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.