Sunday, November 5, 2000

Julian Coman
in Amsterdam

Legalisation brings bureaucracy to oldest profession in the world

MINISTERS had hoped that their decision to legalise Holland's brothels would be seen as an enlightened act of a liberal government.

After only a month of official respectability, however, prostitutes and bordello owners are joining forces in Amsterdam to demand a return to the bad old days.

Until October 1, brothels operated outside the law in Holland, as they still do throughout the rest of Europe. Business boomed, none the less, as the police turned a blind eye to the country's flourishing red light industry. In Amsterdam, the presence of more than 5,000 sex workers, including about 2,000 "window prostitutes", had long been a tourist attraction.

Then, in what he believed to be a progressive act, Benk Korthals, the Dutch minister for justice, decided that brothels were to enjoy the same legal status as any ordinary high street business. Prostitutes were to be treated as "belonging to a profession like any other".

The motives were noble and typically Dutch. According to the social democrat government, the law was being changed "to reflect everyday reality". Realistically, brothels could not be banned. Making them legal would allow them to be controlled and regulated.

It seemed a good idea on paper, but the result has been a catalogue of errors and misunderstandings. "The government has presented this move as generous-spirited liberal pragmatism," said Dick Lawina, a former male escort who now runs The Red Thread self-help group for prostitutes.

He said: "The truth is that the past month has been a complete farce. The government has not thought this through properly, and brothel owners and prostitutes will suffer the consequences."

One of the first consequences was an earnest 15-page list of brothel regulations. Treating prostitution as "a profession like any other", the government's "working conditions inspectorate" decided that normal office and factory practice should be applied to the brothel bedroom. An establishment failing to conform can be fined and subsequently shut down.

Reading down the long list of requirements, Mariska Major, a former prostitute who now runs Amsterdam's Prostitution Information Centre, said: "Of course some of the health and safety precautions are good and welcome, but there is so much that is ridiculous."

She said: "This is a document that has been written by people who have no understanding of what a brothel is. They insist on daylight in the girls' rooms, which will never work for clients. Carpets are banned. They want a special no-smoking zone, separate showers and separate changing rooms for men and women."

She asked: "Separate changing rooms… in a brothel?"

While brothel owners attempt to come to terms with the new order and anxiously await forthcoming inspections, some prostitutes are moving out of Amsterdam's red light district altogether, terrified by the consequences of making an "honest" living.

Under the new law, sex workers are required to register with the local chamber of commerce, as well as declare earnings and pay tax.

"Anyone willing to pay five guilders [£1.50] can get a list of local tradespeople from their town's chamber of commerce," said Ms Major. "The government may decide in its wisdom to decree that prostitution is 'a profession like any other'. Registering yourself and being known as a prostitute is, however, different from publicising yourself as a plumber. Anyone can get hold of those lists."

Daniella works a window "day shift" in Amsterdam's red light district. A cursory glance around the small back room where clients are taken reveals at least five infringements of the new government code. She doesn't seem to care.

"Look at the size of this place," she said. "How would you get two basins, two toilets, two showers and two changing rooms in here? This is a brothel in Amsterdam's red light district — not a factory floor."

Daniella has no intention of registering with the chamber of commerce. "This new law is just a disgrace," she said. "Do they really think that the way to help us is to make us pay high taxes and disclose our identities to whoever wants to know? They won't get any tax from me. What they should do is sort out the illegal immigrants and leave us to get on with things the way we always did."

In The Hague, just over a month after the fateful decision, the mood is abashed but unrepentant. "It must be understood that this is an unprecedented experiment," said a spokesman for the ministry of justice. "It's early days and the brothel culture will not just change overnight. Similarly, prostitutes and the rest of society will take some time to come to terms with the idea that prostitution is now just a job like any other — with the same rights and obligations."

Ms Major is less optimistic. She has already heard a month's worth of stories about accountants refusing to take prostitutes on as clients, and bank clerks laughing in the faces of girls attempting to open accounts. "I think you will find that it will never be normal for a man to tell his wife that he is going out for a while to visit a prostitute," she said.

"Prostitution will always be a little bit hidden and will have to play a little bit by its own rules. That's part of its attraction. You can't make it respectable just by turning a brothel bedroom into a kind of hospital waiting room and making prostitutes sign up in the Yellow Pages."

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Created: December 20, 2000
Last modified: December 20, 2000
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