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Sex workers in Amsterdam: Legal, but still demeaning, disturbing and degrading

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AMSTERDAM — Entering the red-light district in Amsterdam is striking, alarming and mesmerizing all at the same time. The eerie red lighting of the alleyways shines upon the perfectly contoured bodies of prostitutes, standing behind glass doors. The women stare at passers-by, talk on their cell phones, straighten their hair and make or avoid eye contact. Every set of eyes that walks by each woman looks her up and down; most hurry along, some linger to negotiate a price. Many of the visitors to the red-light district are just tourists, experiencing the infamous district.

But there are also many customers. Enough customers to match the supply of thousands of approximately 20,000 prostitutes in the Netherlands overall.

Everything that the red-light district represents is inherently degrading and unequal to women, and to the lives of the sex workers. But would the alternative — making prostitution legal — cause for these women be much worse off? The Dutch government has struggled with this question. Making prostitution legal could disincentivize human trafficking because the sex trade is regulated; at the same time, legalizing prostitution increases the demand for prostitutes and sex workers, which therefore makes human trafficking more common, and perhaps necessary, to keep up with the demand for sex workers.

Legalizing prostitution and the sex trade would lead to more human trafficking and support a degrading practice within which men hold all the power and women are objects to be consumed for the sole pleasure of the man. For those who argue that Amsterdam is a sexually liberated city, they are not taking into account the inherently one-sided nature of sexual interactions between sex workers and those who pay for sex. It is not a “liberating” experience to display one’s body for the enjoyment of others and rent oneself out for an hour in order to pay the rent.

It is reprimandable that a country’s government could condone such explicitly degrading, dehumanizing and objectifying work for women. Regardless of regulations, human trafficking of prostitutes continues to exist in the Netherlands. While not all prostitutes in the Netherlands have been trafficked or forcibly brought into a prostitution ring, it does become a sort of financial, emotional and physical trap for many. Three-quarters of prostitutes in Amsterdam hail from another country — most often in Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia — and are often working to send money home to families. The price is steep to occupy one of the rooms in Amsterdam’s red-light district, and they must pay the rent, pay a pimp if they have one (and they often do), pay bodyguards, their landlords and the Dutch government in newly-created taxes.

Many argue that the situation would be far worse if prostitution were legal. There will always be a demand for prostitutes, they say, and it just depends on whether they are contracted illegally or legally. The issue with this argument is that when prostitution is made legal, the site or the city or the state becomes a magnet for the types of people who seek out prostitutes. Amsterdam would be an incredibly different city if nobody knew to come there to engage with sex workers.

The Netherlands argues that prostitution can be regarded as an economic activity, and that a woman can have the right to sell her body as an object of trade, to be used for profit. Any form of exploitation which “involv[es] an element of coercion, fraud, or abuse” is illegal. But the distinction between coerced prostitution and “voluntary” prostitution strongly implies that most of the time, prostitution is a decision made by women to reap the economic benefits for themselves.

Selling oneself for sex is not a voluntary economic decision. Although some argue that it is a valid profession that should not be stigmatized, there should be no misconceptions that prostitution is a glamorous, desirable or empowering job. Displaying female bodies in such a public arena like the red-light district as objects to be rented out, taken advantage of and enjoyed without repercussions is not “better” for the prostitutes, nor is it better than the alternative (illegal prostitution).

The best alternative would be to punish those who make up the demand side of the prostitution scene in Amsterdam, and all over the world. We are selling the men of this world short in saying that prostitution will always exist. The model that the Nordic countries have put forward is just that. This model “views the sex trade as irreconcilable with gender equality and refuses to consider prostitution as inevitable.”

Contact Sara Orton at sorton ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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