|flikr/The Intrepid Traveler|
More than a decade after the Dutch government lifted its ban on brothels, thereby decriminalizing sex work in the Netherlands, the international human rights community remains divided on whether or not the decriminalization of voluntary sex work is an effective anti-human trafficking tool.
Why is Dutch decriminalization of the regulated sex industry so controversial? There are two sets of intensely held beliefs, which center around the nature of commercial sex itself. Some see the regulation as creating a support and safety network for registered sex workers and allowing them to reclaim a sense of control over the use of their bodies. Others argue that it endorses the commodification of the human body and allows for the exploitation of disempowered and socioeconomically pressed workers.
The human rights community struggles to reach consensus in this debate and further grapples with the impact regulations like these have on the illegal human trafficking industry – the buying and selling of forced sex -- in the Netherlands. Main-stream media outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, occasionally run stories and editorials, which assert decriminalizing prostitution deters human trafficking and allows governments to support trafficking victims. Yet, the media’s claims are more hopeful postulations than statements of fact: government and NGO studies are unable to effectively measure the impact of legislative action decriminalizing prostitution on human trafficking. Media coverage of the issue generally provides little background information on the concept of regulated, voluntary sex work and does not clarify relevant terminologies, such as the difference between decriminalization and legalization. The effect is to render casual readers unable to fully analyze the relationship between decriminalized prostitution and human trafficking.
Around the same time as the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention and optional Protocol, the Dutch government made a bold, innovative anti-trafficking move: it repealed its ban on brothels and decriminalized voluntary prostitution. Though the Protocol does not specifically recommend decriminalizing prostitution, the Dutch government’s action did reflect the Protocol’s recommendation of taking legislative action against human trafficking. To clarify, the repeal did not legalize prostitution in the Netherlands. It required, and still requires, the government to oversee and license sex industry workers and businesses.
Supporters of the legislation had multiple aims. They hoped to improve the working conditions, safety, and health of all sex workers in the Netherlands, and felt that this could be accomplished by enabling victims of sex trafficking to access government support. Beyond that, they wanted to enhance the government’s ability to crack down on illegality related to sex work, including human trafficking. Supporters also believed that increased monitoring of the sex industry would allow the government to achieve both of these aims.
The Dutch national government charged municipalities with the task of managing and regulating their local sex industries. The city of Amsterdam took to licensing brothels and individual sex workers, and passed zoning laws to designate which parts of the city permissible sex work could occur -- for example, Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District.
The developments in the Netherlands provide anti-trafficking advocates an opportunity to examine the relationship between decriminalization and sex trafficking. Since the Dutch legislative action in 2000, the government has conducted yearly studies to evaluate the impact of decriminalized prostitution on human trafficking. The 2010 edition of the report by the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings reveals that government regulation has improved the working conditions of voluntary sex workers, and the reports of the last decade also show continual, albeit slight, decreases in the number of reported human trafficking victims and an increase in prosecution of human traffickers. This data appears to suggest decriminalizing and domestically regulating prostitution has at least partial efficacy in combatting human trafficking. Yet, this may not be case: some scholars attribute the correlation between the Dutch decriminalization action and the decrease in the reported number of human trafficking victims to a general slump in demand for sex workers’ services during the global economic crisis of the past decade.
While scholars and activists who support decriminalization as and effective weapon against human trafficking point to these slight decreases as evidence, the report itself states that because “human trafficking is often hidden and victims are often unwilling or afraid to speak out (or do not realise that they are victims), there are probably a large number of unknown cases of human trafficking (a large ‘dark number’).” This problem of hidden victims suggests there is no way, at least as yet, to prove that decriminalizing sex work has any effect on human trafficking.
This leaves the anti-trafficking community divided, mostly along the same ideological lines outlined at the outset of this post.
Sex work and human trafficking are clearly correlated issues. Unfortunately, all that remains certain is that the relationship between governmental regulation of voluntary prostitution and human trafficking is indeterminate. It may be useful, therefore, for members of the anti-trafficking community to focus their energy on developing a means to measure the impact of government regulatory schemes on human trafficking before further entrenching their positions in the debate.