Sex Work and Human Rights

Sex workers in the Netherlands are making history

Sex worker protest in Amsterdam on April 9, 2015 © PROUD

Sex worker protest in Amsterdam on April 9, 2015 © PROUD

Guest post by Frans van Rossum [1]

Summary

As sex workers fight back against the Mayor of Amsterdam’s attempt to “legalise” violating their privacy rights, they receive some unexpected and unprecedented support from Magda Berndsen-Jansen, a member of parliament for left-centrist party D66. Her parliamentary enquiry, which demands answers to the very questions raised by newly founded sex worker organisation PROUD, proves that sex workers are finally being heard, and that in just over three months since its founding, PROUD has made itself a power to be reckoned with.

“Legalising” the violation of sex workers’ privacy rights? 

On February 23, 2015, Amsterdam’s mayor Eberhard van der Laan wrote a letter to Ivo Opstelten, then still in office as Dutch Minister of Security and Justice. [2] In essence, the mayor asked him to create a legal instrument that would allow city administrations nationwide to collect and, if needed, share personal data about sex workers, which the Dutch Privacy Protection Law explicitly prohibits to be collected and shared. The mayor argued the need for this exemption with two policy goals: firstly, “to combat human trafficking effectively” and secondly, “to promote the self-reliance of prostitutes.” [Click here for an English translation of van der Laan’s letter or here for the Dutch original] [3]

When this letter surfaced, Mariska Majoor, chairwoman of PROUD Nederland, the newly founded Dutch Union for Sex Workers, wrote a scathing response to the mayor on behalf of the sex workers’ collective, protesting the attempt to encourage legislation against the current law exclusively with regard to sex workers, and accusing him of using double standards. In public, he pretended to be in open conversation with sex workers, while behind their backs, he discriminated them by “advocating the violation of sex workers’ right to privacy.” Indeed, if this were to happen, all sex workers could consider themselves de facto outlaws despite the fact that sex work as such has been legal in the Netherlands since 1811, and still is. [4] Majoor also sent a copy of this letter to all parliament members. [Click here for an English translation of Mariska Majoor’s letter or here for the Dutch original] 

Sex workers speak and lawmakers listen

Consequently, on April 25, 2015, Magda Berndsen-Jansen, member of the lower house of the Dutch parliament for left-centrist party D66, submitted a parliamentary enquiry, listing eleven questions to Ard van der Steur, the newly appointed Minister of Security and Justice. [5] Berndsen-Jansen’s questions reiterate all points of protest from Majoor’s letter to the mayor, asking the minister to formulate and share with parliament his opinion on each of them. [Click here for an English translation of her enquiry or here for the Dutch original] 

In recent Dutch parliamentary history, it is unique that a parliament member, a 65-year old woman to boot, is so openly-supportive of sex workers’ rights, and in such detailed words. Berndsen-Jansen’s lingo is parliamentary but she is calling a spade a spade and demands no less than that sex workers are being treated equally under the law, just as anyone else.  

In my view, this represents a watershed moment in the history of the struggle for sex workers’ rights in the Netherlands – the moment that the voices and opinions of sex workers are finally being heard. A member of parliament uses a heavy parliamentary instrument not because advocates but sex workers themselves collectively stand up to Amsterdam’s mayor for their rights, social status and livelihood. 

And then the Saints went marching in…

This development came right after the events of April 9, when some 230 of them, together with hundreds of supporters, walked in protest to Amsterdam’s city hall and handed the mayor a well-formulated petition with nine demands for normalising sex work and the consultation process between the city and sex workers [Click here for an English translation of the petition or here for the Dutch original]. 

On behalf of them all, Felicia Anna, a Romanian migrant sex worker and activist working in the very red light district under siege, addressed the mayor in public, and the mayor returned the honour, said a few words, and shook hands with her. All this happened under the relentless eyes of cameras, phone cameras and the international press. 

[Click here to view an impressive list of media reports by the Dutch and international press, compiled on Felicia Anna’s English-language blog.]

For three impressive galleries with photos
from the protest please click here, here and here.

It was only in mid-February of this year, that PROUD, the Dutch Union for Sex Workers, was founded and introduced to press and public during a festivity in Amsterdam’s brothel-museum Yab Yum. Now, a mere three months later, the organisation has established itself as a power to be reckoned with. This means that after 15 very tough years, since organised prostitution became legal in the Netherlands, formally enabling sex workers to leave the shadowy underbelly of society, sex workers as a social entity have now undeniably risen to a status where society at large cannot overlook or neglect them any longer. [Click here for a video clip from the event by Dutch TV station SBS6. It might not play depending on your location.]

The gloves are now off and the fight can begin for real. The city is moving forward with its Project 1012, which dates back to 2006. [6] For sex workers, this has been a disastrous development. At the moment, the final stage of Project 1012 remains underfunded by € 40m, and on top of that, it is increasingly unpopular with the city council as well as with investors. [7] Without letting sex workers and prostitution business operators have a say, the project has already diminished the red light district and will continue to diminish this historic part of downtown Amsterdam under the hypocritical pretence of beautifying and gentrifying it.

