The [Dutch] Senate recently passed the Criminalization of Abuse of Prostitutes Who Are Victims of Human Trafficking Act. The bill, submitted by the Christian Union, PvdA, SP and CDA – four prominent political parties in the Netherlands – creates the possibility to punish clients of sex workers when they are found to have known, or to have had “serious reason to suspect”, that someone has been forced into prostitution and is therefore a victim of human trafficking. Those clients can be fined or imprisoned for up to four years.
However, both experiences of sex workers and scientific research on human trafficking show that any form of criminalisation of clients does not prevent human trafficking, but actually increases the vulnerability of sex workers to coercion and violence. Therefore, this law raises many questions.
First, when is someone a victim? Often, ‘unlicensed’ sex workers are equated with victims of exploitation and trafficking. But the increase in the group of sex workers working outside the licensed circuit (popularly called ‘illegal’) is mainly caused by policy – a policy that leads to fewer and fewer licensed workplaces combined with a ban on self-employment.
Secondly, when does legal sex turn into ‘punishable’ sex? If we take the signals of human trafficking used by the police as a guideline, such as illegal residence in the Netherlands and having high debts, quite a few people fall under this category. Does this mean that having sex with a sex worker who has debts or not the right papers is already a crime? And should the sex worker also see herself as a victim? We know from research that only a small proportion of people who are considered victims of trafficking by the government see themselves as such.
So while the government comes up with unclear definitions of victimisation, customers are expected to recognise a victim and report it to the police. As a result, customers are now at risk of being criminalised because they “could have suspected” it. Not surprisingly, a recent study shows that customers are less willing to report exploitation or coercion for fear of criminal prosecution.
Third, why does criminalisation apply only to addressing abuse of trafficking victims in the sex industry, and not to victims in other economic sectors? This only contributes to the perception that sex work and human trafficking are the same thing, and thus to the stigma attached to sex work. It seems that this law has little to do with countering violence and abuse, but much more to do with the taboo on paid sex.
In the Netherlands, sex work has been a legal employment sector since 2000. Despite this, we have difficulty with the idea of sexual services. For example, clients are often portrayed as ‘certain kind of men’ who despise women and treat or exploit sex workers violently. Oversimplification is one of the main ways of creating and perpetuating the stereotypes that form the basis for stigmatising clients.
This act stems from the taboo of paid sex
However, in addition to the market for male clients, there is also a growing market in the Netherlands for services to female clients. Business manager Lex of De Stoute Vrouw had to temporarily close her business due to the lockdown, but she is still in daily contact with female homosexual and heterosexual clients who cannot wait to reopen. Eight out of ten of her clients have gone through an unpleasant experience regarding sexuality and find their sexual pleasure again through contact with a female sex worker.
Sex work challenges our idea of how sex should be: based on love and a permanent relationship. But not everyone finds this romantic ideal attainable or desirable, and not everyone fits into this heteronormative picture of a heterosexual couple in a long-term, monogamous relationship. The sex industry meets a need by creating a place where men, women, transgender and non-binary people can meet to explore their bodies and sexuality.
This article was earlier published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.