Legalization and Regulation of Sex Work in the Netherlands: A Working Yet Flawed Model

August 30, 2018 | Lidya Tadesse

The Netherlands is a country that is well known for its liberal policies on a variety of issues. The small nation often takes the precedent on passing many progressive laws on topics that are generally considered socially taboo; it decriminalized “soft drugs” with the passing of the Opium Act of 1976 and legalized euthanasia and physician assisted suicide in 2001.1 One particular set of Dutch policies that has consistently drawn both intrigue and debate is its approach to sex work. In recent years, many countries that have faced increased pressures to legalize and regulate prostitution have turned to the Netherlands as a model to build their own policies. A closer look at the Dutch approach to sex work, however, reveals numerous flaws that cast increasing doubts on the efficacy of Dutch laws and the future of sex work in the country.

Prostitution is often quoted as being “the world’s oldest profession” and even a brief look at history shows how Dutch policy on this profession has evolved over time. During the 18th century, the Netherlands had developed what could be considered an early draft of its current policy on sex work. Introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte, who served as head of state at the time, Dutch law allowed prostitution in brothels but mandated that all prostitutes be registered.2 However, in the early 20th century there was a paradigm shift of policy on sex work marked by Parliament passing the Morality Laws of 1911. These laws criminalized prostitution, among other activities, considered to be morally unacceptable (i.e. abortion, contraceptives, and homosexuality). The 1960s and 70s were marked by another period of cultural change, and although prostitution remained officially illegal, many municipalities in the country became far more lenient on prosecution of sex work. Concurrently, there also remained a growing sex trafficking market that was only exacerbated as globalization increased.  To combat this alarming trend, governmental representatives and non-governmental organizations convened in the 80s and 90s to attempt to address the Netherlands’ issues with forced prostitution. After a series of failed negotiations, Parliament was finally able to pass a set of laws legalizing and regulating sex work in 2000.3

The main feature of the 2000 reforms involved lifting the existing ban on brothels via removing articles 250bis (which stated that owning a brothel and/or providing means for someone to become a prostitute is illegal) and 432 (which outlined the punishment for convicted pimps) from the Criminal Code.4 Additionally, new regulations were introduced requiring brothels and prostitutes to be registered and licensed, further legitimizing sex work as a profession.5 At the same time, the government wanted to maintain a strict distinction between voluntary and forced prostitution to ensure that traffickers would not be able to exploit reforms to their benefit. As a result, the legal age of a licensed sex worker was set at 18, despite the general age of consent being defined as sixteen.6 Furthermore, strict punishments were set in place under article 273f of the Criminal Code should someone be convicted of forcing another individual into prostitution. More specifically, the article stipulates maximum sentences for a variety of offenses: (1) anyone who forces an individual into prostitution can receive a sentence up to eight years, (2) if the individual is a minor, the sentence can be increased to twelve years (3) if the infraction results in serious bodily harm, the sentence can be increased to fifteen years, and (4) if the infraction results in the loss of life, the sentence can be increased to eighteen years.7 The government maintains that current sex work laws are a crucial part of its abilities to “exercise more control over the sex industry, identify abuses at an earlier stage and strictly enforce regulations.”8 By legalizing and regulating sex work, the state ultimately aims to protect sex workers in a dangerous industry that they claim will nevertheless continue to exist. Many officials see regulating sex work as a crucial part of harm-reduction, and much to their credit, research does indicate that regulations on sex work in the Netherlands have been associated with fewer instances of violence as well as increased medical access for those engaged in the profession.9 By contrast, in the United States, where prostitution is still illegal, prostitutes have a mortality rate of 391 out of every 100,000, making it the the most dangerous profession in the country.10 Thus, it appears that legalization and regulation of sex work does indeed have a role in protecting the health and safety of prostitutes and that the Dutch laws on sex work have a sound foundation for their existence.

That being said, however, one cannot take this caveat and assume that the Dutch model is entirely efficacious. On the contrary, there remain many unaddressed shortcomings of the Dutch system that raise both practical and ethical dilemmas on the subject of sex work. For example, the Netherland’s liberal policies on both sex work and drug use have made it a prime tourist destination, especially in its capital city of Amsterdam. Officials estimate that the brothels and “coffee shops” (i.e. locations where one can buy cannabis) make up approximately € 2.5 billion of the Dutch economy.11 Furthermore, of this € 2.5 billion consumption, only about half comes from the native Dutch population, meaning that the rest is attributable to the large numbers of tourists that visit every year.12 The argument that there exists an inherent demand for the sex industry is thus less plausible as it appears the legalization itself has increased the demand for sex workers from visiting tourists. Furthermore, it raises the question of whether the government has a conflict of interest when regulating sex work. After all, when the industry makes up such a large part of the annual GDP, there is a vested interest for it to prosper. This could potentially mean that future regulations intended to protect sex workers may not easily pass if they negatively impact the profit margins of the industry as a whole.


Windows of the Red Light District, Amsterdam

However, what is arguably even more concerning than the foreign demand for sex workers in the Netherlands is the foreign supply of them. Near the end of the 90s, around the time the laws on sex work were reformed, only about 30-40% of the prostitutes working in the Netherlands were native Dutch.13 The rest mainly came from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe—the latter group especially growing in prominence after the fall of the Soviet Union and its integration into the European Union (EU), which provides for relatively unrestricted travel between member states.14 This group of sex workers from Eastern Europe make up a large percentage of legal sex workers in the Netherlands. It is important to mention, however, that exact calculations on the number of prostitutes in the Netherlands and their origins are difficult to produce, mainly due to the fact that an underground sex market still exists.15 In fact, this underground market exists partly because of laws requiring sex workers to be permanent residents of the Netherlands/EU, thus forcing non-residents, who do not receive licenses, into an illegal market. With no protection provided by the government, migrant sex workers often have to seek help from middlemen in order to break into the sex industry, potentially even becoming victims of debt slavery.16 Despite its claims, the Dutch model fails to adequately address the ongoing reality of human trafficking that exists within the country. In fact, since the 2000 reforms, the amount of human trafficking present has increased, with 284 reported cases in 2001 to 909 reported cases in 2009.17 It is clear that a lack of enforcement of current laws in the Netherlands has resulted in a system that is unable to get a firm grasp on the coercive sex industry.

