workers. Many have no legal residence, making them vulnerable to coercion and blackmail. The Red Thread still supported the legalization, but only under strict conditions, such as the upholding of labor law, proper monitoring by municipalities and stopping criminals from investing in the sex industry, and the right to bodily integrity. The Red Thread also investigated Thai massage parlors, often a cover for prostitution (Altink 2008). Despite its uncertain funding, the Red Thread has kept up lobbying parliament on the issue of the pending legal changes, notably on the point of the registration of sex workers and the criminalization of the client. However, it lost its ally STV, when the latter had to merge into a semi-state centre of expertise on human trafficking, CoMensha, thus losing its independence to lobby and its status as a part of the feminist movement. Feminist lawyers of the Association for Women and the Law Clara Wichmann have stepped in the protests by actively lobbying against the proposed Law regulating prostitution (Brief aan de Eerste Kamer, 11 April 2011).
The Second Evaluation
The second evaluation by the WODC took place in 2005–2006, and it concluded that the licensing system was now in place, regularly monitored, with little indication that the sex trade had moved to the non-licensed sector (Daalder 2007a: 11, 2007b). The researchers did not rule out that the market was shifting to the Internet or that the more traditional venues of prostitution, such as brothels, were in decline because of the weaker economy. Daalder concluded that some of the aims of the 2000 repeal had been achieved, such as the disappearance of under-age prostitutes and undocumented workers in the licensed part of the sex industry. At the same time, however, some of the reports on which she based her conclusions, showed that there was still much amiss (Dekker et al. 2006; Biesma et al. 2006). The rights of sex workers had not improved; forced prostitution and pimping were still recurring phenomena despite the fact that trafficking had become more difficult by improved law enforcement. Prostitutes had not become independent workers, although the majority of them maintained they were (Dekker et al. 2006: 82). This was to oblige the club owners and managers wanting to avoid the legal responsibilities of employers.
Pimping occurred in the escort services, in window prostitution and among women working from the home—all types of sex work in which it is easy to control women—and did not seem to have declined. A major loophole in the new regulations is that non-licensed sex clubs and escort services can easily move to municipalities where licensing requirements are non-existent or lenient, and the existence of shady businesses such as massage parlors, swing clubs and sauna clubs is hardly covered by local regulation. Dekker et al. concluded that, although prostitution had not become ‘normal work’, in the licensed sector, the quality of labor conditions was not ‘structurally bad’ despite the existing power relations on the job (idem, 80).
Biesma et al. (2006) noted a decline in legal prostitution facilities, but a growth of the non-licensed sector of escort agencies, sex clubs for couples and sex saunas. Street prostitution did not increase. They encountered some undocumented prostitutes from outside the European Economic Area, but little evidence of a larger underground illegal sector or any large contingent of minors working in the sex industry. The findings on trafficking concurred with those of the National Reporter of those years.
Although the research noted the countries of origin of prostitutes, making it possible to chart shifting patterns of migration, it did not comment on the racial or ethnic composition of the work force, nor did it question the categorization of sex workers resulting from the legalization. This most likely reflects the interests of the commissioning agent, the Ministry of Justice, and not the quality of the research, which is up to academic standards. It should be noted that none of the researchers, including independent academics such as Bovenkerk et al. (2006) and Wagenaar (2006), wanted to end the legalization, but have argued for better implementation of the existing rules and prioritizing the costs in the police budget. From the academic research, one can also draw the conclusion that not granting work permits to non-EU sex workers leaves them open to blackmail and coercion into poor working conditions and bad pay. In this way, policy actually creates the bad working conditions. Moreover, the emphasis on trafficking and vulnerable young victims has the effect of shifting the attention away from these conditions and the lack of prostitutes’ social rights. Symptomatic is the scant attention these issues received in the recent parliamentary debates on the proposed Law regulating prostitution (see paragraph 5.b).
The KLPD Report
The strongest indictment of the situation came in 2008 when the investigative unit of the national police published a report on human trafficking during a widely publicized case of three Turkish traffickers who ran a major prostitution network in three cities, including Amsterdam (KLPD 2008) (Originally known as the Sneep case, it is now usually called the ‘Saban B.’ case after its prime mover). At least 78 women can be regarded as the victims of the gang (idem, 11). Notable was that the majority came from the Netherlands and Germany; the others were generally from EU countries such as Ireland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. The investigation reported many instances of severe violence against the women, including forced tattooing, coerced cosmetic surgery and even cases of forced abortion. The traffickers had operated quite openly in the licensed sector for several years, leading the researchers to investigate how this could have happened.
To analyze this question, the researchers examined the entire process from the first signals of forced prostitution, for instance by a prostitute in a contact with a social welfare or health care worker or a client, to local authority granting licenses and residence permits to workers, the police who take up a signal of trafficking and report to their superiors, and finally the public prosecution and the courts. The report shows how there are barriers to signaling abuse at each stage of the entire process. Intriguing is a tentative explanation provided by the KLPD team for the failure to signal coercion and force; any potential observer may be cross-pressured by conflicting interests and turn a blind eye (idem, 104-10). Prostitutes want the coercion to end but will not report from fear of deportation; clients might want to help but also want to have sex; club owners and managers’ overriding concern is turnover, and they profit from low labor costs despite the risk of contravening regulations; social workers hesitate reporting, possibly jeopardizing their contact with the victim; local authorities work under pressure and want to avoid fuss; police, faced by performance measurement, are tempted to take up cases which are less time consuming and easier to prove; the public prosecutor worries whether the witnesses will turn up or the case holds in court and may abstain from prosecuting.
The KLPD report stressed that legalization had not ended abuse in the prostitution sector. Monitoring and regulation were no guarantee that women do not work under threat of coercion. According to the preface, ‘the criminal investigation exudes threat, violence, fear and dependency. It is an illusion that a clean normal sector has emerged’ (idem, 8). The evidence emerging from the Sneep case clashed with ‘the dominant image of an almost cleansed prostitution branch’ (idem, 10), an image the researchers ascribed to earlier police reports but also to the work of the WODC teams.
The KLPD report had two important effects. Firstly, it questioned the distinction between the licensed and non-licensed sector, one supposedly clean and the other criminal. Secondly, it also overturned the distinction between the emancipated prostitute from the EU and the sorry victims from non-EU countries, as most of the trafficked women turned out to be EU citizens, notably from the Netherlands and Germany. The report received widespread publicity; later one of the KLPD team further fuelled public and parliamentary debate by publishing a book about his experiences in investigating forced prostitution (Werson 2012). Another recent publication by two journalists, although extending its scope to forced labor in general, draws extensively on the KLPD reports and comes out in favour of better implementation of existing regulation as well as supporting the higher age of consent for prostitution and controlling the escort services (Roessingh and Ramesar 2011).
Although there is no recent public opinion poll on attitudes towards prostitution and its regulation, the recurring media attention to all the reports, books, articles, events and incidents have in all likelihood led to a shift in public opinion about the regulation of prostitution in the 2000s.