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Prostitution in the Netherlands is legal and regulated. Operating a brothel is also legal. In the last few years, a significant number of brothels and "windows" have been closed because of suspected criminal activity. De Wallen, the largest and best-known red-light district in Amsterdam, is a destination for international sex tourism.
As with other countries, estimates regarding the total number of prostitutes vary. Most sources place this number between 15,000 and 30,000.
An article published in 1997 in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality claimed that the total number of prostitutes in the Netherlands was about 15,000 to 20,000.  CATW has stated that there were 30,000 prostitutes in the Netherlands, citing "Sex tax Ticks off Dutch," Associated Press, 14 October 1997. According to Radio Netherlands, in 1999, there were estimated to be 25,000 prostitutes in the Netherlands, with 12,500 working at any one time at a total of 6,000 locations.
In the 1970s, the majority of foreign prostitutes were from Thailand and the Philippines, in the 1980s from Latin America and the Caribbean. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many prostitutes came from Central and Eastern Europe. No more than one third were Dutch nationals, the remainder representing 44 nationalities. The majority were from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Poland.
An article written by Marie-Victoire Louis in Le Monde diplomatique in 1997, claimed that 80% of prostitutes in Amsterdam were foreigners and 70% had no immigration papers (but did not quote the source).  A Dutch report released in June 1999 estimated that two thirds of prostitutes were foreigners.
In 2008, Karina Schaapman, a former prostitute and former member of the Amsterdam city council, produced a report about the Amsterdam sex trade. She offered the police a face book with 80 "violent pimps", of whom only three were Dutch-born. She said that more than 75% of Amsterdam's 8,000 to 11,000 prostitutes were from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.
A study released by TAMPEP in 2009 put the number of migrant prostitutes at 60% (a decrease from 70% in 2006), originating from: Central Europe (EU) 40%, Latin America 20%, Western Europe 12%, Eastern Europe (non-EU) 8%, Africa 8%, Balkans 4%, Asia 4%, Baltic states 3% (estimates for 2008).
According to the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, during the 1990s, some 10% of prostitutes worked on the streets, 30% in window prostitution, 30% in a sex clubs, 15% in an escort service, and 15% in their private residence. Drug addicts, including drug tourists, were said to be numerous in the street prostitution group. Window and club prostitution were dominated by Caribbean, South-American, African, and Asian women.
According to Radio Netherlands, prostitution is concentrated in and around the big cities and in the border towns in the regions of Limburg, Groningen, Twente, West Brabant and Zeeland. Prostitution occurs in various forms: ‘window’ and street prostitution, clubs, escort agencies and home-based prostitution. ‘Window’ prostitution occurs in 12 cities in the Netherlands. It is estimated that on average some 2,000 prostitutes are engaged daily in this form of prostitution. Street prostitution exists in 10 Dutch cities and involves on average some 320 prostitutes daily. Between 3,500 and 4,000 prostitutes are employed daily in 600–700 clubs and private brothels. The extent of other forms of prostitution such as escort agencies and home-based prostitution is much more difficult to estimate. Home-based prostitution occurs in at least 17 municipalities and escort agencies exist in at least 28 municipalities.
In 2008, city statistic showed 142 licensed brothels in Amsterdam, with about 500 window displays, and officials estimated that sexual transactions in Amsterdam account for about 100 million US dollars per year.
Ten percent of all prostitutes were estimated to be drug addicts (in the late 90's) the majority of these prostitutes being Dutch nationals or former Dutch nationals. Most prostitution consists in females selling sex to males. About 5% of prostitutes were estimated to be males and 5% transsexuals.
In a 1989 study 13.5% of men reported having paid for sex at least once in their life and 2.6% had done so during the past year.
During the Middle Ages, prostitution was allowed. The attitude of worldly and religious authorities towards prostitution was pragmatic. Many cities tolerated prostitution to protect chaste female citizens from rape and defilement. There were, however, a number of conditions imposed on prostitutes and their clients. Prostitutes were not allowed to be married. Married men and Jewish men were prohibited from hiring prostitutes.