Occupy Brothel Initiative on May 1 , 2015 © Felicia Anna

Occupy Brothel Initiative on May 1 , 2015 © Felicia Anna

Occupy Brothel Initiative

On Labour Day 2015, the city, in a move as ironical as symptomatic for its disregard for sex workers’ rights, closed another 18 windows in the red light district, assumedly temporarily, with another 76 set to follow. Cashing in on their civil rights, the affected sex workers responded by taking the city to court, another stunning first in the history of the sex workers’ movement here, and for twelve hours, they occupied one of the closed brothels to draw attention to their court case, giving the city a taste of its own medicine, which deservedly received nationwide media coverage. [Click here for an English translation of an article titled “Prostitutes at De Wallen demand their windows back” by Dutch daily Het Parool or click here for the Dutch original]

The winners of the long-term gentrification Project 1012 will be real estate developers and anti-prostitution activists who will be able to claim a symbolic victory, whereas sex workers, on the other hand, will lose safe work places, and nothing will change for actual victims of sexual exploitation. It is not five but one minute before twelve for red light districts in Amsterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands, and for sex work as a legal profession itself. Hopefully, the gloves will have come off just in time.

“This is the stuff that history is made of.”

Equality may still be far away; social stigmatisation and intolerance are not at all things of the past; social recognition of sex work and sex workers still remains fragile; some faith-based prostitution prohibitionists and NGOs are still powerful; the media at large still favour producing sensationalist over objective reports; some parliamentarians still deliver condescending do-good speeches and pushing for moralising policies – based on unfounded facts – to rescue society from the so-called abomination of this legal profession; do-gooders still long to rescue whom they perceive as pitiful victims from their imagined harsh and cruel fate; but fact is that sex workers as a group have now taken the issue into their own hands, under the auspices and protection of the law and with the help of proper experts who are fully on their side. Together, they now fight to right the many old wrongs that society, government and authorities continue to use against sex workers with ever new tactics and methods, blatantly violating existing law, if not human rights, in the process. This is the stuff that history is made of. 


Footnotes

[1] Frans van Rossum is a life-long sex worker ally from the Netherlands who provides free practical assistance to migrant sex workers and other migrants. 

[2] During his tenure as Minister of Security and Justice, Opstelten was the driving force behind the closure of the majority of the Netherlands’ coffeeshops and growshops, effectively ending the successfully instituted experiment of the 1970s, where soft drugs were tolerated and separated from the market for hard drugs. Affiliated with the traditional conservative liberal establishment party VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), Opstelten introduced the bill in 2009 to regulate prostitution via the registration of all sex workers . [see 3] Opstelten is also responsible for the strict barrier programme for immigrants, quasi a sibling of the prostitution barrier programme in Amsterdam, specifically designed to minimize the influx of foreigners intending to work as sex workers there. This barrier programme is part of the city’s draconic anti-prostitution programme, Project 1012, whose architect is Lodewijk Asscher, formerly Alderman of Amsterdam, currently Minister of Social Affairs and Employment. (Together with the mayor, an alderman forms a municipality’s executive council with the power to implement policies.) In March, Opstelten and his deputy Fred Teeven resigned for having misinformed parliament with regard to recent revelations about a 4.7 million guilder payment by the government to a convicted drugs baron in 2001. 

Source: Dutch News “Dutch justice minister, deputy resign over drugs dealer cash deal” (English)

[3] A bill that would among others provide an instrument for the nationwide mandated registration of sex workers was introduced by the Minister of Justice in 2009. It failed to pass the legislature in November 2013 after both the State Council and the Privacy Protection Council had advised against the registration measure for not being in accordance with existing law. In April 2014, the justice minister introduced an amended proposal to regulate prostitution without mandating registration, but a year later, the procedure remains stalled. However, in August 2013, the City of Amsterdam had already implemented a city ordinance which ordered prostitution business operators – under penalty of losing their license – to collect protected sensitive data from sex workers and to share them with the city administration. After a few months, this measure was quietly put on hold when the city’s attorneys realized its ‘flaw’. The city then tried to negotiate with the Privacy Protection Council to reach a conditional exemption, but the council refused to even consider this. Therefore, the mayor then sent his letter to the justice minister as a last resort to receive the necessary legal instrument to “legalise” an illegal violation of the law, to be applied for sex workers only.

[4] Some 600 years ago, the Netherlands encompassed many provinces that did not yet form a political nation with a centralized government under a head of state. Provinces were autonomous, and so were many cities. From the early 1400s, there were municipal ordinances regulating sex work in ‘zoned’ areas, effectively giving cities the monopoly on running brothels. In fact, the brothels were run by the police, and in turn, the revenues, a cut of the sex workers’ fees plus liquor taxes, generated substantial funds for the city’s police force. In the 1570s, when the North of the Netherlands became predominantly Protestant to add more weight to their war against the Spanish (Catholic) occupation, the cities formally outlawed sex work. However, it remained tolerated in certain venues, behind more or less closed doors. This situation stayed in effect until the French occupation made the country a kingdom under Napoleon’s younger brother and French law ruled. Between 1809 and 1811, the French re-legalised sex work under comparatively strict brothel regulations, which were rigorously enforced in most places.

