There has been much discussion about Dutch drugs policy, but scarcely a word about the campaign to liberalise the sex market that the Netherlands, which has headed the Council of Europe since 1 January 1997, has launched and pursued so effectively. Since the 1980s it has been the only country in the world to have an open national and international policy of legalising activities involving prostitution; and it is the only country to have provided itself with the necessary planning, finance and institutions to implement it effectively.
The Netherlands, with its deliberate policy of tolerance, does not believe that prostitution should be abolished, even in the long term. The official policy of Amsterdam, a city seen as a national beacon, is that to abolish prostitution would create more problems for prostitutes and society than it would solve. Then again, "Even if we wanted to, we could not abolish this activity." The city also boasts that its red-light district is famous the world over.
The Netherlands does not just regard prostitution as a lesser evil. On the eve of the 21st century, under pretext of an analysis that officially equates sexual freedom with prostitution, and arguing, in defiance of all ethics, that the social stigma attached to prostitution will disappear once the profession is legally recognised, the Dutch government is advocating a new human "right", the right to pimp 1, for which the right to be a prostitute is just a cover.
The Netherlands is pushing the liberal economic argument to extremes. After recognising that women must be able to choose freely to be prostitutes, the government now accepts that the human body can be an object of trade and recognises that another person can use it for profit. The right to self-determination, enjoyed by every independent adult man or woman who has not been subjected to any unlawful influence, implies the right of that individual to engage in prostitution and to allow another individual to profit from the resulting earnings 2. This amazing statement precludes any analysis of the relationship of power at the very root of prostitution. It postulates that individuals themselves - not just objects - can be the subject of agreements3 and radically questions the universal principle that the human body is inviolable.
The new vocabulary used in Dutch and, increasingly, in international documents, is very significant; and in spoken language, too, women's right to self-determination is replacing women's right to freedom. The "empowerment of women" 4 is replacing the equality of the sexes, while the ambiguous term "sexual rights" opens the way to selling sex. "Sexual work" and "the sex trade" are replacing prostitution. Pimps and brothel-keepers have become "third parties", "intermediaries", "prostitution managers", "owners or managers of premises", "managers of the sex industry". And the prostitutes have become "sex workers" or "sex professionals". As for the clients, in the Netherlands they have become "consumers of prostitution", usually anonymous, except when they try to form interest groups.
The argument behind this is that prostitution should be regarded as an economic activity like any other - or almost. The only criminal offences are "forms of exploitation involving an element of coercion or fraud, or the abuse of a situation of dependency on prostitution". This distinction paves the way to recognising the existence of "forced prostitution", the keynote of this theory. The addition of this single word "forced" implies, however, that prostitution can be "free", "voluntary", based on "rational", that is, economic choice.5
So the definition of prostitution is now based purely on whether there was any coercion of the prostitutes themselves. There is no longer any question of the legitimacy of this "trade". In fact, it is bound to expand and the "constraints" already imposed on prostitutes (rape, assault, blackmail, torture, murder) are bound to worsen. The Dutch authorities have even proposed a new concept: "full consent to exploitation of the self".
Although it is not often applied, Dutch criminal law does still penalise pimping. But this is more symbolic than real now that the management of brothels has been transferred to the municipal authorities. They have the power to sign agreements with the brothel-keepers, under which the latter may, under police supervision, freely exercise their trade, provided the prostitutes have reached majority, possess papers, protect their own health and that of their clients and have not been "forced". In fact, 80% of Amsterdam prostitutes are foreigners and 70% have no papers. So it is hardly surprising that only four of the 250 officially listed Amsterdam brothels have actually signed an agreement with the mayor. In any event, these agreements grant no rights to the prostitutes whom the Netherlands is supposedly protecting.
The definition of "constraint" is largely a matter of discretion since prostitution policy and immigration policy have become interchangeable. These women, often immigrants, who are terrified, threatened, raped, frequently have no money or papers, and no contact with the outside world, and may not even know what town they are living in, are supposed to notify the police of any coercion! And this is the police that raids brothels when it is not in cahoots with their keepers.
And children too
Not wanting to tarnish its reputation as the champion of the struggle against the traffic in women, the Netherlands allows complainants to remain on Dutch soil until their case comes to court. This is a particularly cynical policy given that these women are deported after their case has been heard.
