Ladies of pleasureor sex slaves?
Dutch prostitution policy is meant to free female sex workers from parasitic pimps and turn them into empowered self-employed entrepreneurs. But the authorities are now asking their clients for help to tackle the problem of women being trafficked for sex.
Everyone knows about how the Dutch decriminalised prostitution and think it is normal for scantily clad women of all ages to flaunt themselves in windows just metres from the Damrak, the city's main thorough fair.
While the authorities in other countries spend a lot of time and resources rounding up and prosecuting women sex workers, the Netherlands tolerates and taxes them.
Prostitutes must be at least 18 and their clients must be at least 16. The women who sell their bodies in brothels or the 12 red light districts with windows in the Netherlands are assumed to be self-employed.
The windows, with a red light hanging above, are rented out by companies to the women for eight-hour shifts for some EUR 60 to 150. The prostitutes work when they want and decide what services to offer and how much to charge.
The argument underpinning the policy is that allowing sex workers to operate openly will free them from the middle men, the pimps. The only person exploiting the talents of the sex worker is the woman herself. So the theory goes.
Dark side of the street
There are indications, however, that not everyone working in the industry is doing so willingly.
A report by the national detective service in 2002 suggested a quarter of the prostitutes in the Netherlands were the victims of human trafficking. The expansion of the European Union, it said, had led to a flood of women from the east. Trafficking gangs confiscate their passports and put them to work as prostitutes.
The police conducted 42 successful investigations into human trafficking in 2003, down in the 55 cases the year before. A provisional estimate for 2004 showed an increase once more.
The most common nationalities among the 148 people arrested for human smuggling in 2003 were Dutch, Romanian and Bulgarian. But the percentage for different nationalities fluctuates widely every year. Twenty-two of the detainees in 2003 were owners of sex businesses.
The crime prevention agency Stichting M launched a campaign with the police in January 2006 to encourage members of the public to report instances of human trafficking.
The focus of the campaign is the exploitation of trafficked women in the sex industry. The police are circulating posters and stickers to alert the public and to get people to report instances of forced prostitution.
The signs a woman is being forced to sell her body, the police say, include little responsiveness to the client, bruising and fearfulness.
Who best to detect these signs? Their clients, of course. And there is no better way to do this, Stichting M. thinks, than through hookers.nl - an internet forum where clients swap stories and reviews of their visits to the red light district.
Starting in January, visitors to the site - and there are thousands every day - have been greeted by an advert that leads to animation contrasting the erotic delights with the violent reality of forced prostitution. It is not explicit in a sexual way but it is striking. And as is often the case in reality, it is the woman who is struck when she refuses to do her master's bidding.
The decision to post the advert on hookers.nl is controversial. Amsterdam Labour Party representative Karina Schaapman, for instance, notes the website contains may dubious tips, such as where a man might find a prostitute willing to have sex without a condom - as cheaply as possible.
Schaapman is being polite: a quick scan reveals some of the readers have a wide range of interests, including finding virgins willing to have sex for money; pregnant prostitutes; gang-bangs and more.
Schaapman says the government needs reliable partners in the campaign. "In Belgium cards are circulated in every cafe to alert people to human trafficking. You can also reach your target group through television and public campaigns".
"I believe this site gets EUR 1,200 to run the ad. I find that objectionable," says Schaapman.
As the owner of hookers.nl also runs an adult webcam site, the councillor says the government is working with the porn industry. In general, however, Schaapman is very pleased a campaign has been established to highlight the problem of human trafficking.
Stichting M. is not surprised about her criticism. "We expected this sort of reaction, but ultimately we decided to go ahead as this site has an enormous reach - about 40,000 visitors a day," a spokesperson said.
"The sum of EUR 1,200 is a piece of change compared with what is normally paid for such an advert," the organisation argues.
Prostitution in the Netherlands has undergone fundamental change. It is no longer the sole responsibility of the sex worker to ensure her client is being looked after; the client must wait out for her.
www.totaleovergave.nl (the advert)
[Copyright Expatica + ANP 2006]
Subject: prostitution in the Netherlands