What’s happening in Amsterdam? An overview of changing prostitution law

In the current trafficking debates in Europe, complex laws tend to be reduced to simplistic tags like legalisation or regulation. But those terms can play out in a variety of ways according to local cultures, histories and politics. The situation and the laws are changing in the Netherlands; the system that’s been in place since 2000 will be modified, not done away with. It’s complicated, but here’s an overview that does a good job of explaining what’s happening, for what reasons, with what goals and how various groups feel about it.

Jan Visser has been thinking about prostitution policy in the Netherlands for many years. I first met him in the mid-90s. He formerly worked with De Rode Draad and is now an independent consultant on prostitution issues. He calls the following a personal comment.

Prostitution policy under construction (December 2008)

Unauthorised representations on new developments in The Netherlands

Jan Visser

1. The Amsterdam Red Light District (Walletjes): Project 1012

On 5 December 2008, the City of Amsterdam presented a ‘strategy paper’ with a set of plans that will have a huge impact on the Red Light District. The Coalition project 1012 (named after the postal code of the inner city) aims to make the area safer, more attractive and more liveable. The two main reasons:

  • During the last decade, the inner city has become more and more under the influence of organised crime.
  • The inner city needs a quality impulse, to upgrade the entrance of Amsterdam (from Central Station to Dam square).


The argument is this: prostitution is not criminal, but the social and economic structure of prostitution give criminals opportunities. Therefore prostitution shall not be abolished but decreased and concentrated.

The Red Light District consists of shop window prostitution, coffee shops (for cannabis), smart shops (for mushrooms), money-exchange locations, mini supermarkets, gambling halls, sex shops, bars and 1–2 star hotels. This is defined as a fertile infrastructure for criminal activities, such as drug trafficking and dealing, trafficking of women, laundering of money. Criminological research has detected some groups of organised crime that have obtained real estate. This is seen as a trend that needs to be countered.


This is the name of a new law that gives municipal authorities the option to refuse or withdraw a license (for a hotel, bar or brothel) if the owner cannot prove that his background and finances are legitimate. The license can also be refused if the city suspects that the license will be used to do criminal business. Note: unlike normal laws, the burden of proof is on the accused, not the accuser. This has already proved to be a strong instrument. Some brothel owners have lost their licenses, and as a consequence sold their houses to housing corporations, under the direction of the city. (This happened to some 100 of the total of 482 windows in this area). These houses may or may not be used for prostitution again, depending on the future plans of the city.

Amsterdam Top city: upgrading

The desire of the politicians is to create a downtown Amsterdam that caters to the wishes of general visitors and affluent, mainstream tourists; and not the young, alternative tourists that are mainly attracted by drugs and sex. In the eyes of the authorities these functions have become too dominant and also have become too sleazy, dirty and low level. It is not a good presentation of Amsterdam: so many pizza vendors, too many coffee shops, drug users and homeless people on the streets, cheap bars and hotels, sex shops and theaters, public display of sex business by young foreign girls, drunken short-stay tourists shouting along the canals.

To summarise: too much nuisance for the inhabitants and too little quality for the decent tourist.


The municipality want to take the following action:

  • Draw a new economic activity map of the inner city and decide what functions can take place on what location.
  • Redesign the public space.
  • Attract high-quality hotels, shops, restaurants.
  • Invest in the presentation of monumental, historical buildings and museums in the area (the oldest part of the city).
  • Attract big investors to finance and build this.
  • Lower the number of low-quality businesses (snack bars, mini supermarkets, pizza vendors).
  • Lower the number of coffee shops (76 in stead of 139)
  • Lower the number of shop windows for prostitution (240 instead of 482); and tighten the conditions for operation. The brothel owners will be made responsible for screening potential prostitutes, connections with trafficking of women and nuisance on the street.
  • Zoning of shop-window prostitution: restrict them to the smallest canal (Oudezijds Achterburgwal) and the adjourning alleys.


The motivations seem to be 1) cleaning up the inner city and 2) combating criminality. It also fits in with a swing to moral conservatism: restricting the display of sexuality in the streets and immoral behaviour, like drunkenness of young tourists; combined with the diminishing of acceptance of cannabis. There is a new emphasis on serving the neighbourhood and prostitution is considered a threat to residential peace.

Furthermore, in the press and in public opinion prostitution is often connected to criminality, trafficking of women and pimping. There is – we regret – often good reason to draw the attention to these negative things; but more and more we witness a tendency to make an automatic connection. Or, in other words: in the eye of the public and politicians, it seems not possible to have prostitution without crime.

At present (December 2008) the association of brothel owners (SOR) is organising its opposition to the municipal plans. In the spring the city council will discuss the proposals and decide what the future will bring.