In fact, the traffickers have very little to fear in the way of prosecution in the Netherlands. In 1993 a total of nine cases concerning the traffic in human beings were heard in the lower and appeal courts. One case was suspended indefinitely. One female witness obtained "compensation". Four cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. One trafficker was sentenced to nine months in prison, another to four years. In the last case, brought against five traffickers in Thai women, who were also accused of drugs trafficking, the highest sentence was three years in prison, one of which was suspended, and a fine of only 35,000 florins (£11,500).
So the Dutch government decided to show a stronger political commitment to fighting traffickers in human beings. In 1991 it amended its criminal law. The maximum prison sentence was raised from five to six years (half the sentence for hard drugs trafficking) and to ten years for organised trafficking in children under 16 and/or accompanied by serious physical violence.
Internationally, the Netherlands has been most successful in promoting its approach to prostitution. Barring a few exceptions, the Dutch policy has been held up as an example at every international conference. The Hague also played a crucial part in drawing up the European action plan in preparation for the Beijing conference in September 1995. Here, the concept of "forced prostitution" was established for the first time at European government level. 6And the states were no longer required to ratify the 1949 abolitionist convention, a real bête noire in the eyes of the Netherlands. The preamble to that convention states that prostitution and the evil that accompanies it, namely the treatment of human beings for the purpose of prostitution, are incompatible with the dignity and value of the human being.
Even worse, the 54 western countries that signed the European action plan, and that also control most of the revenue from the international sex trade in human beings and provide most of the "sex tourism" clients, openly recognised prostitution as an indisputable reality and merely referred to the need to limit its growth. 7As a means of achieving that, they simply called for greater international cooperation, rather than for a more stringent, binding national or international policy on prostitution. During the proceedings, the Dutch government, which declared itself highly satisfied with the outcome of the Beijing conference, eventually succeeded in having the term "forced" added to the term prostitution in the final declaration.
On 29 November 1996, at the Council of Ministers of Justice and Internal Affairs, the Dutch government managed to prevent the adoption of two major proposals put forward under the joint action plan. While nearly all the Fifteen EU member states demanded stronger measures to combat pornography involving children, the Netherlands opposed Belgium's proposal to make it a criminal offence to possess such material for "personal ends". So the possession of pornographic videos of children will no longer be regarded in Europe as constituting sexual exploitation and will be exempt from all sanctions. The right of children to be protected from sexual violence has been sacrificed on the altar of free trade, to the pleasure of amateurs of pornography.
The Dutch delegation, supported by the Danes, was also against generalising the principle of prosecuting EU nationals who commit the following "extra-territorial" crimes: the sexual exploitation of children or the infliction on them of sexual services, and the treatment of children with a view to exploiting them sexually or making them perform sexual services. In other words, the European states do not have to proceed against their own nationals outside the Community if the offence they are accused of was committed in a country where it is not regarded as a crime. Sexual abusers can continue to victimise children in poor countries if those countries have not, in accordance with the European joint action plan, "taken the appropriate measures referred to in Article 34 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child". Under that article, the contracting states undertake to protect the child against all forms of sexual exploitation or sexual violence.
The European countries may, in fact, continue to apply their own national legislation to combat pimping and the traffic in human beings; but that will make no difference. They have signed a shameful European document, in the name of a consensus rule that even denies the right to adopt a minority position.
France is poorly placed to oppose the Dutch steam-roller. Officially it supports the 1949 convention, without applying it. It purports to be abolitionist, but sanctions new forms of prostitution (massage parlours, brothel-bars, and so on). It may still be the most repressive of the Fifteen EU states, but in recent years France has almost halved the number of prosecutions - which is not to say sentences - brought against pimps: some 650 in 1995 compared to about 1,300 in 1988. And there is little point looking for a coherent policy among the five ministries concerned.
At a time of heated ethical debate and attempts to make it illegal to market human blood, the uterus or other human organs, it seems inconceivable that such policies do not provoke any reaction on the part of the international community, especially the supporters of the rights of the individual. What this supposedly "modernist" policy does is to exclude women even more from the labour market, consolidate male power and legalise violence against women.