Still, prostitution was considered a dishonorable profession. Prostitutes were not expected to conform to sexual rules, and were not protected by the law. The concept of "honor" was very important in early modern Dutch society. Honor had social significance, but it also had legal ramifications. "Honorable" people had more rights. Until the late sixteenth century honor, aside from citizenship, was the most important criterion for the stratification of society.
Despite the fact that prostitution was seen as indispensable, city governments tried to separate "dishonorable" prostitution from the honorable world. Until the fifteenth century, Dutch cities tried to keep prostitution outside of the city walls. Later, city governments tried to reserve certain areas of the city for prostitution. Prostitution businesses were driven to the streets and alleys near the city walls.
Typical is the following decree from the city of Amsterdam in 1413:
During the sixteenth century, attitudes about sexuality changed under the influence of the Spanish occupation and rising Protestantism. Sexual activities were only tolerated within marriage. Church and state were not separated, and what was defined by the church as a sin was defined as a crime by the government. Prostitution and procurement were viewed as a sin and therefore prohibited. However, during this century the city of Amsterdam started to regulate prostitution. Only the police and the bailiff and his servants could keep a brothel in the Pijl and Halsteeg (currently the Damstraat). Prostitutes who practiced their trade in other parts of the city were arrested and their clients fined. Prostitution was a lucrative trade for the bailiff's servants as well as for the city treasury. In 1578, the city of Amsterdam left the Spanish side during the Netherlands uprising and converted from Catholicism to Calvinism. The city then stopped regulating prostitution.
Calvinistic morals were mirrored in the government policies of the seventeenth century. Titillating activities like dancing, fairs and prostitution were sometimes outlawed. This morality didn't however, always correspond with the views and customs of the people. During the Golden seventeenth century sexuality was openly displayed in paintings and in literature. The image of the prostitute in literature was very negative. Prostitutes were portrayed as unreliable, impudent, lazy, and often ugly and dirty. In paintings, the image of the prostitute was more positive. Brothel-scenes were an important subject and prostitutes were painted as beautiful young women. The clients, however, were portrayed as fools who allowed themselves to be deceived. In both literature and paintings the madams were portrayed as evil profiteers. The authorities couldn't uphold the laws against prostitution and tended to leave brothels alone if they didn't cause trouble.
During the eighteenth century the morals preached by the church and government became more in line with certain developments within Dutch society. There was a growing middle class which tried to distinguish itself by a strong work ethic and self-control. By restrained sexual behavior, the middle class could separate itself from the 'loose' lower class as well as the indecent nobility. Rich and poor also began to separate geographically. Prior to this period different social classes lived side by side, but they now lived in separate neighborhoods. The image of women also changed. Bourgeois women were seen by men of their class as faithful and chaste, but working-class women were viewed by middle class men as potential whores.
The working conditions of prostitutes were very poor. There was no proper birth control, condoms were not widely available and there were no effective cures against venereal diseases. Prostitutes often became pregnant and, because of venereal diseases they eventually became infertile. This situation would not improve before the twentieth century.
Prostitutes allowed very little sexual variation. The only sexual positions which were tolerated were the missionary position and standing upright, face to face. Anal sex, kissing, and oral sex were strictly taboo.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century the armies of Napoleon started to regulate prostitution in the Netherlands (in 1810) to protect soldiers against venereal diseases. Prostitutes were forced to register and were subjected to mandatory medical examinations. Registered prostitutes were handed a red card which was a sort of work permit. If they were found to be infected, their red card was taken and they were given a white card instead while they were prohibited from working and were only allowed to work when declared fit. After the French occupation the Dutch government stopped regulating prostitution, but during several decades slowly began to regulate prostitutes again in the same style as under the French occupation. Many scientists during the nineteenth century believed that sexual abstinence for men was unhealthy. In their eyes it was unavoidable that a number of women had to sacrifice themselves to protect the rest of the women from destruction of an even more revolting kind. The women who had to sacrifice themselves were supposed to be lower class. Prostitutes themselves, however, were still despised and portrayed as disgusting creatures. Lower-class people themselves detested prostitutes. Prostitutes stood outside society.
