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Legalizing Pimping, Dutch Style, Marie-Victoire Louis









There has been much discussion about Dutch drug policy, but scarcely a word about the campaign to liberalize the sex market that the Netherlands has launched and pursued so effectively. Since the 1980s, the Netherlands has been the only country in the world to have an open national and international policy of legalizing activities involving prostitution. Further, it is the only country to have provided itself with the necessary plans, finances and institutions to implement this legalization effectively.

The Netherlands, with its deliberate policy of "tolerance,” does not believe that prostitution should be abolished, even in the long term. The official policy of Amsterdam, a city seen as a national beacon, is that abolishing prostitution would create more problems than it would solve, for prostitutes and society alike, while falling back on the justification that they couldn’t abolish prostitution even if they wanted to do so. The city also boasts that its red-light district is “famous the world over.”

The Netherlands does not simply regard prostitution as a lesser evil. On the eve of the 21st century, under the pretext of an analysis that officially equates sexual freedom with prostitution, and arguing, in defiance of all ethics, that the social stigma attached to prostitution will disappear once the profession is legally recognized, the Dutch government is advocating a new human “right,” the right to pimp (1), for which the right to be a prostitute is merely a cover.

In its own defense, the Netherlands is pushing the liberal economic argument to extremes. After recognizing that “women must be able to choose freely to be prostitutes,” the government now accepts that the human body can be an object of trade and recognizes that another person can use it for profit. “The right to self-determination, enjoyed by every independent adult man or woman who has not been subjected to any unlawful influence, implies the right of that individual to profit from the resulting earnings” (2). This amazing statement precludes any analysis of the relationship of power at the very root of prostitution. It postulates that individuals themselves—not just objects—can be the subject of agreements (3) and radically questions the universal principle that the human body is inviolable.

The new vocabulary used in Dutch and, increasingly, in international documents, is highly significant; and in spoken language, too, women's right to self-determination is replacing women's right to freedom. The “empowerment of women” (4) is replacing the equality of the sexes, while the ambiguous term “sexual rights” opens the way to selling sex. “Sexual work” and “the sex trade” are replacing prostitution. Pimps and brothel-keepers have become

“third parties,” “intermediaries,” “prostitution managers,” “owners or managers of premises,” and “managers of the sex industry.” And the prostitutes have become “sex workers” or “sex professionals.” As for the clients, in the Netherlands they have become “consumers of prostitution,” usually anonymous, except when they try to form interest groups.

The argument behind this is that prostitution should be regarded as an economic activity like any other—or almost. The only criminal offences are “forms of exploitation involving an element of coercion or fraud, or the abuse of a situation of dependency on prostitution.” This distinction paves the way to recognizing the existence of “forced prostitution,” the cornerstone of this theory. The addition of this single word “forced” implies, however, that prostitution can be “free,” “voluntary,” and based on “rational,” that is, economic choice (5).

So the definition of prostitution is now based purely on whether there was any coercion of the prostitutes themselves. There is no longer any question of the legitimacy of this “trade,” in fact, it is bound to expand the “constraints” already imposed on prostitutes (rape, assault, blackmail, torture, murder) are bound to worsen. The Dutch authorities have even proposed a new concept: “full consent to exploitation of the self.”

Although it is not often applied, Dutch criminal law does still penalize pimping. But this is more symbolic than real now that the management of brothels has been transferred to the municipal authorities. They have the power to sign agreements with the brothel-keepers, under which the latter may, with police supervision, freely exercise their “trade,” provided the prostitutes have reached majority, possess papers, protect their own health and that of their clients and have not been “forced.” In fact, 80 percent of Amsterdam prostitutes are foreigners and 70 percent have no papers, so it is hardly surprising that only four of the 250 officially listed Amsterdam brothels have actually signed an agreement with the mayor. In any event, these agreements grant no rights to the prostitutes for whom the Netherlands is supposedly providing protection.

The definition of “constraint” is largely a matter of discretion since prostitution policy and immigration policy have become interchangeable. These women are often immigrants who are terrified, threatened, and raped. Children are used also. It is frequently the case that they have no money, papers, or contact with the outside world, and they may not even know in what town they are living. Yet, these women are supposed to notify the police of any coercion! And this is the police force that raids brothels when the brothel owners or management are not in cahoots with the keepers. Not wanting to tarnish its reputation as the champion of the struggle against the traffic in women, the Netherlands allows complainants generated by these women to remain on Dutch soil until the cases go to court. This is a particularly cynical policy given that these women are deported after their case has been heard.

The traffickers, on the other hand, have very little to fear in the way of prosecution in the Netherlands. In 1993, a total of nine cases concerning the traffic in human beings were heard in the lower and appeals courts. One case was “suspended indefinitely,” one female witness obtained “compensation,” and four cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. One trafficker was sentenced to nine months in prison, another to four years. In the last case, the five men charged with trafficking in Thai women were also accused of drug trafficking. The highest sentence imposed was suspended, and a fine of only 35, 000 florins assessed.

As a result of this record, the Dutch government decided it needed to show a stronger political commitment to fighting traffickers in human beings. In 1991 it amended its criminal law. The maximum prison sentence was raised from five to six years (half the sentence for trafficking in hard drugs) and to ten years for organized trafficking in children under 16 and/or trafficking accompanied by serious physical violence.

