Sex work in The Netherlands


The oldest profession in the world?

Prostitution is as old as humanity itself. The first written evidence about prostitution is found on clay tablets, wich were found in Mesopotamia (current Iraq / Iran) and date from about 5000 – 4000 years ago. Sources from the region tell us stories about prostitutes who were working under strict and regulated conditions. The Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1600 BC)  describes how sex workers had to work in certain areas of the city (eg. near the city walls) and how they were not allowed to cover up their hair and head, so they could not be mistaken for married women. If they were caught covering with a veil, their heads would be overthrown with hot tar.

A different phenomenon -again fully accepted in society- was ‘sacred prostitution’, where women would have paid sex with men in temple areas, in order to please the gods. The phrase ‘The Whore of Babylon’ in the Old Testament originates from this custom.

In short: the world of (and before) the biblical Old Testament was familiar with sex work and it was regulated by the state. People knew no christian concept of sin and there were even regulations on how to behave (eg. in  matters concerning dowry) in case of wanting to marry a sex worker.

Later, in ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek societies the situation remained more or less the same. In Latin, the language of ancient Rome, the word ‘prostituta’ meant: ‘upfront’  and  ‘unveiled / with uncovered faces’. 


Why is there a Red Light District in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam became an important and wealthy trade center at the end of the 16th century. The ships of the East India Company (VOC) constantly sailed on and off to the Far East, carrying spices, goods and slaves. On board were sailors who had not seen a woman for ages. Once they arrived in The Netherlands the men received their wages. The ships sailed in, at the location of the current Dam Square, in the center of the city. This is where sex workers concentrated. The city of Amsterdam condoned sex work at the time and this resulted in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Sex work was performed in houses, in the street, in brothels and in coffeehouses. Certain community officials were allowed to own brothels, others were not.


What happened after the Dutch Golden Age?

After the 17th century Dutch policy and opinion about sex work shifted periodically. During some decades sex work was condoned, or even regulated. Around 1800 there were a lot of colorful brothels in of Amsterdam, sometimes disguised as dancehalls, sometimes recognizable by a colored lantern near the door. After the invasion of the French, the officials demanded the sex workers to be registered at the police office, after which they received a red card. With this they had to visit police doctors every week, in order to be medically checked. If a woman appeared to be ill, her red card was exchanged for a white one, with her disease written on it.  It was not allowed to work as a sex worker without a red card. Violation of the rules led to detention in a ‘re-education center’. In those days around 800 women were registered in Amsterdam as a sex worker.

In 1895 a commission was installed which had to investigate the working conditions of sex workers in Amsterdam. They found that ‘most women were treated as sex slaves’. Thus brothels were closed in Amsterdam. Ofcourse sex work continued to take place, on different locations now, and under different definitions (brothels now being a ‘hotel’, or a ‘sewing workshop’).


Since when are women working behind windows in the Red Light District?

In the beginning of the 20th century the first windows for sex workers appeared in Amsterdam. This phenomenon grew in the 1960’s. Various cities in The Netherlands adopted this concept.  Nowadays many prostitution windows are closed. Some cities currently wish to ‘clean up’ the area (Amsterdam), other cities claim the local situation is too vulnerable for crimes like human trafficking (Utrecht, Groningen, Alkmaar).


Why are there no men behind the windows in Amsterdam?

People are asking frequently why there are no men behind the windows in Amsterdam. This has various reasons. The most important one is that the owner of the windows are afraid that the appearance of men behind the windows will scare the male clients away who are interested in the female sex workers. And thus they do not allow men to rent a room. The other reason is that women appear to have different methods in ‘choosing a man for sexual purposes’ and are less attracted by such open display (at least, that is what they say). In 2007 there was an experiment with men behind the windows in Amsterdam. It was no success.


Since when is sex work legal in The Netherlands?

As opposed to what we often read in the media, sex work in The Netherlands was not legalized in 2000, but already in 1911. Although it was legal, people were not allowed to start or own a brothel in those days. To prevent brothel owners from claiming the work and bodies of the sex workers. Sex work was allowed only by mutual consent.


