The Dutch Approach

The Netherlands introduced legislation in 2000 to legalise the commercial exploitation of prostitution provided that this involved people who are of age, and who carry out their work voluntarily and legally. The stated objectives of the law were: to penalise all forms of exploitation in the prostitution sector; legalise ‘acceptable’ commercial prostitution and remove ‘unacceptable’ forms of prostitution including trafficking, involuntary prostitution, and child sexual exploitation. It is worth noting that a major impetus and rationale for the law was to improve the health and welfare of sex workers, reduce organised criminal involvement and eliminate pimping. A comprehensive evaluation in 2007 indicated that few if any if the stated objectives have been realised and that the law has had many negative consequences.1 Findings of the evaluation include:

  • Estimated 25,000 people in prostitution in the legal sector with 1,300 – 1,700 legal brothels/location bound premises
  • 900 – 1,000 victims of human trafficking are being identified annually
  • Unknown number of illegal and non-location bound premises i.e. private apartments
  • Pimping is widespread as checks are focused only on owners of the establishments and pimps operate outside
  • Girls arriving at legal locations on their 18th birthday; boyfriend/’lover boy’ identified as pimps
  • Evidence that half those in escort business are very young and started pre age 20
  • Emotional well-being of women is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased
  • Only 6% of municipalities had a policy on exiting
  • Police capacity being used up for inspections in the regulated sector rather than criminal aspects of illegal sector
  • Highly regarded measures to tackle trafficking with huge resources yet still have over 1,000 trafficked victims a year
  • Number of foreign prostitutes working without a valid residence permit had decrease
  • Increase in prostitutes from East European countries that fall under the EEA
  • Increased concern by police in Amsterdam consistently stating the policy is not working
  •  The non-location bound premises i.e. escort agencies and internet prostitution continues to expand outside the regulated sector

The authors of the evaluation conclude that it was ‘virtually impossible’ to ascertain whether the law had succeeded in combating the exploitation of involuntary prostitution and that pimping is widespread. Although they could find no evidence of children in the legal sector, a worrying phenomenon they found was that girls are arriving at legal places on their 18th birthday having been groomed and possibly prostituted elsewhere from an early age by boyfriend/’lover boy’ pimps. There was also evidence that half of those in escort business were very young and had started before the age of 20. Perhaps given the constant reference to the welfare of sex workers in the discussion document, a critical finding was that the emotional well-being of women is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased. Furthermore, despite a commitment to the setting up of exit routes for women, as the majority of women stated their wish to leave the industry, only 6% of municipalities had done so.


1Daalder, A. L. (2007). Prostitution in the Netherlands since the lifting of the brothel ban. The Netherlands: Research and Documentation Center/Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-en-Documentatiecentrum (WODC).