Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is tightening the rules governing its famous red light district. Will the efforts cut down on sex trafficking or make the problem worse?
Has Amsterdam had enough of its breezy reputation? It may be famous for its in-your-face window prostitution, but the city has just voted to place tighter controls on its brothels. From this summer onwards, Amsterdam’s legal age for prostitution will rise from 18 to 21, and brothels will be forced to remain closed between four and nine in the morning. Prostitutes will have to pass language tests and have shorter shifts, while brothel keepers will be obliged to produce business plans demonstrating how they will protect their workers’ health and safety.
Seen from a country where prostitution is largely banned, these changes might seem laughably modest. They’re carefully targeted nonetheless. Younger women are most likely to fall victim to human traffickers, while those that don’t speak any Dutch or English find it much harder to contact police or social workers in cases of abuse. Meanwhile, early morning closure is planned because the time of day is seen as a problem period, with nobody else about in the streets to monitor or rein in bad behavior. Amsterdam’s city council considers the moves so vital that the city is going it alone, introducing laws that (while currently being debated) haven’t yet passed through the Dutch Parliament.
Amsterdam’s haste is understandable. It may be well policed and eye-poppingly unusual, but the city’s central red light district still feels like a place where women’s hopes go to die. Around 75 percent of the 5,000 to 8,000 prostitutes working in the city are from abroad, and many are believed to have been trafficked. Holland legalized prostitution in 2000 as a way of stopping exploitation, but evidence suggests that more women than ever are being forced into brothels against their will. A study from the London School of Economics published this winter found that in countries where selling sex was decriminalized, human trafficking has increased. While the number of women entering prostitution voluntarily grows under legalization, demand grows yet further, creating a shortfall filled by women trafficked and run by pimps.
Marijke Shahsavari-Jansen, section leader for the right-of-center Christian Democrat Party on Amsterdam’s city council, notes that people in Holland are well aware of these failures.
"When the law changed to decriminalize brothels there really was widespread support. Many people naively believed that legalization and regulation would turn prostitution into a supposedly 'normal' kind of business. In the past five years, however, there’s been a shift back towards a broader consensus in the other direction, as we realize that things have gotten worse, that there are victims of trafficking still. It’s as if abuse is now carrying on with a legalized varnish."
Amsterdam isn’t planning to criminalize prostitution, of course. There is nonetheless a general move towards tighter state control of the seamier side of Dutch life. The left-of-center Dutch Labor Party has been considering criminalizing visits to prostitutes, while the 1012 Project launched last year has started thinning out brothel windows and "coffee shops" that sell pot from central Amsterdam. Many residents are tired of watching leery, beery tourists flocking to the red light district, one of Amsterdam’s oldest neighborhoods, and some are embarrassed by the city’s reputation. Support for the clean-out is hardly unanimous though, as some locals fear it will simply drive the sex industry underground without taming it.
It still seems unlikely that this is the end for anything-goes Amsterdam. As other European cities look for ways to relax their drug laws, there’s little support for further extending controls on coffee shops, for example. But women are still being forced into prostitution, and the argument that keeping the sex industry in the open will curb its excesses is increasingly losing currency.