What happened in 2000?

In 2000 the ban on owning a brothel was lifted. The idea was that this would improve working conditions for sex workers. Health organizations and officials of the police and municipality could get in touch directly with sex workers now.  Brothel owners would have to work according to Dutch laws and could be checked on that.

After 2000 the situation did not improve for sex workers though. Working conditions had not improved under brothel owners and sex workers were still not able to anonymously obtain an individual license for sex work. The result is that they had to work under the license of a brothel-, window- or escort owner. Which created a false monopoly position.


Which sex worker rights organizations do exist in The Netherlands?

Since the 1970’s groups of feminists and (ex) sex workers joined forces in the fight for justice and human rights for sex workers. Individual sex workers find it hard to publicly open up about violation of rights, because of the stigma on the profession. In 1985 the Red Thread (de Rode Draad) started as a foundation which wanted to unite and raise their voices against injustice. They would perform lobby practices at municipalities and with politicians. As an outreach organization the people of The Red Thread frequently had contacts with the legal and illegal working sex workers in The Netherlands. Sex workers trusted them and came in for advice and help. Unfortunately the organization had to stop all activities in 2011 because of a lack of funding.

Since 2015 a new organisation started: PROUD: a pressure and lobby group for everyone who works in the erotic services.

And there is SWExpertise: a group of (former) sex workers, scientists and policymakers, who advise on sex work.

Buro Brycx wants to form a bridge between policymakers and sex workers in The Netherlands and advises on policy development, with respect for the sex workers.

The Red Umbrella Fund -based in Amsterdam- is no outreach organization. It is a global grant giving mechanism which focuses on the capacity development of sex worker organizations around the globe.


What about a new prostitution law?

In 2006 the lifting on the ban of brothel owning was evaluated by the State. Various reports  concluded that in the period following the legalisation of brothels the number of licensed sex businesses in The Netherlands declined.(, )

A number of sex workers stopped working in legal clubs. There was a growing competition through the internet and the number of legal clubs decreased. The number of sex workers not working under a license increased though.

A growing number of sex workers appeared to be working under forced circumstances, the research center of the government concluded. It is debatable if this is the result of the increased attention to the phenomenon of human trafficking though.

Sexwork is still not considered as a normal profession, although it is legal in our country.

A study about the social position of sex workers shows how sex workers still don’t receive the social benefits and rights the people with ‘normal’ professions have.   ( )

 Sex workers are still unable to obtain a disability insurance, a bank loan, or a mortgage. Nobody wants to be associated with sex work.


Now, with a new government, there are new plans for the sexwork sector. The Hague speaks about forms of registration again. Of the criminalisation of pimps. Nobody knows exactly how these policies will be developed. Various lobby groups (some pro sexwork, others against) are constantly informing the policymakers about the best ways to implement new policies.


What is to be expected?

Various political parties are preparing for a chance to change the legalized sex work system. Some parties are in favor of the so called ‘Swedish Model’ in sex work. In this model (being a law in Sweden, Iceland, Norway and in France) sex work itself is not criminalized, but the clients of sex workers are. Sweden regards the system to be very successful because ‘ the number of sex workers in the streets have decreased’, as government officials state.

Sex worker rights activists however say that sex work is now taking place in different and unseen places, which results in more violence against sex workers and less access to services and support for sex workers.

Sex worker rights activists are worrying about the situation in Europe. Various powerful lobby groups are trying to influence politics on a European level. Early 2014 the European Parliament accepted a report from a lobby group in which they are pleading for an implementation of the Swedish System in Europe. Sex workers fear that individual countries will follow this development.


Have the numbers of human trafficking increased since the ban on brothel owning was lifted in 2000?

Nobody knows the exact figures but human rights activists believe this is not true. The attention for the phenomenon has grown. This increase in attention has led to higher numbers of victims and an increase in convictions.