“We are the sex workers of Korea! Repeal the Anti-Sex Trade Laws!”
On October 24, 2017, sex workers rallied once again to call for the abolition of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws, which came into force in 2004 and were upheld by the country’s Constitutional Court with a 6-3 majority ruling in 2016. On Tuesday, about 1,500 sex workers made their way from Daegu, Jeonju, Masan, Paju, Pohang, Pyeongtaek, Suwon and Wonju to join their colleagues at Sejongno Park in downtown Seoul to demand respect for sex workers’ human rights and the decriminalization of sex work. The event was organized by 한터 Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers. Ironically, Korean president Moon Jae-in had a meeting with union leaders on the same day, promising to closely cooperate with workers in developing his administration’s labour policies.
All photos © 2017 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved. Image description below.
1. Banner behind the stage of the massive sex worker protest in Seoul, organised by 한터 Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers. As the director of an English language institute pointed out on Twitter: “Better English here than on most ads coming from major Korean conglomerates.”
2. Massive turnout! Around 1,500 sex workers came from Daegu, Jeonju, Masan, Paju, Pohang, Pyeongtaek, Seoul, Suwon and Wonju to join the protest and demand respect for sex workers’ rights and the decriminalization of sex work.
3. A photo from the first-ever sex worker protest in Belfast in 2014 in front of the Stormont Parliament Buildings was on display at the sex worker protest at Sejongno Park in Seoul on October 24, 2017.
4. Sex worker activist 장세희 Jang Sehee greets fellow sex workers who came from all over Korea to join the protest in Seoul on October 24, 2017.
5. Drumming up support for sex workers’ rights! Amazing performance by 여성타악그룹 도도 (Women Percussion Group Exciting DoDo) at the sex worker protest in Seoul on October 24, 2017.
6. This lady’s placard calls on Korean president 문재인 Moon Jae-in to finally scrap laws criminalising sex work; while on her top it says, “Don’t judge a girl by her clothes”.
7. A Korean journalist busily typing away at yesterday’s sex worker protest in downtown Seoul. Over half of the media reports published so far include the term 성노동자 (seongnodongja, sex worker) – as opposed to 성매매 여성 (seongmaemae yeosong, lit. sex trade female; ‘seongmaemae’ being used interchangeably in Korean for both ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex trafficking’ [sic]).
8. “The Anti-Sex Trade Laws aren’t right” – Sex workers brought placards and provisions for yesterday’s protest in Seoul against the criminalization of sex work.
Torsos only for privacy reasons. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Despite a military crackdown on gay servicemen, politicians refusing to enact anti-discrimination legislation, and fundamentalist faith groups engaging in “Homosexuality Countermeasures”, South Korea has just witnessed its biggest-ever queer parade. Korean sex workers’ rights activist Yeoni Kim and others carried a message on their T-shirts that still needs plenty of amplifying, not only but especially in Korea: Queer Sex Workers’ Lives Matter! LGBT 성노동자도 함께 합니다!
Please click here to continue reading.
Film still from Grace Period (2015). Courtesy of Caroline Key and Kim KyungMook.
By YuJin, Popho E.S. Bark-Yi, and Matthias Lehmann
South Korea introduced a raft of new laws against sex work in 2004. These repressive policies are now up for constitutional review due to the intense reaction by sex workers there.
First-time visitors to South Korea may easily assume that selling sex is legal there, as major train stations are typically engulfed by an array of neon signs inviting patrons to enter massage parlors, noraebangs (lit. a ‘singing room’, essentially the same as a Japanese karaoke bar), and brothels. Media reports frequently quote statistics about the alleged net worth of the South Korean sex industry. However, laws repressing sex work are almost as ubiquitous as commercial sex venues themselves, particularly after 2004, when South Korea adopted the anti-sex trade Laws.
