AMSTERDAM—Naomi, a 23-year-old in tight-fitting jeans and sequined bra, winks at potential customers from a red-curtained window that looks out on a narrow street in central Amsterdam. She leads those who respond up a dark, red staircase for sex on a single bed in a dim and airless room.
In most countries, her window and bedroom would be outside the law; in the Netherlands, they have just become an officially regulated workplace.
A health inspector might pop by to make sure condoms are available and the sink has running water. The fire inspector can come and check that the narrow stairwell is not blocked. And if an unexpected problem or illness forces Naomi to take time off, she can apply for disability payments or register at the unemployment office.
Prostitution has long been legal in the Netherlands, but brothels were outlawed in 1911. Dutch advocacy groups for prostitutes argue that keeping brothels in the world of crime made it possible for their operators to mistreat women and fail to maintain minimum health standards.
Legislation passed last year after 17 years of debate has removed the last layer of illegality, designating brothels as workplaces subject to rules, regulations and tax collection like any other.
The law once again put the Netherlands at the forefront of
experimental social policy. It is already the only country in the
world where euthanasia has been legalized, where smoking pot and
hashish takes place openly in
coffee shops, and where gay and
lesbian couples have won the right to marry.
Implementation of the new law governing brothels is just beginning—Naomi has yet to be visited by an inspector. But despite much concern for their welfare, many prostitutes appear to be suspicious of the law, wondering if its real purpose is to help the government collect income taxes that prostitutes legally owe but rarely pay.
Naomi worries that the next man knocking at her window might be the
tax man, seeking a share of the 1,500 guilders, or about $580, she
routinely takes in on a given weeknight.
The only thing they
changed, she said, giving her view of the law,
is now we're
supposed to pay taxes.
Some Dutch oppose the law on moral grounds, saying it makes acceptable a deplorable institution. But advocates say it is the only way to give prostitutes legal protection. They now have legal safeguards against long working hours and unsanitary working conditions. They can also refuse customers and go to the police with complaints.
Other regulations require that brothels have condoms available, and they protect prostitutes from being forced to work without them. Prostitutes cannot be forced to drink or use drugs with clients, and they are subject to the same overtime rules as any other worker.
The new law also outlaws pimping on the premise that because prostitutes working in legal workplaces can report problems to the police, they no longer need the protection of a pimp.
The idea is that you could never improve the position of
prostitutes as long as their workplaces are illegal, said Marieke
van Doorninck of the Mr A. de Graaf Foundation, which studies
prostitution issues. A change in the status of brothels was needed,
to protect people who are in an isolated and vulnerable
Van Doorninck estimates that about 25,000 women work as prostitutes in the Netherlands each year but only about 10,000 do so on a daily basis. She said there are about 6,000 prostitution workplaces, including the windows of Amsterdam's red-light district, private houses, and the exclusive clubs where a hefty entrance fee guarantees all you can drink at the bar and an hour of sex upstairs.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Netherlands got a large influx of young women from formerly communist Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, East Germany, the Baltic states, Ukraine and Russia. Often present in the country illegally and without means of support, these women were frequently at the mercy of brothel owners.
Under the new law, only Dutch and citizens of other European Union
countries are allowed to work as prostitutes. Advocates say one
unintended consequence of the legislation will be to drive illegal
female immigrants to an underground world of prostitution in which
criminals will remain in control.
We had foreseen this situation,
where some of the migrants would start to work in the illegal
business, van Doorninck said.
After the law was passed, the Dutch government ordered local governments to create rules for their areas. Some smaller, conservative towns have been slow to implement them, or passed stricter zoning laws to keep brothels away from schools and churches.
Many Dutch citizens remain opposed to the law. Among them is Andre
Rouvoet, a member of parliament from the small, conservative Christian
Union party that opposed the new legislation on moral grounds.
should be stressing the fact that going to a brothel is not
normal, he said.
It's not just a normal profession.
He also questioned the law's effectiveness in stopping the
trafficking of women from abroad.
Has this legislation led to any
decrease in foreign women working? he asked.
We made a big
mistake by legalizing brothels and making crime pay.
Prostitution activists say changing attitudes will be their next battle, albeit more difficult. Even in the Netherlands, prostitutes still face social stigmas. They are sometimes denied bank loans, for instance. Some of them argue that society has a hypocritical view of their occupation.
Jaqueline, 35, said she recently quit working as a prostitute but that
she loved her job and her customers.
I was a real happy hooker,
I was fascinated by it. . . . If you like to entertain
people—also sexually—working as a prostitute is a
possibility. It's not immoral for everyone.
When she applied for a job in a nursing home, she said she listed her
previous prostitution experience and the qualifications it gave
I think I'm good with people, she said. But she
didn't get the job, she said,
because they were afraid I would
give sexual services to the elderly.
Jaqueline, who didn't want her last name used, now works at the Prostitution Information Center in the red-light district. Her story is typical of why a change in attitude needs to follow the change in law, said Mariksa Majoor, another former prostitute, who now runs the center.
For some people, once a prostitute, always a prostitute, Majoor
Even if people hate prostitution, it doesn't
matter. . . . Prostitutes are normal human beings, like everyone else
in the street. I quit almost 10 years ago, and when you quit, you will
always be an ex-prostitute.
Those who haven't quit are looking with apprehension at the law's impact on their incomes. Naomi, a former grade-school teacher who said she became a prostitute in January to increase her income, pays $77 to the brothel operator each night for her window and the room upstairs, where she charges $38 for 20 minutes of sex.
Under the law, prostitutes now must keep a ledger, listing on one side the money they earn from each sex act, and on the other side their deductible work-related expenses, which might include the cost of condoms and the rent for the windows and upstairs rooms.
For Naomi, other possible deductible expenses are her sequined bra, white platform shoes, bleach she uses to turn her dark blond hair almost white, and a single roll of toilet paper by the bed.
For now, she doesn't keep a record book.
They don't know
how much I make, she said of the authorities.
Majoor said she encourages prostitutes to pay taxes so they can open bank accounts, establish credit and get other benefits as tax-paying members of society.
Prostitutes are used to earning ‘black money,’ or
unreported income, Majoor said.
If you only make black money, you
can buy nice clothes, go out to restaurants and use your cocaine. If
you want to save for your future or buy a house, you need ‘white