What happened when the Netherlands legalised prostitution

What happened when the Netherlands legalised prostitution

The issues of sexual harassment and abuse have never been more widely discussed. After investigative journalism exposed these two celebrities, a large number of victims subsequently came forward to confess that they had been sexually exploited or even assaulted. Now even more famous figures are being named as complicit in this disturbing paradigm. However, what with all the furore over the guilt of the rich and powerful, it's all too easy to lose track of the bigger picture.

Only time will tell whether these individuals will be charged and found guilty on non-consensual sexual acts, but arresting them won't end the violence or the mistreatment that vulnerable people suffer. This would be akin to treating a symptom instead of a disease. It is only by confronting the culture of rape in our society, which affects both genders egregiously but women and girls more commonly, that we will be able to change for the better. We must be clinical in our evaluations, and honest with ourselves. Only then can we hope to institute the reforms necessary to deter rapists, to bolster healthy sexual intercourse between consenting adults, and save future victims from a terrible fate.

According to figures provided by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, and approximately 17.7 million American women and 2.78 million men have been victims of rape since 1998. The sheer scale of this problem is daunting in the extreme for both police authorities and activists alike, particularly when one considers the fact that a large number of rapes go unreported. How can we turn the tide against sexual violence? According to new research, it seems as though the Netherlands might have the answer, although it's one that conservatives aren't going to like much.

According to a paper published in the American Economic Journal, since the Netherlands legalised prostitution in 1988, the number of recorded acts of sexual violence and rapes have dropped by almost half. This is a gigantic number and seems to clearly indicate that the Dutch tolerance for the world's oldest profession has actually gone on to protect a great many people from the threat of sexual violence. Authored by Paul Bisschop, Stephen Kastoryan and Bas van der Klaauw, the study alleges that, between the years 1992 and 1994 registered sexual abuse and rape decreased by approximately 40 per cent, and gradually decreased further until the year 2011.

The researchers of the SEO Amsterdam Economics, a public research institute in the Netherlands, believe that the foundation of so-called "tippelzones" (places where the sale of sex and solicitation of prostitutes is legal) has decreased the harm suffered by regulated hookers and prevented sex crimes elsewhere. Bisschop et al believe that Dutch prostitutes are better protected now that their occupation is controlled. Dutch prostitutes are now only allowed to register as legal sex workers after they have been subject to a lengthy interview process, and are often examined by medical professionals for signs or physical harm or STIs. Furthermore, the researchers believe that the legal sex work is acting as a preventative of sexual violence, with potential predators having their desire to force sex via violence or coercion nullified because they know they solicit sex financially.

The paper notes that: "Tippelzones may, therefore, directly reduce crime on street prostitutes by providing a relatively safe and controlled working environment ... police monitoring is higher in tippelzones than in other areas of the city so criminals of all types – sex traffickers, pimps, drug dealers, violent clients – must trade off their willingness to operate in the tippelzone with the higher risk of apprehension." The researchers also found that tippelzones "lead to a decrease in sexual violence on women more generally by providing an anonymous, appealing and easily accessible outlet for sex to otherwise violent individuals."

Furthermore, in addition to the police reports examined by the researchers, Dutch streetwalking prostitutes were also surveyed, and 95 per cent reported feeling safer within the legal safe space provided by tippelzone. Although these testimonies were anecdotal, when taken together they seem to argue a strong and compelling case for the legalisation of sex work.

However, despite these positives, there have been some concerns that the legalisation of prostitution has led to an increase in human trafficking. Some Dutch officials believe that violence in the sex industry has actually escalated since its legalisation, and think that illegal immigration has led to more organised crime that seeks to monopolise prostitution. Countries that are major sources of trafficked persons include Thailand, India, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania, among others. As a response to this perceived spike in generalised violence, the Dutch authorities are currently attempting to teach prostitutes how to quit the sex trade and find other professions to earn a living, and some brothels in Dutch cities have had their licenses revoked.

However, applying those same standards to American society, or even to the rest of western Europe, will be difficult, and even when prostitution is as restricted as it is in the Netherlands, it seems unlikely that any major political party will be able to openly back the concept without risk of provoking extreme controversy from the electorate. However, the data seems to speak for itself, and suggest that, were we able to open our minds to the freedom that legal sex work provides, the benefits for society in general would be startling indeed.