During the 19th century, sexual morals became stricter, and a counter movement arose against regulated prostitution. In the beginning, this movement consisted of wealthy orthodox-Protestant Christians, but it later got support from other movements like Catholics, socialists, feminists and progressive liberals. They attacked the idea that men could not abstain from sex. Clients were viewed as low, dirty lechers, and the clients were not the young unmarried men prostitution was meant for, but were often well-off middle-aged married men. They also attacked the mandatory medical examinations, which were deemed degrading and ineffective to stop the spread of venereal diseases. Many prostitutes lived in the brothels and were bound to the madams by debts to pay off expensive working clothes. Prostitutes were often sold among madams, were subjected to fines, and could only leave the brothel under supervision. Medical expenses were added to their debt. Brothel keepers throughout Europe sold women among each other. The abolitionist movement (as the opponents of prostitution were called) in the Netherlands was largely connected to the international abolitionist movement. The movement slowly gained more influence, and during the last decades of the nineteenth century city governments slowly started to abolish regulated prostitution. At first, the abolitionist movement mainly targeted mandatory health checks for prostitutes, but when the movement became more successful the focus shifted towards the people who profited from prostitution. In 1911 living on the avails of prostitution and owning a brothel were prohibited by law. Prostitution itself was not prohibited.
Until the 1970s, prostitutes in the Netherlands were predominantly white lower-class women from the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Northern Germany. During the 1970s, in the wake of the sex trips to South-East Asia by Dutch men, the sex operators brought in women from Thailand and the Philippines. In the 1980s there was a second wave from Latin America and Africa. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, women came from Eastern Europe. Foreign prostitutes are economically motivated to come to the Netherlands, and they tend to travel to engage in sex work between the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and other European societies.
During the second half of the twentieth century, prostitution and brothels were condoned and tolerated by many local governments. The police only interfered when public order was at stake or in cases of human trafficking. The reasoning behind this gedoogbeleid (policy of tolerance) was harm reduction, and the belief that the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws would be counterproductive, and that the best way to protect the women was to tolerate prostitution. This genuine Dutch policy of tolerating formally illegal activities for harm reduction purposes has been and still is also applied towards illegal drugs in the Netherlands. (See drug policy of the Netherlands.)
The Red Thread (De Rode Draad) is a support and advocacy association for prostitutes that was founded in 1985 and works for the legitimization and against the stigmatization of prostitutes. Prostitution was defined as a legal profession in January 1988.
Brothel prohibition made it difficult to set rules for the sex industry. During the eighties many municipalities urged the national government to lift the ban on brothels. In 1983 Minister Korthals Altes had presented an amendment to the law on prostitution. It took until 1 October 2000 for brothels to leave the half-legal status of being tolerated and to become fully legal and licensed businesses. Prostitutes may work as regular employees, though the vast majority work as independent contractors. The Dutch union FNV has accepted prostitutes as members since that time.
In the 1990s, Dutch attitudes supported the legalization of prostitution: in a 1997 survey, 73 percent of Dutch citizens favored legalization of brothels, 74 percent said that prostitution was an "acceptable job," and in a 1999 poll 78 percent felt that prostitution is a job like any other job (polls cited in Weitzer 2000, p. 178).
When the Dutch government legalized prostitution in 2000, it was to protect the women by giving them work permits, but authorities now fear that this business is out of control: "We’ve realized this is no longer about small-scale entrepreneurs, but that big crime organizations are involved here in trafficking women, drugs, killings and other criminal activities", said Job Cohen, the former mayor of Amsterdam.
More recently, officials have noticed an increase in violence centered on this irregular industry, and have blamed this increase on the illegal immigration of individuals into Amsterdam to participate in the sex industry: "The guys from Eastern Europe bring in young and frightened women; they threaten them and beat them", said a resident of De Wallen. Prostitution has remained connected to criminal activities, which has led the authorities to take several measures, including detailed plans to help the prostitutes quit the sex trade and find other professions.
In 2005 Amma Asante and Karina Schaapman, two councilors for the Labour Party (Netherlands), wrote a report, "Het onzichtbare zichtbaar gemaakt" (Making the Invisible Visible). Schaapman had once been a prostitute and was getting information about the influx of organized crime and violence into the business. Other reports came out around the same time. They concluded that a large number of prostitutes in Amsterdam were being forced to work and were being abused by pimps and criminal gangs, and that the goals of legalization were failing.
