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When I mention that Behind the Red Light District sounds like him, Anna tells me: “He help me a lot with it, because I work in the nighttime and I have to sleep, too. And I have my own stuff that I have to do—cleaning the house, shopping, sometimes cooking. I can’t do everything by myself.”
Basically, her boyfriend adds, “she dictates what I have to write, and I kind of fill in, smooth out the story line.”
There are two dominant story lines about prostitution in Europe, an issue that has feminists around the world fiercely divided. The first is that full legalization—the approach pioneered by the Netherlands and adopted by Germany in 2002—has failed to curb the abuses associated with prohibition. Trafficking has increased, organized crime has grown more powerful, and conditions for women in the sex industry have worsened. “Legalization sounds good,” says Mary Honeyball, the British MEP behind the European Parliament resolution on the Swedish model. “You want to have a safe environment for the women working. Often, people don’t go behind that to what actually goes on, which is trafficking and other criminal activities.”
The second story line is that the real failure belongs to the Swedish model, which has made life more hazardous for prostitutes by increasing the stigma and driving the work underground. “It’s like saying you can still bake breads, but no one can buy them from you,” says Nadia van der Linde, coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund, an Amsterdam-based organization that makes grants to sex workers’ rights groups worldwide. “Sex workers have no jobs if there are no clients. The result is that those women, men and trans who are in sex work, they are being put into a more dangerous position because they can’t work out in the open.”
With the laws of many countries at stake, this is far more than an academic debate, and its implications stretch beyond Europe. In Canada, where the Supreme Court struck down the country’s anti-prostitution law last year, the government is currently proposing a bill based on the Swedish model. Initiatives focused on the demand side of prostitution have even taken off in the United States, though here that tends to mean increasing penalties on johns without decriminalizing sex work.
So does the Swedish model work? I went to Sweden and the Netherlands to find out. After talking to sex workers, politicians, cops, activists and others, my uncomfortable conclusion is that both narratives about European prostitution are true. The answer to the question of which law better protects women—full legalization or the criminalization of demand—is as much ideological as empirical. It depends on whether you see Anna as a trafficked, exploited woman mouthing sex-industry propaganda, or as a person with agency making the best choices she can given her constrained circumstances. It depends on how much regulation you’re willing to accept in the name of gender equality, and ultimately whether you think making it harder for some prostitutes to work is a worthwhile price to pay for reducing the number of women in prostitution overall.
Put another way, the Swedish law works, but at a cost to some of the people it purports to help.
In the center of Amsterdam’s red-light district, just in front of the Gothic Oude Kerk, or Old Church, there is the statue of a woman cast in bronze. Belle, as the figure is known, stands proud, with hands on her hips and her chest thrust out. A small plaque at her base reads Respect Sex Workers All Over the World.
Belle was erected in 2007 thanks to the activism of Mariska Majoor, 45, a former window prostitute who now runs the Prostitution Information Center, a storefront in the red-light district where visitors can learn about the neighborhood, buy souvenirs or have a snack at a small vegetarian cafe. Majoor is a fierce advocate for legal prostitution, which she sees as a social good rather than simply a necessary evil. But she also readily admits that the lives of prostitutes in the Netherlands have not improved since the law was liberalized fourteen years ago.
At the time, the idea was to bring the business out of the shadows. Brothels were already tolerated, and the authorities believed that by legalizing them, they could better regulate what went on, fighting trafficking and organized crime and protecting the rights of sex workers. A 2007 report by the Dutch Ministry of Justice states: “In general, the starting point used for policy is that the amendment of the law should result in an improvement of the prostitutes’ position.” But that is not what happened, according to the report, which found that “the prostitutes’ emotional well-being is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased.”
A big part of the problem is economic. Particularly with the expansion of the European Union, a growing number of women from Central and Eastern Europe moved to the Netherlands to work as prostitutes, creating increased competition. For those who work in the windows, the prices to rent a room for a single ten-hour shift have gone up. It’s now about 85 euros in the less desirable areas around the Oude Kerk, where older, heavier black and brown women work, and 150 euros or more in the busier streets, where younger, thinner, lighter-skinned girls—mostly, like Anna, from Eastern Europe—await their customers. The price for standard sex, though, has remained the same for well over a decade: 35 euros in the cheaper areas, 50 euros in the most desirable. Women need to have sex with at least three men just to break even on each shift, and sometimes they finish owing more than they’ve earned.
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