For those who can read Dutch, see documents (and some maps and pictures of the area).

2. A new law to regulate prostitution

(I use the word prostitute as in Dutch the term ‘sex worker’ is seldom used).

Since the legalisation of the exploitation of prostitution, there is an ongoing discussion of the effects of the regulation that is a result of this legal reform. Municipalities have designed a licensing system, police and state prosecution have developed new strategies to combat trafficking, new tax systems have been put into effect, labour conditions are changing. But also prostitution has changed: increased mobility of sex workers, both voluntary and forced (trafficked), more pimping, more part-time and independent sex workers, new forms of prostitution outside the regulatory system (internet, escorts, massage parlours, swinger clubs where sex workers seek clients).

These developments have been discussed, researched, and scientifically and morally evaluated. The press has extensively reported on the negative trends: no significant improvement of labour conditions, increase of forced prostitution, less overview on the market in general due to fragmentation: there are probably more prostitution businesses and sex workers outside than inside the regulated, licensing system.

The government consists at the moment of a coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists and a Christian political party that works ‘direct from the Bible” (my wording, JV). As a result we find within the government a majority of anti-prostitution sentiment. This is not only founded on religious motives but also based on the conclusion that, after eight years, the law has not brought what was expected from it.

The supporters of the legalisation law blame the government and the state: too little is done in the implementation process, or in other ways: to ‘invite’ the prostitution community to integrate in mainstream social and economic society: there has not been made a transition situation to accommodate this, there has not been an active policy to influence the public to change stigmatisation and there has been little done to lift discriminatory regulations and attitudes in governmental institutions.

The politicians, on the other hand, blame the people in prostitution, and the Ministers of Interior and Justice have drawn up a law proposal that aims to 1) more strictly regulate all form of prostitution businesses and all prostitutes and 2) increase repression of trafficking and forced prostitution.

The new law is formulated in a negative way:

Prostitution is forbidden unless the prostitute works in a licensed sexbusiness (shop window, sexclub, escort agency etc.)

The prostitute that works independently must register at the municipality, with her ID, address, picture, working name and telephone number.

Prostitutes will get a document that certifies their registration. The argument is that in this way the authorities have a better view of this end of the market and can ‘screen’ the prostitutes to detect those that are forced. And during this moment of contact, the municipality can educate prostitutes on their rights and even on possibilities to terminate their profession.

Prostitutes that work in a licensed sex business are not required to register with the municipality.

A business of prostitution is forbidden unless it has a municipal license. This includes escort and internet agencies that must present a real address and a non-mobile telephone number which will all be included in a national register.

Proprietors will be held personally responsible for any wrongdoing.

Municipalities may set a maximum or refuse businesses of prostitution altogether, on the basis of planning regulations or public order. They may not refuse licenses on moral grounds.

Businesses that offer prostitution without having a license will be closed.

Independent prostitutes that work without registration will be fined.

Clients of prostitutes that go to unlicensed brothels and unregistered prostitutes may be sentenced to a term in jail. To prevent this they should verify the licence of the sex business or the registration of the independent prostitute. This measure is motivated by the opinion that clients should be criminalised if they visit a victim of trafficking or a person that is forced to prostitute herself of himself.

The law might include that a prostitute must be over 21 instead of 18, which is now the case.


We anticipate an intense debate, on the one hand by people who find that prostitution is by its nature immoral and degrading or that it is intrinsically linked to crime, trafficking and violence. A minority of them might say that the new law is not enough, that the aim should not be to control prostitution better but to get rid of it all together. But the majority will be pleased by this stricter regulation, and they will be confident that the state now will have ample instruments to combat crime and exploitation.

There will be opposition by the ‘pro prostitution lobby’ (or one could say libertarians). They will argue that the law will not work. Criminalisation of ‘illegal’ businesses, unregistered prostitutes and their clients will not result in a more transparent and safer prostitution, but will drive prostitutes and their clients underground, the end effect will be an increase of hidden prostitution and thus more dangerous working atmosphere, more chance of trafficking and forced prostitution.

And historians might be critical: from the 19th century we can learn that reglementation has not brought anything positive, neither for society nor for prostitutes. It has resulted in branding prostitutes as second-class persons, deprived of the protection of the state. The disturbing fact may be that that the people that are in favour of this law proposal do not seem to know this prostitution history or worse: do not care to learn from it.

Jan Visser – jan [at] toejager.nl

Amsterdam, December 2008

Evaluation research reports and summaries can be found here: Type ‘prostitution’ in the search option

Annual reports of the National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking can be found here.

More documents about the Netherlands from Jan and from Marjan Wijers.

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