Between 2000 and 2002, a series of fires in Korea killed 24 sex workers, exposing the poor conditions in parts of its sex industry. In response, the government vowed to eradicate prostitution and embarked on an aggressive campaign against businesses facilitating it. Riding the wave of public outrage, women’s rights activists campaigned for a legal reform and their proposals eventually served as blueprints for the two-tiered anti-sex trade laws, which criminalise both buyers and sellers of sexual acts, except for anyone coerced into selling sex.
The new legislation reversed decades of de facto toleration of sex work by regulators and law enforcement. The anti-sex trade laws of 2004 replaced the Law Against Morally Depraved Behaviors (prostitution) of 1961, which wasn’t enforced homogeneously, and previously, even the government had actively engaged in organising commercial sex venues to cater to US military personnel stationed on the Korean peninsula.
The anti-sex trade laws have caused many negative, allegedly unintended consequences. According to a 2012 UN report, “police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in [the] arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers, 150,000 clients, and 27,000 sex business owners”, and 65,621 arrests were reported for 2009 alone. As researcher Sook Yi Oh Kim states, “the average prosecution rate of sex workers is 26.3%, higher than that of sex buyers, and none of the sex workers arrested are treated as victims”. Police crackdowns have led to an overall reduction of red-light districts. Of 69 red-light districts that existed in 2002, 44 remained by 2013. This represented a slight increase from 2007, when a government-commissioned report had located 35.
Police raids are often carried out very violently, and in November 2014, a 24-year old single mother died after jumping out of a motel room to escape arrest by an undercover police officer posing as client. In stark contrast to their usual reporting, most Korean media remained distinctively silent about the case. The continued repression has forced an increasing number of sex workers to work underground, resulting in lower incomes, poorer working conditions, and an increase in violence perpetrated against them. Sex workers worry more about police raids than about screening their clients, an essential measure, as violence or mistreatment from clients are very common. A substantial number migrates to sell sex abroad, at times under exploitative conditions, as they calculate that conditions in Korea threaten them at least to the same extent but yield considerably lower earnings.
Giant Girls and Hanteo against the law
Two organisations actively campaign for the rights of sex workers and against the laws. One is Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers, and the other is Giant Girls. Hanteo, which means ‘common ground’, was founded in 2004 and represents 15,000 sex workers as well as some brothel owners. Giant Girls, or GG, was founded in 2009 by a group of feminists along with a number of sex worker activists. GG aims at building a stronger sex worker movement to mobilise against the criminalisation of sex work, in part by working to remove the social stigma attached to sex work.
Yujin started selling sex online five years ago, in order to afford his tuition fees. YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of GG. Prior to his entrance into the business he had never met anybody who was ‘out’ as a sex worker, and he knew nothing about how to work. Since all aspects of sex work are illegal in Korea, beginners often feel isolated and lack basic work and safety information. Yujin decided to tweet about his experience soon after he started working, which brought him into contact with other sex workers. Like him, these other sex workers did not ‘act immorally to earn easy money’, as the prejudice would have it, but worked hard, albeit without being respected as workers and citizens.
In 2005, sex workers established 29 June as the national day of solidarity with sex workers, coinciding with the date on which the laws were passed. Resistance from sex workers has taken many other forms. Protests organised by Hanteo in 2011 gained worldwide notoriety, as they culminated in dramatic scenes at the Yeondeungpo red-light district in Seoul, where some activists threatened to self-immolate as the confrontation with the police escalated. The events are well documented in the film Grace Period by Caroline Key and KyoungMook Kim.
In 2013, District Court Judge Won Chan Oh submitted a request for a constitutional review of the laws after accepting the argument made by sex worker Jeong Mi Kim that sex work fell under her right to self-determination. Therefore, in sentencing her for selling sex the state had violated article 10 of the Korean constitution, which holds that “all citizens shall be assured of their human worth and dignity and shall have the right to pursue happiness”.
This opened a window for a phase of much more intense sex worker activism. In April 2015, sex workers and activists staged a protest in front of the constitutional court where a public hearing was held as part of the review. They submitted a petition signed by nearly 900 sex workers arguing that the government had no right to “use criminal punishment to discourage voluntary sex among adults”. The following June, GG organised a forum to draw further attention to the fact that “these laws are not simply laws that aim to punish buyers and sellers of sexual services, but have far wider implications … encompass[ing] social issues including sexual morality, sexual self-determination, and the right to choose one’s vocation”.
