The safety of sex workers in a never-ending pandemic

By: Riccardo Felloni and Robert Lee Smid

Source: Shutterstock

The reactions from Stephen, Charlie, John, Michael and Jane come from real people who prefer to remain anonymous. Their names have been fictionalized in order to ensure their safety.

The Netherlands was the first country in 1999 to legalize prostitution, from recognizing prostitutes as sex workers, lifting ban of sex houses and clubs and having a regulatory system carried by local municipalities. Before 1999, exploitation of prostitution (although considered illegal) was rarely prosecuted because of the ‘expediency principle’. In fact, before the law passed, Dutch prosecutors were able to dismiss criminal cases related to prostitution due to the low public interest. By passing the legalization law, the Dutch government made regulations stricter and increased control.

In 2009, the Dutch government passed a new bill, the ‘Law regulating prostitution and suppressing abuse in the sex industry’. The law focused on introducing stricter measures to combat human trafficking and crime. Additionally, they also increased local and national control on the sex industry and sex workers. These new controls ranged from raising the working age from 18 to 21, to more frequent background checks on sex workers and more police cooperation. In an attempt to reduce forced prostitution, the government also made it illegal for non-EU women to work in the Dutch sex industry.

‘’One time I had one girl, I thought her Spanish passport was good. So I requested a social security number for her, and I always thought that when the government creates a social security number, she’s legal to work,’’ says Stephen, an owner of several sex clubs and massage parlors in Groningen. Logical thinking, however this proved to be wrong. ‘’The police checked one of my clubs, and for that ‘Spanish’ girl the government said she was illegal. With that passport she cannot work.’’ The girl was actually from Brazil, and had a fake Spanish passport. But the government did grant her a social security number, which shows the lack of background checks on sex workers.

The problem with sex work in The Netherlands

This report attempts to investigate the safety of sex workers in Dutch prostitution, and link this with first-hand experience from both sex work providers and sex workers. Although the government has tightened regulations, prostitution remains hard to control, as reported by Dutch national newsprovider ‘NOS’. There are many different types, such as home, hotel, escort, online, clubs, massage and window prostitution. In lesser visible sectors, regulation and controls of sex workers can be difficult. The government has put more measures in place, tightened controls and cooperation. But at the end of the day the prostitutes have little support. Charlie, an owner of a space that offers rooms and windows to prostitutes in Leeuwarden, believes that most women now work illegally. ”Ninety percent of prostitutes are now on illegal escort sites such as Kinky.” The Dutch government allows contact professions to continue at this stage of the pandemic, but sex working is not included.

The Dutch sex worker market has strong ties with criminality and human trafficking, and the flow of prostitution is too large and scattered  for law enforcement to control. It is the illegal side of this market, and its ease of accessibility online that makes it dangerous for sex workers. Because of the great appeal of earning more money and not paying taxes, a lot of legal sex workers shift towards more illicit types of prostitution.

‘’Police do not do enough to check the girls who work. Many are working illegally at home and in hotels. Law enforcement must do more,  there has to be much more control,’’ says Stephen, who understands why it is attractive for a sex worker to work illegally. This has to do with the rewards outweighing the risks, he believes that that is also not fair for him. ‘’When a client pays 150 Euros here, around one third goes to the company, one third goes to the girl and one third goes to the government. But when a girl goes to a hotel while working illegal, she keeps the whole 150 Euros. That is why many girls do it.’’

On top of that, COVID-19 has worsened the situation even more. The government in fact gives little or no support to sex workers. Because the employees of Stephen are not registered at the chamber of commerce, they get no support. But also because many of his employees come from Eastern Europe, they are not eligible for any support at all. ’’I have special places for the girls where they can stay, then they work two months and after that they go home,’’ says Stephen while explaining his normal line of business.

Dutch facts and figures

The recently published ‘Slachtoffermonitor Mensenhandel 2013-2017’ (Human Trafficking Victims Monitor 2013-2017) shows that there were 958 victims registered by CoMensha. Most victims were female (72%) and the remainder was male (27%). In terms of trafficking for sexual exploitation, 58% of victims were related to this. Other forms of exploitation from outside of the sex industry comprised of 21.7% of the total victims.

Source: CoMensha databanks

CoMensha is a Dutch coordination center that works to represent the rights and interests of victims of human trafficking. Figure 1 shows data taken from reported yearly victims of sexual exploitation in different sectors of prostitution sectors in the Netherlands.

It shows that there is a clear increase in absolute numbers from 2015 to 2019. All sectors of prostitution had an increase in sexual exploitation, except for window prostitution. This sector decreased consistently over time. This could be because of a number of reasons.

Source: CoMensha databanks

Firstly this could be because of more regulation and control from local authorities. From increasing random checks to stricter control of fake passports and illegal residents. Charlie says that the window business is becoming safer. ‘’There are clear buttons, panic buttons in the rooms and the moment a lady pushes the button. At that moment, security staff enters the room.’’ Secondly, more girls have migrated to more lucrative types of prostitution that are more hidden and dangerous, from escort to home prostitution. Chart 2 is based on a report from the Dutch government that shows that from a total of 292 sex workers, 13% reported the crime once and only 8% reported a crime multiple times. 79% never reported when a crime was committed.

