Sunday, August 12, 2001

Suzanne Daley

New Rights for Dutch Prostitutes, but No Gain

PELDOORN, the Netherlands — In the lounge of his brothel, Andre van Dorst sits in the glow of a red lamp shaped like a huge voluptuous mouth and slaps document after document on the table — from the health department, from the police, from the tax department, the labor department.

"They just go on and on," he fumes. "This one says how the girls have to wash their frilly underthings in practically boiling water. And this one says they have to cut their nails very short. For hygiene purposes, of course. And here they have to have a pillow in the room. You don't want a pillow in your room. It's a murder weapon."

Like many an entrepreneur, he laments, "The bureaucrats are busy making rules and they know nothing about the business."

Prostitution has long been legal in the Netherlands, but now the nation is trying to invent a system to regulate the industry. Nine months ago it legalized brothels.

The new law is intended to help the police get a grip on the often suspicious world of prostitution, basically a cash business that the police say is often used for money laundering, arms sales, drug sales and the often brutal exploitation of prostitutes, including minors and illegal immigrants.

Herman Wouters/Hollandese Hoogte, for The New York TimesA 30-year-old prostitute, one of 30,000 in the Netherlands, where brothel owners say new regulations may force them out of business.
Herman Wouters/Hollandese Hoogte, for The New York Times
A 30-year-old prostitute, one of 30,000 in the Netherlands, where brothel owners say new regulations may force them out of business.

And the law is supposed to offer the more than 30,000 women who work as prostitutes in the Netherlands the chance to get the basic labor rights, insurance policies and disability payments enjoyed by other citizens.

But the transition has been a bumpy one.

Herman Wouters/Hollandese Hoogte, for The New York TimesNew rules have angered sex workers in the Netherlands' red light districts.
Herman Wouters/Hollandese Hoogte, for The New York Times
New rules have angered sex workers in the Netherlands' red light districts.

Police officials say they finally have the means to clean up the sex industry. But brothel owners are complaining that they are being inundated with stupid rules and overwhelmed by renovation costs that may force them to close. Meanwhile, prostitutes are complaining that the law that was supposed to help them has so far only handed them a tax bill.

The Dutch, it turns out, are far less tolerant than expected.

Apeldorn, Netherlands

Legalization has done nothing to diminish the taboo associated with the sex trade. Prostitutes who are trying to set themselves up as self-employed businesswomen are finding that accountants, banks and health insurance companies want nothing to do with them.

And many experts are worried, too, that the new law is simply pushing a huge number of prostitutes underground, where they are at greater risk of being taken advantage of. This group includes illegal immigrants, who fear being sent out of the country if they register, and Dutch citizens who are not ready to go public with what they do.

"I have often doubted since we legalized the brothels, whether we did the right thing," said Femke Halsema, a member of Parliament who advocated the measure. "For me, it was a question of emancipation and liberation for the women. But for now it is working the other way."

Last year, there were nine women working in Mr. van Dorst's brothel, which operates behind his sex shop in the main shopping area of this prosperous town about an hour's drive from Amsterdam. Today, there are only two who take their customers up the steep stairs to two windowless rooms with pink bedspreads and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. They charge about $60 for sex. Mr. van Dorst gets about $20 of that for renting the rooms.

One of the women who has worked here for about 10 years said that some of the prostitutes simply left the business because they did not want to lose their anonymity by registering with the police and paying taxes.

Others, she said, were still selling sex, but in a more dangerous way. They advertise in local magazines and meet their customers in hotel rooms. To do this, most rely on a pimp for protection.

"I don't see anything good about the law," she said. "The whole thing is crazy."

No one is yet calling for a repeal of the law. Most prostitute advocacy groups maintain that the legalization of brothels will be a good thing in the long run. But right now, they say, too little money has been spent on getting information to the prostitutes about how to comply with and benefit from the law, or on campaigns to encourage community acceptance.

"It's chaotic out there right now," said Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute who runs the Prostitution Information Center in Amsterdam's red light district. "It's not good for anybody. Most of the prostitutes don't have any idea where they are in all of this."