This latter point is only made more complicated with recent developments in the legality of existing regulations. In August of 2017, the Amsterdam District Court struck down a policy enacted in Amsterdam requiring all sex workers to be interviewed before being allowed to operate.18 More specifically, it seems that the interviews targeted Eastern European sex workers—a group of sex workers that often enter sex work in the Netherlands to pay off debts and/or find economic security. Furthermore, this is a group of individuals that often find it especially hard to leave the sex industry once they have entered.19 These interviews were meant to ensure that these sex workers were voluntary engaging in prostitution, but the policy was challenged by brothel owners who felt that the government was increasingly encroaching on personal privacy and liberties—an argument ultimately supported by the court.20 Last month, a research study published by three sexual health organizations (Aidsfonds, Soa Aids Nederland, and Proud) suggests Dutch sex workers face more workplace assault than initially thought. The study found that anywhere up to 93% of sex workers report facing “social-emotional” violence and 60% report facing physical violence, with unlicensed sex workers being most at risk. Researchers recommend officials enact policies to make it easier for sex workers to report workplace violence to brothel owners and police. 21 However, considering the courts have just recently sided with brothel owners to limit government interference, it is unclear if new legislations within the current system will be successful.

Overall, the Dutch model shows some promise in setting out to protect its sex workers, yet it is clear that there are many aspects of the sex industry and their implications that go largely unaddressed by existing laws. Recent developments further highlight the gaps that exist and continue to widen in Dutch policies regarding sex work as well as the need to reevaluate current laws. The latter is now a growing sentiment amongst Dutch policymakers, as newly appointed Mayor Femke Halsema is pushing to close down at least a third of the existing brothels in Amsterdam.22 The shortcomings and uncertainty surrounding the Dutch model will surely impact the future of sex work in other parts of the world. While countries like the United States look abroad to the Netherlands as a paragon for progressive sex work laws, closer examinations will continue to reveal discrepancies between appearances and reality. Not only does this reality serve as a warning for other countries to proceed with caution, it also raises important concerns about what the future of sex work in the Netherlands will look like.

Lidya Tadesse is a junior at Johns Hopkins University, where she is majoring in Public Health Studies with a minor in Psychology. In January of 2018, she studied abroad in Amsterdam where she was enrolled in a Dutch comparative public health course.


1 European Union, European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Country Legal Profiles, ; Marlise Simons, “Dutch Becoming First Nation to Legalize Assisted Suicide,” New York Times, Nov. 29, 2000,

2 “France and Prostitution: On the Game,” Economist, Jul. 14, 2012, ; Joyce Outshroom, “Policy Change in Prostitution in the Netherlands: from Legalization to Strict Control,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 9, no.3(2012): 234,

3 Outshroom, “Policy Change in Prostitution in the Netherlands,” 234-235.

4 Netherlands, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dutch Policy on Prostitution, 2012: 4; Johannes C.J. Boutellier, “Prostitution, criminal law and morality in the Netherlands,” Crime, Law and Social Change 15, no.3 (1991): 201,; Nicholas Dorn, Regulating European Drug Problems: Administrative Measures and Civil Law in the control of Drug Trafficking, Nuisance and Use (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1999), 238.

5 Netherlands, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dutch Policy on Prostitution, 3.

6 Outshroom, “Policy Change in Prostitution in the Netherlands,” 240.

7 Netherlands, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dutch Policy on Prostitution, 4-5.

8 Ibid., 4-5.

9 Kate Shannon et al., “Social and structural violence and power relations in mitigating HIV risk of drug-using women in survival sex work,” Social Science & Medicine 66, no.4 (2008): 919,

10 John J Potterat et al., “Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women,” American Journal of Epidemiology 159, no.8 (2004): 778,; David Johnson, “The Top 10 Most Dangerous Jobs in America,” Times, Dec. 22, 2017,

11 “It’s official: drugs, prostitution boost Dutch economy,” Reuters, Jun. 25, 2014,

12 Ibid.

13 Damian Zatich and Richard Staring, “The Flesh is Weak, the Spirit Even Weaker: Clients and Trafficked Women in the Netherlands,” in Prostitution and Human Trafficking: Focus on Clients, (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2009): 73.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.,74

16 Jo Bindman, Redefining Prostitution as Sex Work on the International Agenda (Anti-Slavery International, 2006): 24.

17 Outshroom, “Policy Change in Prostitution in the Netherlands,” 237.

18 “Amsterdam Prostitution Policy Overturned by Judge,” Het Parool, Aug. 3, 2017,

19 Ibid.; Zatich and Staring, “Clients and Trafficked Women in the Netherlands,” 76-77.

20 “Brothel owners: ‘The municipality shifts everything towards us,’” Het Parool, Sep. 7, 2015,

21 “Most Dutch Sex Workers Face Violence: Report,” NL Times, July 5, 2018,

22 “Decriminalizing prostitution was supposed to keep sex workers safe—instead it is more dangerous,” Telegraph, July 23, 2018,

Photo Credit: Flickr-Jason Riedy, Michael Coghlan

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