Sex worker activist Yeoni Kim once said in an interview with Matthias (one of the present authors) that, “the Swedish model is terrible, violates sex workers’ rights, and adds to the stigmatisation of sex work. But, frankly speaking, one could almost say it would be better to have that terrible law than having to continue fearing arrests and police violence under the anti-sex trade laws.” Hearing one of the most seasoned Korean sex worker activists prefer a slightly less terrible law over another should put all talk about ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ into perspective.
In September 2015, Hanteo staged a larger protest in downtown Seoul. Around 1,500 sex workers demanded an end to the government’s repression, shouting slogans and holding up signs in Korean and English that read “Repeal the anti-sex trade laws!”, “we are workers!” or “adopt Amnesty’s declaration!”.
Last year, when the constitutional court struck down the 62-year-old adultery law, it cited “the country’s changing sexual mores and a growing emphasis on individual rights”. Similar logic should govern the decision on the anti-sex trade laws, which is still pending, however some women’s rights and social conservative groups are continuing to stage protests to prevent a decision against the laws, citing fears over human trafficking and minors engaging in sex work.
Migration from Asian countries to South Korea has increased in recent years, and nobody suggests that the country is immune to migrant smuggling or human trafficking. Marriages between comparatively affluent Korean men and poorer southeast Asian women remain common in rural areas, as do the problems arising from illegal practices by marriage brokers or from violence perpetrated by Korean men against their foreign wives, whom they sometimes appear to seek only for reproductive purposes and household or farm labour.
There have also been occurrences of migrants being trafficked into commercial sex venues, but it is crucial to separate human trafficking from consensual adult sex work. Cases of human trafficking or exploitation of migrants have been detected in numerous industries, including in the fishing, agricultural, or manufacturing industries. Migrants of all genders, as well as Korean citizens, are affected by conditions amounting to forced labour. It is therefore disingenuous to suggest that the problem is limited to women who are forced to sell sex, and to thereby disregard the experiences of trafficked persons and migrants in other industries, which include sexualised violence.
We are opposed to any form of violence. Sex and sexualised violence, however, are not the same. Consensual sadomasochistic sexual practices and actual violence are different, just as consensual sex work and being trafficked into the sex industry are different. People may choose to engage in sex work because they experience stigma as single mothers or due to their sexual orientation, or if other factors limit their options on the formal labour market.
Sex work itself is not violence and to suggest otherwise dilutes the meaning of violence. If we really want to curb human trafficking, we have to address the systemic circumstances that marginalise people and render them vulnerable. As sex workers’ rights activists, we have a stake in seeing human trafficking effectively addressed. The battle slogan ‘prostitution is violence against women’ harms both sex workers and trafficked persons as it drives the creation and perpetuation of precisely those failed laws and policies that enable traffickers to prey on vulnerable populations.
About the authors
YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of Giant Girls, one of two organisations actively campaigning for the rights of sex workers in South Korea.
Popho E.S. Bark-Yi is a feminist researcher and activist in South Korea. Her work focuses on sexuality and on basic income.
Matthias Lehmann is a German researcher and activist, currently focusing on sex work regulations in Germany. His prior research dealt with human rights violations against sex workers in South Korea. He is an active member of ICRSE.
This article was first published by Open Democracy as part of the ‘Sex workers speak: who listens?’ series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance’ (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution. Please note: this article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact Open Democracy. Please check individual images for licensing details.