Internationally, the Netherlands has been most successful in promoting its approach to prostitution. Barring a few exceptions, the Dutch policy has been held up as an example at every international conference. The Hague also played a crucial part in drawing up the European action plan in preparation for the Beijing conference in September 1995. Here, the concept of “forced prostitution” was established for the first time at a European government level (6). In addition, the states were no longer required to ratify the 1994 abolitionist convention, a real bete boire in the eyes of the Netherlands. The preamble to that convention states that: "Prostitution and the evil that accompanies it, namely the treatment of human beings for the purpose of prostitution, are incompatible with the dignity and value of the human being. . . .”

Even worse, the 54 western countries that signed the European action plan, which control most of the revenue from the international sex trade in human beings while providing most of the “sex tourism” clients, openly recognized prostitution as an indisputable reality and merely referred to the need to limit is growth (7). As a means of achieving that, they simply called for greater international cooperation, rather than for a more stringent, binding national or international policy on prostitution. During the proceedings, the Dutch government, which declared itself highly satisfied with the outcome of the Beijing conference, eventually succeeded in having the term “forced” added to the term prostitution in the final declaration.

On 29 November 1996, at the Council of Ministers of Justice and Internal Affairs, the Dutch government managed to prevent the adoption of two major proposals put forward under the joint action plan. While nearly all the fifteen EU member states demanded stronger measures to combat pornography involving children, the Netherlands opposed Belgium's proposal to make it a criminal offence to possess such material for “personal ends.” So the possession of pornographic videos of children will no longer be regarded in Europe as constituting sexual exploitation and will be exempt from all sanctions. The right of children to be protected from sexual violence has been sacrificed on the altar of free trade, to the pleasure of amateurs of pornography.

The Dutch delegation, supported by the Danes, was also against generalizing the principle of prosecuting EU nationals who commit “extra-territorial” crimes, specifically, the sexual exploitation of children or infliction on them of sexual services and the treatment of children with a view of exploiting them sexually or making them perform sexual services. In other words, the European states do not have to proceed against their own nationals outside the community if the offense they are accused of was committed in a country where it is not regarded as a crime. Sexual abusers can continue to victimize children in poor countries if those countries have not, in accordance with the European joint action plan, “taken the appropriate measures referred to in Article 34 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” Under that article, the contracting states undertake to protect the child against all forms of sexual exploitation or sexual violence. The European countries may, in fact, continue to apply their own national legislation to combat pimping and the traffic in human beings, but that will make no difference. They have signed a shameful European document, in the name of a consensus rule that denies even the right to adopt a minority position.

France, for example, is poorly placed to oppose the Dutch steam-roller. Officially it supports the 1949 convention, but without applying it. It purports to the abolitionist agenda, but sanctions new forms of prostitution (massage parlors, brothel-bars, and so on). France may still be the most repressive of the Fifteen EU states, but in recent years France has almost halved the number of prosecutions—which is not to say sentences—brought against pimps; some 650 in 1995 compared to about 1,300 in 1988. And there is little point looking for a coherent policy among the five ministries concerned.

At a time of heated ethical debate and attempts to make it illegal to market human blood, the uterus or other human organs, it seems inconceivable that policies regarding prostitution and trafficking do not provoke any reaction on the part of the international community, especially the supporters of the rights of the individual. What this supposedly “modernist” policy does is to further exclude women from the labor market, consolidate male power and legalize violence against women.




1. According to Interpol, a pimp living in Europe makes about L76,000 a year.

2. Human rights questions. Position of the Netherlands government, United Nations Economic and Social Committee, (E/1990/33), 3 April 1990.

3. See Article 1120 of French civil law which stipulates that only objects can be traded and be the subject of agreements.

4. The term “empowerment” is extremely dangerous because it has no legal or ethical basis.

5. See Marie-Victorie Louis: "La conference europeenne contre le trafic des femmes. Vers une reconnaissance legale du proxenetisme", Projets feministes, No. 1, March 1992.

6. Contrary to what this title suggests, the UN regards the region of Europe as comprising not just the European countries but also the United States, Canada and Israel.

7. The recession and other economic problems have led to a rise in prostitution in many countries. Because this phenomenon, which affects the human rights of women, is often international, greater international efforts and cooperation are needed to check its growth. Action plan of the Economic Commission of Europe (UN, E/ECE/:RW/HLM/8), 20 December 1994.


*Centre d'etudes et d'analyses des movements sociaux, Centre national de la recherche scientifique. CNRS, Paris



Marie-Victorie Louis est militante et chercheuse femministe. Elle est l'ex-presidente de l'Association Europeenne contre les Violences faites aux Femmes au Travail (A.V.F.T.) et travaille au Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S) France. Elle est l'auteure de nombreux textes sur les violences contre les femmes, le harcelement sexuel, la prostitution, la critique feministe du droit. Elle a recemment publie: Le droit de cuissage. France. 1860-1930, Paris, Les Editions de l'Atelier. 1995. Elle est aussi responsable de la revue Projets Feministes.








Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu