Prostitution in the Netherlands

Prostitution in the Netherlands is legal and common. A majority of the women working in prostitution are foreigners, and the country is fighting against human trafficking.

Current legal situation

Prostitution is defined as a legal profession for those persons who are citizens from a European Union Country; prostitutes/sex workers have access to the social security system, may join unions, have to pay income tax and are treated like any other self-employed tradesperson. Health and social services are readily available, but people who work in the sex industry are not required to register or undergo mandatory health checks.

Prostitutes/sex workers must be at least 18 years old, while for non-commercial sex the age of consent is 16. Clients must be at least 18 except in the municipality of Amsterdam where they may be 16. Employing minors in the sex industry is a criminal offence. Violation of either age limit is a crime for the other party, and possibly for a pimp. Hiring or renting to non-EU citizens may lead to revoking the operating licence of a business owner.

Brothels are licensed legal businesses which are allowed to advertise. Pimping (the use of force, coercion or deceit) and trafficking are illegal.

Forms of prostitution

Prostitutes in the Netherlands work in several types of prostitution. The most common form is in sex clubs and private houses. Approximately 45% of the prostitutes work in this type of prostitution (private houses are brothels where prostitutes are directly introduced to the clients in a separate room, there is no bar and the client is not confronted with other clients). Approximately 20% works in window prostitution, 15% in escort services, 5% on the streets and 5% in their own homes. An estimated 10% works in other types of prostitutes, like massage parlours, sexshops, sex theaters and bars. (Numbers based on estimates in 1998-1999 )

Window prostitution in red-light districts is the most visible form. Rooms with windows are rented by the women for 8 hour shifts for some 60–150 euro (depending on the time and place), which includes closed-circuit security. Fifteen to twenty minutes of sex cost about 40 to 50 euro (though prices can go both higher and lower according to the service). Despite the legalization, some of the working women are still illegal immigrants. These prostitutes cannot work in the windows, since a European Union passport is required to rent one.

Some municipalities in the Netherlands would like a "zero-tolerance policy" for brothels on moral grounds, but by law this is not possible. However, regulations, including restrictions in number and location, are common. Whether a zero-tolerance policy on urban planning grounds is allowed is still unclear.

There are twelve red-light districts with window prostitution in the Netherlands. A thirteenth (Spijkerkwartier in Arnhem) was closed down in 2005. The largest and best-known is De Wallen in Amsterdam, also known as Walletjes or Rosse Buurt. Utrecht also has a large red light district, centered around the area north of the famous Rode Brug (red bridge), containing more than one hundred canal boats and also a smaller city center street called Hardebollenstraat.

The country has numerous sex clubs. One of the most exclusive ones, Yab Yum in Amsterdam, was closed in January 2008 after allegations of involvement of the Dutch Hells Angels.

Several cities have instituted so-called tippelzones for street prostitution, mainly to remove drug-addicted streetwalkers from city centers. Some of these zones offer social services to the women and have places to park cars screened from view. The tippelzone in Amsterdam was opened in 1996 in Theemsweg and was closed in 2003 amidst much discussion; problems included weapons and drug dealing and exploitation of illegal foreigners.


According to a representative study in 1989, 13.5 percent of men reported having paid for sex at least once; 2.6 percent reported having done so in the previous year.

Prostitute population

A study by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2000 estimated that there are a total of between 20,000 and 25,000 prostitutes in the Netherlands on a yearly basis. Approximately 32% are Dutch, 22% are Latin American, 19% are Eastern European, 13% are African (south of the Sahara), 6% come from other countries from the European Union (aside from the Netherlands), 5% come from Northern Africa and 3% are Asian. Approximately 5% of the prostitutes are male, and another 5% are transsexual. However with new legislation from 2001 that prohibits migrants from outside the European Union to work legally, demographics most likely have shifted. An encyclopedia article published in 1997 claimed about 1,300 men working in homosexual prostitution, and almost none in heterosexual prostitution.

A recent study found that overall about 17 percent of Dutch prostitutes have HIV/AIDS, with most of the cases among the drug-addicted and transsexual prostitutes. Drug-addicted prostitutes are common in street prostitution.

An article in Le Monde in 1997 found that 80% of prostitutes in the Netherlands were foreigners and 70% had no immigration papers, suggesting that at least some were victims of sex trafficking, forced prostitution.

Human trafficking

The Netherlands is a primary country of destination for victims of human trafficking. Many of these are led to believe by organized criminals that they are being offered work in hotels or restaurants or in child care and are forced into prostitution with the threat or actual use of violence. Estimates of the number of victims vary from 1000 to 7000 on a yearly basis. The victims mainly originate from the Netherlands, Africa and Eastern Europe, particularly from the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. Most police investigations on human trafficking concern legal sex businesses. All sectors of prostitution are well represented in these investigations, but particularly the window brothels are overrepresented.

Over the years there has been a significant increase of registered Dutch victims of human trafficking. In 2005 23% of the persons registered at the Dutch Foundation Against Trafficking in Women were Dutch citizens.

In an effort to crack down on forced prostitution, a campaign was launched in 2005 in magazines through posters put up around the red-light districts encouraging clients to report signs of coercion. The poster has an eyecatching silhouette of a spike-heeled prostitute with long hair leaning back, but on closer inspection another picture reveals a gun being held to the female's head. The caption reads "Have you seen the signals? Fear, bruises, no 'pleasure' in the job." It then goes on to offer a phone number which clients can call anonymously.


Toleration during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, prostitution was not prohibited. The attitude of worldly and religious authorities towards prostitution was pragmatic. Many cities tolerated prostitution to protect chaste female citizens from rape and defilement. There were, however, a number of conditions imposed on prostitutes and their clients. Prostitutes were not allowed to be married. Married men and Jewish men were prohibited from hiring prostitutes.

Still, prostitution was considered a dishonorable profession. Prostitutes were not expected to conform to sexual rules, but prostitutes were not protected by the law. The concept of "honor" was very important in early modern Dutch society. Honor had social significance, but it also had legal ramifications. "Honorable" people had more rights. Until the late sixteenth century honor, aside from citizenship, was the most important criterion for the stratification of society.

Despite the fact that prostitution was seen as indispensable, city governments tried to separate "dishonorable" prostitution from the honorable world. Until the fifteenth century, Dutch cities tried to keep prostitution outside of the city walls. Later, city governments tried to reserve certain areas of the city for prostitution. Prostitution businesses were driven to the streets and alleys near the city walls.

Typical is the following decree from the city of Amsterdam in 1413:

Because whores are necessary in big cities and especially in cities of commerce such as ours - indeed it is far better to have these women than not to have them - and also because the holy church tolerates whores on good grounds, for these reasons the court and sheriff of Amsterdam shall not entirely forbid the keeping of brothels.

Regulation and suppression starting in the 16th century

During the sixteenth century, attitudes about sexuality changed under the influence of the Spanish occupation and rising Protestantism. Sexual relations were only tolerated within marriage. Church and state were not separated, and what was defined by the church as a sin was defined as a crime by the government. Prostitution and procurement were viewed as a sin and therefore prohibited. However, during this century the city of Amsterdam started to regulate prostitution. Only the police and the bailiff and his servants could keep a brothel in the Pijl and Halsteeg (currently the Damstraat). Prostitutes who practiced their trade in other parts of the city were arrested and their clients fined. Prostitution was a lucrative trade for the bailiff's servants as well as for the city treasury. In 1578, the city of Amsterdam left the Spanish side during the Netherlands uprising and converted from Catholicism to Calvinism. The city then stopped regulating prostitution.

Calvinistic morals were mirrored in the government policies of the seventeenth century. Titillating activities like dancing, fairs and prostitution were sometimes outlawed. This morality didn't however, always correspond with the views and customs of the people. During the Golden seventeenth century sexuality was openly displayed in paintings and in literature. The image of the prostitute in literature was very negative. Prostitutes were portrayed as unreliable, impudent, lazy and often ugly and dirty. In paintings, the image of the prostitute was more positive. Brothel-scenes were an important subject and prostitutes were painted as beautiful young women. The clients, however, were portrayed as fools who allowed themselves to be deceived. In both literature and paintings the madams were portrayed as evil profiteers. The authorities couldn't uphold the laws against prostitution and tended to leave brothels alone if they didn't cause trouble.

During the eighteenth century the morals preached by the church and government became more in line with certain developments within Dutch society. There was a growing middle class which tried to distinguish itself by a strong work ethic and self-control. By restrained sexual behavior, the middle class could separate itself from the 'loose' lower class as well as the indecent nobility. Rich and poor also began to separate geographically. Prior to this period different social classes lived side by side, but they now lived in separate neighborhoods. The image of women also changed. Bourgeois women were seen by men of their class as faithful and chaste, but working-class women were viewed by middle class men as potential whores.

The working conditions of prostitutes were very poor. There was no proper birth control, condoms were not widely available and there were no effective cures against venereal diseases. Prostitutes often became pregnant and, because of venereal diseases they eventually became infertile. This situation only improved during the twentieth century.

Prostitutes allowed very little sexual variation. The only sexual positions which were tolerated were the missionary position and standing upright, face to face. Anal sex, kissing and oral sex were strictly taboo.