Giant Girls invites you to the Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum
Date: Saturday, 28th November 2015
Location: Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), 6th Fl. Kyunghyang Daily News Bldg., 22 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea 100-702
Entrance Fee: KRW 10,000
11.00 – 12.00 Film screening of ‘Grace Period’ by Caroline Key & KIM KyungMook (see trailer below)
16.30 – 19.30 Film screening of ‘Red Maria 2’ by Kyung-soon (see interview with Kyung-soon here)
국제앰네스티 ‘성노동전면비범죄화’ 결정을 환영하며 <아시아태평양 성노동자 인권 포럼>을 마련했습니다. 이번 주 28일 토요일 오전 11시 민주노총 금속노조 사무실에서 참가비 1만원으로 진행됩니다. <유예기간>과 <레드 마리아2> 영화 상영과 함께, 스칼렛 얼라이언스(호주), 스와시(일본), 코스와스(대만), 그리고 지지(한국)에서 ‘아시아태평양 지역 성노동자의 인권과 성매매 정책’을 주제로 포럼을 열고자 하니 많은 관심 바랍니다.
Amnesty International supports the human rights of sex workers and calls for the decriminalisation of sex work
Please click here to view the German original.
At the conclusion of its International Council Meeting in Dublin on August 11th, 2015, Amnesty International voted to henceforward support sex workers’ human rights and call for the decriminalisation of sex work.
Voice4Sexworkers, an NGO by and for sex workers, welcomes the long overdue decision by Amnesty International, as the global sex workers’ rights movement has demanded the very same since decades already.
In Germany, for instance, abolishing the pimping law [§181a of the German Criminal Code] was already suggested in 1973, since labour exploitation and taking advantage of the plight of third parties are already prohibited in accordance with the human trafficking law [§233 of the Criminal Code].*
People who work in the sex trade are not helped by destroying its logistics and…
View original post 494 more words
Images* to celebrate Hollywood’s “gender studies scholars” who, after conducting “some very scientific studies”, have co-signed a letter by anti-prostitution activists to try and pressure Amnesty International into dropping plans to adopt a policy that would recommend decriminalising sex work.
Tell Amnesty to listen to sex workers!
Please read, sign and share the petition by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and tell Amnesty to listen to sex workers and protect their human rights!
Sarah (Tits and Sass)
A Tale of Two Petitions: CATW’s Amnesty Open Letter Fail
Luca Stevenson and Agata Dziuban (ICRSE)
Amnesty must stand firm on support for decriminalising sex work
Caty Simon (Tits and sass)
Pye Jakobsson (NSWP President) on the Amnesty International vote and holding allies accountable
Michel Sidibé (UNAIDS Executive Director)
UNAIDS Letter of Support to Amnesty International [PDF]
Sebastian Kohn (Open Society Foundations)
Why Amnesty International Must Hold Firm in Its Support for Sex Workers
Wendy Lyon (Feminist Ire)
On Amnesty and that open letter
Thomas Schultz-Jagow (Amnesty Int’l)
Response to Jessica Neuwirth’s article in the New York Times
Explaining our draft policy on sex work
18 Reasons for Decriminalisation of Sex Work
(Adapted from Amnesty International’s Draft Policy on Sex Work)
Chantawipa Apisuk (Empower Foundation Thailand)
Letter of Support to Amnesty International
Kay Thi Win (Asia Pacific Network of Sex Worker)
Please vote Yes to the policy on decriminalization of sex work
Juniper Fitzgerald (Tits and Sass)
Celebrity And The Spectacle Of The Trafficking Victim
Alison Phipps (Director, Gender Studies, University of Sussex)
‘Disappearing’ sex workers in the Amnesty International debate
James Baer (London); Barbra Moyo (Sexual Rights Centre, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe)
Guardian Letters: Amnesty International is right to take a stand on sex work
Serra Sippel (President, Center for Health and Gender Equity)
All Women, All Rights – Sex Workers Included
Rachel Vorona Cote
Celebrities Have Vital Opinions About Decriminalization of Sex Work
…or check out #Amnesty4Sexwork on Twitter.
Sex worker protest in Amsterdam on April 9, 2015 © PROUD
Guest post by Frans van Rossum 
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.  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] 
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.  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.  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.
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.  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.  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 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.
 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.
 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)
 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.
 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.
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.
 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)
 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)
 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