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26 April 1999

The oldest profession turns kosher

In his visit to a Dutch brothel, Derek Draper missed the real story, reports Saskia Sissons

By Saskia Sissons

Sunday in the Walletjes, Amsterdam’s red light district, is not a day of rest but of relaxation, or relaxen, as the Dutch like to call the services offered behind drawn curtains in the shop-window sex parlours of Europe’s vice capital.

Whether it was vice or advice my friend Derek Draper was seeking when he spent the evening de-stressing in a whirlpool bath with a prostitute called Claudia in the Walletjes, his folly in broadcasting the fact to his employers at Talk Radio has provided his media colleagues with much light relief.

Poor Derek. He missed a trick that night. In his role as roving reporter for the James Whale show he had legitimate cause for a spot of undercover work: after years of dithering, the Dutch are finally set to legalise brothels.

Most people assume that soft drugs and brothels are legal in the Netherlands. They are not (although prostitution as such is not a crime). For decades the authorities have pursued a policy of “enlightened tolerance”, turning a blind eye to both recreations while cracking down on hard drugs and serious crime.

And for almost as long, successive governments have kicked around the idea of legalisation. Plans to legalise brothels have thrice been scuppered by the Dutch upper house.

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Although municipal authorities in the main cities have long tolerated red light areas while dealing harshly with nuisances arising from them such as child exploitation and drug abuse, the scale of the sex industry has become overwhelming. In Amsterdam alone there are around 80 sex clubs, 65 escort agencies, seven peep shows plus an estimated 1,000 “window girls” plying their trade in 420 window brothels; there are also hundreds of streetwalkers, most of them addicted to heroin, many of them foreign illegals from eastern Europe.

Even the working girls think things have got out of hand. “The Walletjes is sinking in a tide of sleaze and junkies,” says Marjon van den Heuvel, a 31-year-old call girl who has left her window in the shadow of the Westerkerk cathedral to set up on her own with a girlfriend. “I just didn’t feel safe any more.”

Efforts by Amsterdam city council to clean up – including appointing a troubleshooting Wallenmaneger, purchasing a number of brothels and banning the hire of windows to eastern European girls – have made little impact.

“If an industry is unregulated and criminalised then it’s going to be run by criminals,” shrugged one town hall official. Indeed, drugs crime and gangsterism associated with the sex industry have rendered some areas of Amsterdam no-go zones. The legalisation of brothels, due to become law on 1 January next year, will provide the authorities with a potent weapon in their fight against crime in Holland’s red light districts: the red tape of bureaucracy.

Officials estimate that at least a third of Holland’s 3,000 brothels will be forced to shut their doors when they find themselves in breach of new health and safety regulations covering everything from fire precautions, hygiene and safe sex policies to the minimum size of rooms and the width of beds.

Brothel owners will be required to register workers and meet stringent safety standards. In order to obtain a licence from the local council, they will be obliged to submit to police screening, while those employing under-age prostitutes or illegal immigrants will face prosecution.

Some entrepreneurs predict that checks on foreign prostitutes will undermine the entire sex industry. “If we lose the foreign girls the whole sector will collapse,” says Aad de Jong, who owns a chain of brothels. “Eighty per cent of the girls sitting behind the windows are illegal.”

Health workers fear the reforms will drive many of the most vulnerable underground where they face even greater risks from drugs, violence and HIV.

But for the majority of Holland’s estimated 35,000 sex workers the legalisation of brothels will bring more safety, legitimacy and autonomy to the industry as a whole. The new law will distinguish between voluntary and enforced prostitution, and both punter and pimp or brothel owner will be liable for prosecution for abuses. Prostitutes will also be encouraged to set up their own businesses.

The Rode Draad (Red Thread), the prostitutes’ trade union, has submitted its own code of best practice to the local councils who will be granting licences to Europe’s first legal whorehouses.

“We want prostitution to be a respectable profession like any other,” says van den Heuvel. “We deserve the same rights and liberties as everyone else – maternity leave, state pensions – but that also means we eventually have to pay taxes like other businesswomen.”

As for Holland’s sex club and brothel owners, who have for years lobbied against legalisation through their professional association, the Vereniging Exploitanton Relaxbednjven (VER), they are philosophical in the face of defeat.

“We predict that the council regulations will result in at least 35 per cent of brothels being forced to close,” was the stoical response of the VER’s spokesman, Jan Bruining. “It will be a case of natural selection. Only those of us prepared to invest in hygiene, fire prevention and the like will survive. But these regulations will remove a barrier as well because the punter will know he can expect a good standard of service. We’ll be legitimate, just like any other business – and that’s not such a bad thing.”

And what of the punters? Risk is a potent aphrodisiac; if visiting a brothel were no longer frowned upon, would the thrill of clandestine sexual encounters evaporate as rapidly as Derek Draper’s job prospects?