Amsterdam Travel: Sex Tourism and Human Trafficking

Every year, millions travel to Amsterdam to see the Van Gogh museum, bicycles and canals, lovely cobblestone streets… and the prostitutes. Amsterdam is one of the most well-known sex tourism destinations. The sex industry is big business there, and it brings in 1.1 billion annually (about 5% of  Netherland's GDP).

But prostitution (legal or not) comes with consequences: it is estimated that Amsterdam sees about 1,000-7,000 victims of human trafficking annually. Human trafficking refers to the enslavement of people, not the transport of humans (although that is often part of the equation). Human trafficking can involve forced labor, but 80% of cases deal with sexual exploitation. UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) lists the Netherlands as the number one destination for human trafficking victims, a consequence of the legality of prostitution.

Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam,  for better or worse, but most of the prostitutes are working illegally. Because the Netherlands does not issue work visas for prostitution, only European citizens are supposed to work in the sex industry.  However, prostitutes travel (often with their expenses paid by a pimp) from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to work in Amsterdam's red light district. Approximately 80% of the prostitutes in Amsterdam are not EU citizens, and many of them are victims of human trafficking. In 1960, though,  95% of prostitutes in the Netherlands were Dutch, and human trafficking wasn't on the radar. And, of course, before the EU, borders were less open and travel within Europe (perhaps with prostitutes in tow) was more difficult. Today, domestic trafficking accounts for only one fourth of the number of victims; the rest come from overseas.

But human trafficking isn't as black and white as it sounds. Many women wouldn't say they were "forced" into prostitution, but rather that they were "coaxed." One method, perhaps the most common, is called the "loverboy" or "pimp boy" technique. The loverboy seduces a young girl and convinces her to work as a prostitute. (Boys can be trafficked too, but more than 80% of the victims are girls or women). In one study, conducted by a church organization, approximately 90% of prostitutes were drawn into the sex industry through a love affair. But then, some of these sex workers like their jobs. Many of the prostitutes are sending money home to their families. Human trafficking has some grey areas, and so does sex tourism.

According to one report, Dutch clientele make up about half of the customers in the red light district, and the rest are travelers. So, are sex tourists indirectly supporting human trafficking or just enjoying what the country offers? Many of the men who visit prostitutes in Amsterdam probably wouldn't consider paying for sex in their home country (especially illegally). Sex tourists certainly include child abusers, pornography makers, and men who will have sex indiscriminately with women and children. There is also a certain collective character among them, despite their diversity: men who travel to enjoy inexpensive sex create "loose, temporary networks". So, camaraderie among sexual fiends and child abusers is a consequence of sex tourism...where might that lead?

Still, the sex tourists aren't the only guilty ones in the situation, nor is human trafficking the only consequence of prostitution. One report on the Netherlands states that 40% of prostitutes reported experiencing sexual violence, 60% reported physical assault, and 70% reported a verbal threat of a physical assault. Apart from abuse, there are cases of HIV, other STD's, crimes and so forth. Amsterdam legalized prostitution to eliminate crime, but instead, legalization made human trafficking and other problems rampant. The Amsterdam City Council has noticed the side effects of prostitution, and they have reduced the number of brothels over the past few years. While the number of brothels has already been cut by one-third (and should decrease even more), the number of visitors who travel to Amsterdam continues to increase. There is, after all, a lot more to Amsterdam.

Photo credit: Dave Winer