Chart 2: Prostitutes reporting a crime

Source: Rijksoverheid

It is possible that the increase in sexual exploitation in home prostitution is because of the more money that is involved. ‘’In fact, Van der Valk is the biggest prostitution place,’’ says Stephen, who also provides escort services to the hotel. His statement confirms the rise of less visible prostitution sectors.

He believes however that it is not the club prostitution, but the window prostitution that is less safe in general. ‘’She has a to push a button when something goes wrong, but actually she’s alone in the room.’’ This line of thought however is not shared among window owners. John, a window renter from Groningen is fairly neutral on the matter. ‘’It does not make a difference whether a girl works in a sex club or behind a window, the safety is the same.’’

Sexual exploitation

It is possible that sexual exploitation happens in less visible sectors of prostitution such as: street, home, escort/hotel and ‘other sectors’ such as massage -/beauty salons and webcamming. Figure 2 depicts the reported victims of sexual exploitation per known sector between 2015-2019. The results are clear, with a significant increase of victims in less visible sectors (+881).

Source: CoMensha databanks

At the same time, more visible sectors show a decrease of reported victims. This could be due to stricter regulations being put in place. It could also mean that more sex workers gravitated towards less visible sectors in general as summarized in chart 3.

Source: CoMensha databanks

Technology

Technology plays a big role in non-visible prostitution. From online sites to social media, finding and booking a sex worker has become easier. It is possible that online communication plays a big role in non-visible sexual exploitation. This is because supply and demand need to meet somewhere. Websites, dating platforms and social media play a big role in sexual exploitation.

COVID-19 has played a big role in the increase of sexual exploitation on online platforms. Digital sex, like webcamming for instance are areas that have risen significantly during the pandemic. Because it is more difficult to visibly see where supply and demand meet, it is highly likely that supply and demand meet each other on online platforms. It therefore looks like sexual exploitation takes place behind locked doors.

Findings

General statistics and public discourse tend to link the prostitution sector to criminal activities and human trafficking, but Amsterdam sex worker Jane dismisses such connections. “The media and politicians only talk and show the negative side of prostitution, because they are looking for sensation. But actually 85% of the sex workers in Amsterdam are here because they enjoy the job, and of course it is also for the money, but so is office work.”

The Dutch government has tried to apply more regulations and control in the prostitution industry. A good example is the collaboration between the police and sex work providers. “When a guy calls me to register a girl, that is when I know he is a pimp, at that point I immediately call the police. Or when a girl’s ID is strange, then we send the picture to the police for checks,” says Stephen, explaining his relationship with the police in the matter.

The view from a sex worker during an evening’s work, Source: ETN

Jane, also speaks about a good relationship with the police. “In other countries police is the sex worker’s biggest enemy, but here they are trusted and make us feel safe. There are police cameras everywhere in the red light district of Amsterdam.”

However, this does not mean that sex workers are always protected. “Once you are in the room with the client you are on your own,” says Jane. When asked on the general safety of the sex worker’s job, Jane reckons that ‘’the sex clubs and massage places are safe, that also goes for the windows, because there are always people surveilling the situation, and girls can refuse a client.’’ She believes that escort services and home prostitution are more dangerous, because it is always unknown what might happen in the room. ‘’I have a colleague that got drugged, and one that got paid in fake money,” says Jane.

Stephen has also been in dangerous situations. He recollects being in a life threatening situation. “One time I got threatened and hit resulting into a broken jaw, that left me fearing for my life, it took me 3 months to recover.”

The Government’s regulations are very much focused on human trafficking, rather than the safety of the girls. “There is so much regulations to prevent illegal working and trafficking, but most of the people working in the sex business are here because they want to. Human trafficking happens in many other sectors too, like construction for instance or agriculture,” says Jane.

Stephen however believes that although many rules and regulations are making it  difficult for a sex worker to work illegally, he still believes there is a lot of illegal sex work happening. ‘’I check Kinky every day, and then I look at the advertising. There I see a lot of people still on there that I know are doing illegal work.’’

COVID-19

The biggest problem that surfaced during this investigation was the COVID-19 pandemic, and the heavy restrictions on sex workers. The fact that a lot of the girls are not registered as entrepreneurs gives them no monetary support. ‘’Even when they do receive such support, it is around a 1,000 Euros a month,’’ says Jane, barely enough to pay rent and survive. Ultimately, this creates an incredibly big issue, which is extremely difficult to solve.

“They are all working illegally now, it is the government’s fault because they have no government support at all,” says Michael from a window renting business in Amsterdam.

Stephen adds on to this, by saying that interestingly enough Thai massages have opened up again, but sex places did not. “This is a serious problem that is highly overlooked, because you can buy sex there too, just not legally, so the Government closes an eye.”

Jane believes that a lot of girls are inevitably forced to go into working illegally during the pandemic, which is very dangerous. ‘’At the end of the day, they have to feed themselves and their families,’’ says Jane.

How can the Dutch government solve this problem? One might say that the best thing to do would be to re-open all sex businesses. Since prostitution is happening anyways, it would be better to open it so as to control it. This to prevent not only potential safety risks for the sex workers, but also the spread of COVID-19.  With regards to the regulations, Jane says that the government should fully decriminalize prostitution and treat it as a normal profession. “The only reason there are so many rules and controls put in place is to combat human trafficking, and since that is already criminalized, I see no point in having all these rules for us.”

It seems to show that one of the oldest jobs in history will always continue, even when it is classed as being illegal.

The red lights,Source: Dennis Jarvis, Flickr

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