If it is up to the Dutch government, clients of illegal prostitutes will be doing time soon. All prostitutes have to register as such; if they don’t, they break the law, and so do their clients. However, the sector organisation for the sex industry says: “Prostitutes would much rather pose naked on the internet than go to town hall”.
The coming Wet Regulering Prostitutie (Prostitution Regulation Law) is intended to ban illegal prostitution. The lifting of the ban on brothels in September 2000 failed to achieve that result. Licencing brothels and making them follow the same rules as normal businesses was intended to eradicate abuses such as people trafficking.
However, a survey by the National Rapporteur on People Trafficking proved this was not the case. The illegal prostitutes had switched from brothels to working from home or for escort services, because no licence was required for either one of these options.
Licence or registration?
Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst has now presented proposals intended to tackle the situation. Independent prostitutes do not have to apply for a permit, since that must be published - a sensitive issue for reasons of privacy.
However, their names must be registered in a national register. No conditions will be attached to the registration, not even that those who register are not victims of people trafficking.
Minister Ter Horst and her colleague Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin say this is because: "The difference between voluntary, involuntary and victim is often difficult to establish."
Behind a big tree
André van Dorst of the Association of Operators of Relaxation Businesses (VER) has been calling for an extension of the licencing system for some time, but disagrees with the minister’s plans to make all prostitutes register their names. Mr Van Dorst says in particular the fact that all prostitutes would have to go down to town hall to add their names to the national register is “absurd”.
He says it would allow local councils to access the data; for instance in case of a criminal investigation into people trafficking. He expects few prostitutes will register for exactly this reason. Mr Van Dorst argues it is less of an invasion of their privacy to pose naked on the internet than to apply for a prostitution licence at town hall.
And this means illegal prostitution will only become less visible. “There will be an increase in prostitution ‘behind a big tree’ or in hotel rooms.”
The VER does welcome the possibility of prosecuting the clients of illegal prostitutes. According to Mr Van Dorst, it would be “a clear signal” to clients not to choose the prostitute offering the lowest price.
The Netherlands appears to be taking a step in the direction of how Sweden has been approaching the problem for the past ten years. In 1999, after 30 years of laissez-faire, all forms of prostitution became illegal. However, the prostitutes themselves are not punishable, only their clients.
This way, the government prevented their criminalisation and at a stroke reduced the grip organised crime had on prostitution. Official figures show that, in just a few years, people trafficking decreased to under 400 cases a year. In the much smaller Netherlands, the number of cases is estimated at 3,000.
Sweden, as a matter of principle, considers prostitutes the victims of violence against women. The Netherlands, where free choice is still sacrosanct, is not yet ready to adopt the Swedish point of view. Meanwhile, the question arises how the minister wants to implement the registration system: with licences on display behind the window, just like taxi drivers?
One thing is for sure: with about 30,000 prostitutes and nearly 15 percent of the male population availing themselves of their services with some regularity, the police look set to be real busy when Minister Ter Horst gets her way.