Statute passed by the town council in 1413 - Image by Stadsarchief Amsterdam

This Amsterdam ‘keurboek’ (law book) dating from 1413
records a measure enacted to regulate prostitution in the city.
Image by Amsterdam City Archive (click to enlarge)

After the Netherlands had regained autonomy in 1813, legalisation remained in effect but the nationwide regulations under previous French law were dropped. For about a century, each city had the autonomy to regulate sex work in its own jurisdiction. From about 1880, faith-based political parties and the ever growing women’s movement worked towards the adoption of a new law, eventually passed in 1911, which prohibited any and all organised sex work enterprises (also known as the “brothel ban”). Sex work itself, however, remained legal. The law was never adequately enforced and authorities continued to look the other way. As brothels were widely tolerated, their number proliferated from the 1970s onwards. Subsequently, first attempts were made in the early 1980s to lift the brothel ban, but they only came to fruition in 2000. In good Dutch tradition, the central government passed on the task to regulate organised sex work to the individual municipalities, which could take measures as they saw fit.

To remedy the resulting chaos, a bill to regulate organised sex work as such on a national level was introduced in 2011, so far without success, and the continued legal vacuum serves as fertile soil for efforts such as those by Eberhard van der Laan.

[5] Van der Steur, only in office since March 15, wants to continue with the amended law proposal to implement nationwide rules for prostitution businesses. The registration for sex workers, as first proposed by his predecessor, Opstelten, has been taken out of the proposal at the explicit request of the Senate. The minister thinks that unified regulation will lead to prostitution businesses being treated equal in every city. According to van der Steur, controlling them would be easier, and thus more attention could be given to eradicate illegal practices. Van der Steur does not favour a “pimp ban” as he believes existing law already offers sufficient means to punish anyone coercing others to sell sex. For the time being, his position with regard to sex work as such remains unclear, in particular whether he still formally supports the idea that prostitution equals human trafficking, as he did as a member of parliament in 2011. At the time, Dutch Protestant Trouw daily recorded him as having said, “An estimated 50 to 70% [of sex workers] don’t work voluntarily in prostitution. This touches my Liberal heart. But the idea that politicians don’t know what is going on isn’t right. Last week, I was on the road with a trafficking team. We are really well informed; we know what the problems are. […] And what with the obligated registration that will be in the [new] law? Normally I wouldn’t support it as a VVD-party man. But now it is needed.’”

Sources: Dutch daily Het Parool “Number of brothels in Holland cut in half in past 8 years” (Dutch + English translation by Mark van der Beer); Dutch Protestant daily Trouw “VVD: Illiberal measures against prostitution are needed” (Dutch)

[6] Amsterdam’s Project 1012 is both a development and zoning plan, initiated in 2006 and scheduled to be completed in 2017. The name refers to the entire postcode 1012 area, the historic centre of the city, including but not limited to the Wallen (that in turn includes the red light district). The zoning plan names explicitly all existing sex work premises that should be re-zoned for non-sex work businesses only or residential use. The purpose of Project 1012 is to replace so-called “low-end” with upscale commerce and attract upscale residents (“gentrification”). It zones only a small section of Oudezijds Achterburgwal and some side alleys for sex work, and re-zones the entire traditional (and most intimate) sex work quarter around the Old Church for other use. (See also 7)

[7] At the last city council elections in March 2014, the party that began Project 1012 in 2006 lost its majority and isn’t even part of the ruling coalition anymore. Ever since, the mayor has remained as single champion of the project, but the coalition has made heavy cuts to its funding and decided that the city will not buy up all scheduled window properties. In addition, the mayor’s plan has stalled for a commercial company ‘1012, Inc’ to be created with private investors.

See also Laurens Buijs and Linda Duits article Amsterdam’s plan to save prostitutes is a billion euro gentrification project. Buijs and Duits are social scientists, affiliated with the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University respectively.


Note from the author

“I would like to thank Matthias Lehmann for the invitation to report on the recent important advances of Amsterdam’s sex workers in the ongoing battle to improve their legal position. I would also like to thank him for the many suggestions to clarify for foreign readers the peculiarities of the local and national situation that sex workers in Amsterdam are up against (via additional documents, links and footnotes). Last but not least, I would like to thank him for the time-consuming efforts to edit this text as well as the English translations of all Dutch documents. In addition, I would like to thank PROUD’s chairwoman Mariska Majoor for the permission to publish her letter to Mayor Eberhard van der Laan.” – Frans van Rossum

One response

  1. Pingback: In the News (#537) | The Honest Courtesan

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