Napoleonic mandatory registration and medical examination

In the beginning of the nineteenth century the armies of Napoleon started to regulate prostitution in the Netherlands (in 1810) to protect soldiers against venereal diseases. Prostitutes were forced to register and were subjected to mandatory medical examinations. Registered prostitutes were handed a red card which was a sort of work permit. If they were found to be infected, their red card was taken and they were given a white card instead while they were prohibited from working and were only allowed to work when declared fit. After the French occupation the Dutch government stopped regulating prostitution, but during several decades slowly began to regulate prostitutes again in the same style as under the French occupation. Many scientists during the nineteenth century believed that sexual abstinence for men was unhealthy. In their eyes it was unavoidable that a number of women had to sacrifice themselves to protect the rest of the women from destruction of an even more revolting kind. The women who had to sacrifice themselves were supposed to be lower class. Prostitutes themselves, however, were still despised and portrayed as disgusting creatures. Lower class people themselves detested prostitutes. Prostitutes stood outside society.

Abolitionists outlaw the owning of brothels

During this period, sexual morals became stricter and a counter movement arose against regulated prostitution. In the beginning, this movement consisted of wealthy orthodox-Protestant Christians, but it later got support from other movements like Catholics, socialists, feminists and progressive liberals. They attacked the idea that men could not abstain from sex. Clients were viewed as low, dirty lechers, and the clients were not the young unmarried men prostitution was meant for, but were often well-off middle-aged married men. They also attacked the mandatory medical examinations which were deemed degrading and ineffective to stop the spread of venereal diseases. Many prostitutes lived in the brothels and were bound to the madams by debts to pay off expensive working clothes. Prostitutes were often sold among madams, were subjected to fines, and could only leave the brothel under supervision. Medical expenses were added to their debt. Brothel keepers throughout Europe sold women among each other. The abolitionist movement (as the opponents of prostitution were called) in the Netherlands was largely connected to the international abolitionist movement. The movement slowly gained more influence and during the last decades of the nineteenth century city governments slowly started to abolish regulated prostitution. At first, the abolitionist movement mainly targeted mandatory health checks for prostitutes, but when the movement became more successful the focus shifted towards the people who profited from prostitution. In 1911 living on the avails of prostitution and owning a brothel were prohibited by law. Prostitution itself was not prohibited.

20th century: toleration and eventual legalization

Until the 1970s, prostitutes in the Netherlands were predominantly white lower-class women from the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Northern Germany. During the seventies, in the wake of the sex trips to South-East Asia by Dutch men, the sex operators brought in women from Thailand and the Philippines. In the eighties there was a second wave from Latin America and Africa. In the nineties, after the fall of the Soviet Union, women came from Eastern Europe. Foreign prostitutes are economically motivated to come to The Netherlands, and they tend to travel to engage in sex work between Holland, Germany, Belgium, and other European societies.

During the second half of the twentieth century, prostitution and brothels were condoned and tolerated by many local governments. The police only interfered when public order was at stake or in cases of human trafficking. The reasoning behind this gedoogbeleid (policy of tolerance) was harm reduction and the realization that in places where it is banned it is usually the prostitute who is the victim and, as the easiest target, the one who suffers criminal prosecution instead of the client or pimp. This genuine Dutch policy of tolerating formally illegal activities for harm reduction purposes has been and still is also applied towards illegal drugs in the Netherlands.

The Red Thread (De Rode Draad) is a support and advocacy association for prostitutes that was founded in 1985 and works for the legitimization and against the stigmatization of prostitutes. Prostitution was defined a legal profession in January 1988.

Brothel prohibition made it difficult to set rules for the sex industry. During the eighties many municipalities urged the national government to lift the ban on brothels. In 1983 Minister Korthals Altes had presented an amendment to the law on prostitution. It took until October 1, 2000 for brothels to leave the half-legal status of being tolerated and to become fully legal and licensed businesses. The Dutch union FNV has accepted prostitutes as members since that time.

Dutch attitudes regarding prostitution support legalization and normalization. Public opinion polls conducted in the late 1990s show that the Dutch public overwhelmingly rejects the notion that prostitution is unacceptable, deviant behavior. In a 1997 survey, 73 percent of Dutch citizens favored legalization of brothels, 74 percent said that prostitution was an "acceptable job," and in a 1999 poll 78 percent felt that prostitution is a job like any other job (polls cited in Weitzer 2000, p. 178).

In 2004 the Norwegian government published a report comparing the Dutch model for dealing with prostitution to the Swedish one, wherein the buying of sexual services is illegal but the selling is not. Norwegian politicians are currently favoring the Swedish model.

Concerned about money laundering and human trafficking, Amsterdam officials denied the license renewals of about 30 brothels in the Amsterdam red light district in 2006; the brothel owners appealed. To counter negative news reports, the district organized an open house day in 2007 and a statue to an unknown sex worker was unveiled. In September 2007 it was announced that the city of Amsterdam was buying several buildings in the red light district in order to close about a third of the windows.


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