Legislation on sex work: Netherlands legalisation

Lilith Brouwers – 2017

Legal status of sex work:

Although sex work is legal in the Netherlands, it is limited by a wide range of laws and regulations that prescribe who can do sex work and under which circumstances. Generally, there is a municipal licence – and sometimes registration – required for sex work to be legal. Sex work that is criminalised includes street solicitation outside of designated areas, any non-licenced sex work in an area that requires licencing, employing sex workers who are non-EU nationals (also excluding people from Croatia), employing sex workers under the age of 18, and trafficking and forced labour. Full service sex work in the Netherlands occurs most commonly in brothels and sex clubs, windows (red light districts), tippelzones (designated street sex work areas), escort agencies, thuisontvangers (home incalls), sex cinemas, and erotic massage parlours.

Current legislation:

Brothels have been legalised in the Netherlands in 2000. Owners of sex businesses and independent workers must register and obtain a licence from the local government (Gemeentewet 151 / Municipality Law 151), and must adhere to local regulations. Research found that 75% of municipalities has sex work regulations (although 24% of municipalities has a zero-policy which does not allow sex work at all, or where obtaining a licence is so strongly regulated that it is in practice impossible), and 40% of municipalities has one or more officially registered prostitution companies. Home-based prostitution by a self-employed person requires a licence in 54% of municipalities.

Due to the localised nature of sex work regulations, the legal status of sex work may differ from one city to the next. This includes regulations on the location of sex work businesses, registration of individual sex workers, number of sex businesses in the municipality, amount of rent that can be asked for rooms or windows, types of advertising allowed, etc. There are three types of sex businesses possible in the Netherlands: licensed (and legal), unlicenced and legal (because a licence is not required), and unlicensed/illegal. Unlicenced/illegal work, and any sex work that breaks national laws or local regulations, may result in fines and prison sentences for both business owners and sex workers.

New legislation:

The Dutch government has presented plans for new legislation WRP (Wetsvoorstel Regulering Prostitutie en Voorkomen Misstanden Seksbranche / Suggested Law Regulation of Prostitution and Prevention of Abuse in the Sex Branch). The first goal of this legislation is to have a uniform framework of regulations on the sex industry, rather than to have large regional differences. According to the WRP, prostitution will be illegal unless it is municipally licenced.

The second part of this new law requires more intense screening of people who apply for licencing of sex businesses, and a registry of rejected or repealed licence applications. The aim of this is to prevent businesses being run by people with a history of exploitative practices.

The third aim of the WRP is to make sex work illegal under the age of 21. Although the initially proposed law criminalised sex workers under the age of 21, the law was later adjusted to only criminalise clients and employers who hire these sex workers. A client who has sex with a sex worker over the age of 18 but under the age of 21 may be imprisoned for up to one year. Business owners who work with sex workers younger than 21 will also be criminalised.

Although the WRP has been accepted, it is unclear when the law will come into force.

Critiques of the Dutch model of legalisation:

Since the legalisation of brothels in 2000, in the name of ‘preventing public nuisance’ or ‘protecting vulnerable women’ the amount of legal sex work places in the Netherlands has decreased by at least 40%. Some claim that it is hard to speak of legalised prostitution when practicing the profession legally is being made near impossible, and that many formerly legal workers are being pushed into working illegally. With this, all the problems of criminalisation rear their heads: fining and imprisonment of the most vulnerable of sex workers, police raids of independent sex workers, fear of going to the police for help, risk of violence of exploitation, and the police collaborating with landlords to make sex workers homeless.

Sex workers and sex worker rights organisations say that the current legislation allows municipalities to have an excessive amount of power over sex workers’ livelihoods. Many have the experience of being pushed out of cities through a ‘moving goalposts’ approach to licencing requirements, and municipalities have been sued by sex workers and sex worker collectives over licencing issues, or with cities requiring registration of individual sex workers and an ‘in take’ meeting.

The proposed new WRP is critiqued for not improving the work situation for sex workers at all, and it is unclear how it will unify sex work regulation across municipalities. While individual municipalities will not be allowed to have less repressive policies than the WRP provides, they will be allowed to be more repressive. For instance, though it does not require central registration of sex workers, it does allow individual municipalities to require such registration. Additionally, licencing can be used as de facto registration of sex workers. Unsurprisingly, sex worker rights organisations feel very strongly that this scenario would present a risk to the privacy, safety, and wellbeing of sex workers. 

Other critiques the WRP include sex workers’ worries that criminalising clients for seeing sex workers under the age of 21 means they will be forced to show ID, which is an obvious risk to their safety and privacy. The WRP also considers sex workers accomplices in a criminal act if they work for an improperly licensed business, and will likely cause a further decrease of licenced work spaces.

Although many sex workers are in favour of raising the minimum age for sex work from 18 to 21 (around 1% of sex workers in the Netherlands), many other find it patronising. Sex worker rights organisations have requested a transitional arrangement for the start of the WRP, allowing younger sex workers to continue legal work until they turn 21 rather than push them into illegal sex work.