In response to the problems associated with the involvement of organized crime into the sex trade, the Dutch government has decided to close numerous prostitution businesses. Concerned about organized crime, money laundering and human trafficking, Amsterdam officials under Mayor Cohen denied the license renewals of about 30 brothels in the Amsterdam red light district De Wallen in 2006; the brothel owners appealed. To counter negative news reports, the district organized an open house day in 2007 and a statue to an unknown sex worker was unveiled, "intended to honor those employed in the industry world-wide." In September 2007 it was announced that the city of Amsterdam was buying several buildings in the red light district from Charles Geerts in order to close about a third of the windows.
At the end of 2008, Mayor Cohen announced plans to close half of the city’s 400 prostitution windows because of suspected criminal gang activity. The mayor is also closing some of the city’s 70 marijuana cafes and sex clubs. This comes at the same time as the Government's decision to ban the sale of "magic mushrooms" and the closure of all coffee shops situated near schools. Nevertheless, Mayor Cohen has noted, "It is not that we want to get rid of our red-light district. We want to reduce it. Things have become unbalanced and if we do not act we will never regain control."
In 2009 the Dutch justice ministry announced the appointment of a special public prosecutor charged with closing down prostitution windows and coffee shops connected to organized crime syndicates.
A law proposal  was introduced in the House of Representatives of the Netherlands in 2009 and amended in 2010 which would ban prostitution by people younger than 21. Prostitutes are required to register; they receive a registration pass with a photograph and a registration number, but no name or other personal data. Clients are required to check this pass. In addition to municipal rules a national rule is introduced requiring sex companies to have a license, including prostitution companies such as brothels and escort agencies, but also, for example, adult movie theaters. Under the proposed amendments, an advertisement of an individual prostitute should contain his or her registration number, an advertisement of a sex company should contain its license number. The premises for public access of a sex company (if any) should have on the outside a sign showing that the company is licensed, while inside a copy of the license has to be displayed. A vote on the law has been deferred to allow both sides to examine the matter more closely.
The 70-year-old twin sisters Louise and Martine Fokkens, who have worked for decades as prostitutes in the red light districts of Amsterdam, were the subject of a 2011 film and a 2012 book. In a 2012 interview they complained that the legalization of 2000 had lead to more criminality and to taxation of the trade.
The Netherlands is listed by the UNODC as a top destination for victims of human trafficking. Countries that are major sources of trafficked persons include Thailand, China, Nigeria, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Sierra Leone, and Romania.
Currently, human trafficking in the Netherlands is on the rise, according to figures obtained from the National Centre against Human Trafficking. The report shows a substantial increase in the number of victims from Hungary and China. There were 809 registered victims of human trafficking in 2008, 763 were women and at least 60 percent of them were forced to work in the sex industry. 
Within the Netherlands, victims are often recruited by so called "loverboys" – men who seduce young Dutch women and girls and later coerce them into prostitution[not in citation given]. The phenomenon was highlighted in 2008 by Maria Mosterd, who published a book about her ordeal as the 12-year-old victim of a loverboy. The truthfulness of this book is disputed, and was the subject of an investigative journalism report. 
Many victims of human trafficking are led to believe by organized criminals that they are being offered work in hotels or restaurants or in child care and are forced into prostitution with the threat or actual use of violence. Estimates of the number of victims vary from 1000 to 7000 on a yearly basis. Most police investigations on human trafficking concern legal sex businesses. All sectors of prostitution are well represented in these investigations, but particularly the window brothels are overrepresented.   
At the end of 2008, a gang of six people were sentenced to prison terms of eight months to 7½ years in what prosecutors said was the worst case of human trafficking ever brought to trial in the Netherlands. The case involved more than 100 female victims, violently forced to work in prostitution. In December 2009, two Nigerian men were sentenced to 4 and 4½ years in prison for having smuggled 140 Nigerian women aged 16–23 into the Netherlands. The women were made to apply for asylum and then disappeared from asylum centers, to work as prostitutes in surrounding countries. The men were said to have used "voodoo" curses on the women to prevent escape and enforce payment of debts.