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Why even Amsterdam doesn’t want legal brothels

The Dutch experiment in legalised prostitution has been a disaster

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Do you remember the rather brilliant comedy sketch featuring Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse in which they played laid-back police officers in Amsterdam, bragging that they no longer have to deal with the crime of murder in the Netherlands since the Dutch legalised it? Don’t laugh too hard. In 2000 the Dutch government decided to make it even easier for pimps, traffickers and punters by legalising the already massive and highly visible brothel trade. Their logic was as simple as it was deceptive: to make things safer for everyone. Make it a job like any other. Once the women were liberated from the underworld, the crooks, drug dealers and people traffickers would drift away.

Twelve years on, and we can now see the results of this experiment. Rather than afford better protection for the women, it has simply increased the market. Rather than confine the brothels to a discrete (and avoidable) part of the city, the sex industry has spilt out all over Amsterdam — including on-street. Rather than be given rights in the ‘workplace’, the prostitutes have found the pimps are as brutal as ever. The government-funded union set up to protect them has been shunned by the vast majority of prostitutes, who remain too scared to complain.

Pimps, under legalisation, have been reclassified as managers and businessmen. Abuse suffered by the women is now called an ‘occupational hazard’, like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe. Sex tourism has grown faster in Amsterdam than the regular type of tourism: as the city became the brothel of Europe, women have been imported by traffickers from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to meet the demand. In other words, the pimps remained but became legit — violence was still prevalent but part of the job, and trafficking increased. Support for the women to leave prostitution became almost nonexistent. The innate murkiness of the job has not been washed away by legal benediction.

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