In changing its laws on brothels, the Netherlands is again in the forefront of social and legal innovation. This year the country became the first in the world to legalize euthanasia and to give same-sex marriages the status of heterosexual marriages. As usual, what happens here is being carefully studied by the rest of Europe.

Legalizing brothels had been under debate for nearly two decades before it became law on Oct. 1 last year. In the 1980's, experts say, the debate revolved around feminist arguments of empowerment. But by the 90's, as the industry grew, it was law enforcement concerns that carried the day. The law finally passed easily, with a two-thirds majority in the upper house.

"What we saw over time is that the Ministry of Social Services faded into the background and the Ministry of Justice took on a bigger and bigger role in putting forward the legislation," said Marieke van Doorninck, an expert at the Mr. A. de Graaf Foundation for research on prostitution. "The emphasis today has been to get legal control over a work place that was a great cover for all sorts of illegal activity. The emphasis has not been on decent labor conditions."

The new law leaves licensing up to local governments, but few have put their systems in place. Mr. van Dorst, who has been in business in Apeldoorn for two decades and is the spokesman for the Dutch Federation of "Relax Center" Owners, has applied for his new license but is still waiting to receive it.

And he is deep in battle with the tax department about whether he is an employer and therefore has to pay social service costs for the prostitutes. He maintains that he is not, that he simply rents out rooms to the women. They set their own prices, he says.

But the issue, he admits, is far from resolved and in the meantime his business is suffering because of the lack of workers.

"It's like that for all us," said Mr. van Dorst, "The idea was to make it better for the girls. But right now they are all in hiding. We had a meeting of the federation recently and most people were doing 40, 50 percent of their business. This is not good for the girls either."

Most experts estimate that the sex industry is now a $1 billion business in the Netherlands, or 5 percent of the Dutch economy, with the industry having increased 25 percent in the last decade.

At any hour of the day, women of all ages and races, dressed in scanty underwear can be seen in the Netherlands' red light districts perched provocatively in windows. People who enter these brothels usually find themselves in tiny, tiled rooms with only a single bed and a sink. Sex generally costs about $30 here. But the industry has many layers, from street prostitution to expensive escort services.

Experts estimate that as many as 60 percent of the women working in prostitution are foreigners, but no one knows how many of those women are illegal immigrants nor how many are coerced into the business.

Some women are expected to drink with clients, because the brothel owner makes money from the alcohol. Some are expected to submit to exams by brothel doctors who charge them high rates. Some also have little say in whether or not they accept customers.

Advocates of the law see it as a means of making sure that the worst conditions are eliminated.

"Before we could not even go and ask for ID papers, " said Rob Coster, the Police Department's national coordinator on prostitution and the trafficking in human beings. "Now there will be all sorts of inspections. The licensing process allows us to deal with city planning issues, health issues and operations, such as whether the prostitute is a minor and working of her own free will."

But government officials acknowledged that some of the rules dictated by the bureaucrats have been ludicrous.

"So far it is true that they have all the duties but none of the advantages that they were promised," said Jola Vollebregt, a police policy adviser on the issue. "We never expected that the Dutch society would react the way they reacted. Legalization does not mean acceptance."

Some prostitutes are fighting back. Last month, Christy ten Broeke, a board member of the Red Thread, an advocacy group for prostitutes, testified before the country's Committee on Equal Treatment about the way banks have been treating those who declare themselves prostitutes and ask for business accounts so that expenses like lingerie and sex toys can become tax deductions.

Ms. ten Broeke said she had gone into several banks herself to see what happened and been flatly refused at every one.

Called on to respond, bank officials told the committee that giving business accounts to prostitutes would give them a bad image and anger other customers. Ms. ten Broeke says that efforts to get health insurance have been equally problematic.

But for many prostitutes, the first problem is going public with what they do.

"They have children who are in school," said Ms. ten Broeke. "Their parents, sometimes their husbands, don't know what they do. They don't want it written down anywhere."

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Created: August 17, 2001
Last modified: September 1, 2001
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