Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Does Legalizing Prostitution Work?

AMSTERDAM – Prostitution is virtually the only part of the personal services industry in the Netherlands that works. One can’t get a manicure in Amsterdam without booking an appointment two weeks in advance, but men can buy sex anytime – and at an attractive price. The legalization of prostitution in October 2000 merely codified a long-standing Dutch tradition of tolerance towards buying and selling sex. But is legalization the right approach?

Even in the Netherlands, women and girls who sell their bodies are routinely threatened, beaten, raped, and terrorized by pimps and customers. In a recent criminal trial, two German-Turkish brothers stood accused of forcing more than 100 women to work in Amsterdam’s red-light district ( De Wallen ). According to the attorney who represented one of the victims, most of these women come from families marred by incest, alcohol abuse, and parental suicide. Or they come from countries in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia and have fallen victim to human trafficking, lured by decent job offers or simply sold by their parents.

These women are Amsterdam’s leading tourist attraction (followed by the coffee shops that sell marijuana). But an estimated 50-90% of them are actually sex slaves, raped on a daily basis with police idly standing by. It is incomprehensible that their clients are not prosecuted for rape, but Dutch politicians argue that it cannot be established whether or not a prostitute works voluntarily. Appalled by their daily routine, police officers from the Amsterdam vice squad have asked to be transferred to other departments. Only this year, the city administration has started to close down some brothels because of their ties to criminal organizations.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology , the average age of death of prostitutes is 34. In the United States, the rate at which prostitutes are killed in the workplace is 51 times that of the next most dangerous occupation for women, working in a liquor store. Other studies show that nine out of ten prostitutes urgently want to escape the job. Almost half have attempted suicide at least once.

In 1999, the Swedish government decriminalized the sale of sex, but made it an offense to pimp or to buy sex. Under Sweden’s so-called “Sex Purchase Law,” paying for sex is punishable by fines or up to six months in prison, plus the humiliation of public exposure. According to the Swedish authorities, the number of prostitutes in Sweden has dropped 40% as a result. Human trafficking rings tend to avoid Sweden, because business has gone sour.

Norway, a country that has a reputation to lose when it comes to women’s rights, carefully compared the Swedish and Dutch models and concluded that Sweden’s was the one to follow. It has now changed its legislation accordingly.

The success of the Swedish approach is not so surprising. According to a study in California, most men who bought sex would be deterred by the risk of public exposure. For example, 79% said that they would be deterred if there was a chance that their families would be notified. And a whopping 87% said that they would be deterred by the threat that the police might publish their photographs or names in the local newspaper.

Most of these men showed pathological behavior towards women. One in five admitted to having raped a woman, while four out of five said that going to prostitutes was an addiction.

Prostitution is often dubbed “the oldest profession.” But this is merely a way of justifying the exploitation of mostly vulnerable women (there is also a much smaller number of male prostitutes in the Netherlands, but they are not pimped out like female prostitutes). It takes leadership and a vision of true gender equality to put an end to prostitution.

The Swedish practice of naming and shaming is quite un-Dutch. But, for some men, part of the pleasure of buying sex may be the humiliation conferred on the woman involved. For others, like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, the promise of discretion and anonymity may be the most appealing aspect of buying sex. In any case, pillorying the clients is both a just punishment and an effective deterrent.

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  1. CommentedAlexandra Rusu

    Dear Ms. Mees,

    Could you please post the sources of your statistics? This seems like a serious problem and I would like to know more about it.

  2. CommentedOfi Liv

    This article picks selective data , to lead the readers into the conclusion that legal prostitution is bad.

    1. Most of the data in the article comes from the US, where prostitution is illegal. So, in order to prove prostitution should be illegal, the author shows how bad the situation is when prostitution is illegal?

    2. The legalization in the Netherlands is a complete failure indeed. However, one country with bad legalization doesn't prove legalization can't work. It just proves Netherlands didn't do it right.

    3. There are no citations in the article, so it's difficult to know from where the author got her data. For example, she claims that "According to the Swedish authorities, the number of prostitutes in Sweden has dropped 40% as a result". But in an official research by the Swedish government in 2008, the researchers only claimed that street prostitution decreased, while internet prostitution increased, and came to the modest conclusion that "prostitution has at least not increased in Sweden".

    The issue of prostitution deserves a serious discussion, not partial examples which don't represent the whole picture.

    (Sorry for my English, it's not my first language).

  3. CommentedMahendra Mahagaonkar

    No system is fool-proof. Our experience India is non legalising prostitution, we have huge chain of corruption and other malpractices!!

  4. CommentedRobert Snashall

    Sounds to me like a lot of these problems in Holland could be simply solved by regulating the industry more, and requiring greater transparency. A lot of industries would suffer from quasi-slavery if it were not for labour regulations.
    Also, the statistics on Sweden are highly questionable. The general consensus seems to be that they are useless, as by criminalizing the consumer all activities are now unobservable, unmeasurable, and as a consequence inherently more dangerous.

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