WHEN the Netherlands legalised brothels eight years ago, the mood was upbeat. Politicians thought they were well on the way to solving one of the world’s perpetual policy dilemmas: how to stop all the bad things that are associated with the sex trade (coercion, violence, infectious diseases) while putting a proper, and realistic, limit to the role of the state.
The Dutch were hoping that links between prostitution and multiple forms of crime, from money laundering to smuggling, could finally be severed. Ultimately, they believed, the buying and selling of sexual services would become a freely undertaken transaction, in which the state would only be involved as a regulator and tax-collector. The police could then concentrate on criminals, instead of harassing people engaged in exchanges that were nobody’s business but their own.
While the Dutch experiment was beginning, another European country was trying out a different approach. From 1999 onwards, Sweden began penalising people who patronise prostitutes (through fines, jail terms of up to six months, and “naming and shaming”), while treating people who sell their bodies as victims.
All over the world—especially in rich democracies—policymakers have been watching the two places to see which philosophy works best. In reality, neither is a silver bullet; neither country has found a perfect way of shielding prostitutes from exploitation and violence, while avoiding a nanny-state. So the arguments rage on, from liberal New Zealand to San Francisco, where people will vote on November 4th on virtually decriminalising the sex trade.
In Amsterdam—where the spectacle of half-naked women pouting behind shopfront windows is a city trademark—the link between prostitution and organised crime has proved durable. Efforts to break it have been a “complete failure”, says Lodewijk Asscher, a deputy mayor who has led the city hall’s effort to buy up and transform much of the red-light district.
Fresh arguments in favour of his campaign emerged from a report published in July by Dutch police and prosecutors. It drew heavily on the case of three Turkish-German vice barons who were sentenced recently to long prison terms for running a ring of 120 prostitutes in three Dutch cities. Their operation included many of the ghastly practices that the liberal law was supposed to stamp out.
Saddled with fictitious debts, the women under the barons’ control were made to take 20 clients a day, subjected to forcible breast enlargements and tattooed with the names of their “owners”. Such exploitation is not exceptional: the policemen who patrol Amsterdam’s red-light district reckon that more than half the ladies posing in windows are there against their will.
All that helps to explain why the Swedish experience is finding imitators in several countries—including England and Wales where people will soon be liable to prosecution for “paying for sex with someone forced into prostitution…or controlled for another’s gain”. It is also becoming easier for English and Welsh police to prosecute people (either pedestrians or motorists) who solicit sex on the street. In Scotland, kerb-crawling was banned a year ago. The British moves were made after studying the Dutch and Swedish experience.
But what is really happening in Sweden? The policy of penalising clients or “johns” enjoys widespread consent. It was introduced by a centre-left administration, despite opposition from the centre-right. Now it is accepted by all Sweden’s main parties. The authorities say the number of streetwalking prostitutes fell about by 40% during the first four years of the new regime. Swedish politicians say they have made their country a bad destination for traffickers. But a sceptic might retort that by driving prostitution away from Sweden, the authorities have simply exported it, sending sex-hungry Swedes to nearby countries or else to Thailand.
It’s dark underground
Moreover, a sex-workers’ association in Sweden says the law makes life dangerous for those who ply their trade secretly. A life of dodging between apartments and exchanging furtive texts can leave women more reliant on pimps. Another argument is that fear of prosecution reduces the chances that clients will report the exploitation of under-age girls or boys.
Some drawbacks of doing things the Swedish way have been noted in more established quarters. A report by Norway’s justice ministry, in 2004, cited evidence of an “increased fear of attack” among Swedish prostitutes, who found it harder to assess their clients because transactions had to be agreed hastily or on the telephone. But for Norway, it seems, these considerations have been trumped by others, including a sense that prostitution is getting out of control after an influx from Africa, South America and eastern Europe. The Norwegian parliament is on the verge of mandating Swedish-style penalties for buying sex. In a similar spirit, Italy’s cabinet has agreed to outlaw prostitution in public and make penalties harsher.
In Europe, then, things are moving towards tighter regulation—in part because many of the continent’s richer countries feel inundated by a wave of newcomers to the trade, some of whom are trafficked. But there are other places where more liberal voices seem to be gaining the upper hand.
In the United States, trading in sex is a misdemeanour, at least, almost everywhere, with the exceptions of Rhode Island (where it can take place only indoors, but not in brothels); and, most famously and brashly, in parts of Nevada. So if residents of San Francisco vote for “Proposition K”—which would bar police from taking action against sex workers—it will be a landmark in American history.
Supporters of the change (including sex-workers’ unions) say it will transform the role of the police. Instead of pointlessly arresting prostitutes, the police can help them stay healthy and protect them from violence. Advocates of a “no” vote say that if the hands of the police are tied, they will be unable to deal even with obvious cases of abuse. Some say the Dutch experience has made nonsense of the case for liberalisation. Others say Proposition K could lead to a worse situation than the Netherlands’: a free-for-all without the Dutch level of regulation and social security.
But for liberals in search of success stories, New Zealand appears to provide more promising evidence. In 2003, that country decriminalised the sex trade with a boldness that exceeded that of the Dutch. Sex workers were allowed to ply their trade more or less freely, either at home, in brothels or on the street.
A study published by the government in May, measuring the impact of the new law, was encouraging. More than 60% of prostitutes felt they had more power to refuse clients than they did before. The report reckoned that only about 1% of women in the business were under the legal age of 18. And only 4% said they had been pressured into working by someone else.
The report also acknowledges one distinct advantage enjoyed by New Zealand. Although some illegal immigrants are engaged in the sex trade, the country’s isolation and robust legal system make it relatively free from the problem of trafficking, at least by European standards.
But there is also a big difference between the policy of New Zealand and that of other places where prostitution is legal. In the Netherlands and Nevada, the business is confined to brothels, which are usually run by businessmen rather than the sex workers themselves.
Clearly, the brothel-masters’ status as the sole legal providers of commercial sex enhances their grip on the women who work for them. In New Zealand, prostitutes can fend for themselves. As well as letting them keep all their earnings, this independence gives them freedom to reject nasty clients and unsafe practices. “They feel better protected by the law and much more able to stand up to clients and pushy brothel operators,” says Catherine Healy, head of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.
Unsurprisingly, the New Zealand system’s critics include brothel owners, both in that country and elsewhere. Going with a girl outside a licensed establishment is like “Russian roulette”, says the website of the Chicken Ranch, a brothel that serves the Las Vegas crowd. In New Zealand, one brothel keeper fumes that the earnings of independent sex workers are “tax-free money, which is not benefiting the Inland Revenue Department”.
What about other interested parties—such as respectable Kiwis who resent kerb-crawlers? According to polls, people are sure the number of prostitutes has risen—although the government says this is not true. Auckland city council is trying to allay public concerns by restricting brothels to commercial and industrial areas. Something similar happens in Nevada, where only the smaller counties may host brothels, and they are kept away from town centres. (Such curbs have some bad effects; prostitutes say they are stranded in the desert, totally reliant on brothel owners.)
In any case, one unusual investigation concluded that from the prostitutes’ point of view, the New Zealand system was the fairest. A pair of British grandmothers from the Women’s Institute—a homely club that is more often associated with cooking tips—made a tour of brothels in the Netherlands, America and the Antipodes: their aim was to find which system was best for the women who worked in the business. Their top marks went to a discreet house in a suburb of Wellington—classed in New Zealand as a “small owner-operated brothel”—where two women offered their services from Mondays to Fridays. “Just like a regular job,” one of the grannies noted.