woensdag 20 augustus 2014

Dutch Model - War on sex work

One very alarming development of the last few years is the organized persecution of sex work. After a tentative start, very hostile actions against prostitutes have become not just accepted by the general public, but are actually viewed as productive efforts to combat trafficking. Instead of executing these actions in silence, they are boasted about in press releases, and actual action footage is released. This is highly unorthodox in any other kind of policing in the Netherlands.

It started out with police raids on window prostitution areas. The neighborhood would be closed down, a huge police force would storm the streets, with a ratio of more than 8 policemen per girl. This enormous show of force was explained away by the organizing prosecutor as "making absolutely sure order would be maintained." He then claims that this goal was attained, and therefore shows the approach worked.

These policemen would force their way into the work areas and take the sex workers to detainee vehicles to be transported to government buildings for an all-night interrogation. Meanwhile, police ravage the working areas and adjoining rooms, destroying any closed lockers, boxes, suitcases or bags. Communications equipment like telephones or computers are taken, mostly never to be returned, and money is impounded likewise.

Police claim the women are free to go during these raids. However, when you say you want to leave, they say that you might be free to leave now, but if you do try to leave they can order you to stay, and you'll be arrested if you don't comply. Then you won't be free to leave. All they want you to do is answer some questions, and if you try to get away, that is highly suspect and cause for harsher methods.

The questions are variable. It depends very much on the interrogator what he is trying to get from you. Most just want to do the standard interrogation I will go into a little further down, but during these raids many interrogators are less standardized, and will take the interrogation in different directions. Most will try to get statements from you concerning abuse, violence and trafficking.

During these raids, however, there is also great emphasis on tracing your money. If they can track down where your money has gone, it will be impounded, and never be released. This is supposed to strike at the heart of trafficking. If you don't have a pimp to siphon off your earnings, you can lose much. Hiding it at home doesn't help you, because while you're being interrogated, police has broken down your home door and is ransacking the place.

They try to bully you into submission, want you to sign pre-made statements, and want you to accuse your friends, family or especially your partner as traffickers. The methods chosen show how little they know about whores. We are confronted with unruly manhood on a daily basis, and we know by experience that to certain attitudes one must never submit. Results are therefore scant.

Every raid is claimed to be a success. Often starting even before it is launched. However, only a few cases and very few arrests are attributed to raids - and on closer inspection, this is always found to be false. So far none of the raids have started any investigation ending in conviction. They have succeeded in scaring off clientele, who are also interrogated by police, and in impounding vast sums of money.

Police are not above lying. Not just in your face, by telling you that laws exist that actually don't, telling you that they have rights to do stuff to you they actually don't have, but also in the reports they write about you. You always have to be very careful not to give them anything they can edit or abuse, but you're never safe from suddenly appearing statements they claim you made.

After some raids on window brothel areas, where the results were zero and the public exposure heightens the risk of people figuring out these raids are pointless, similar actions started in the license-free home sex work sector. Here the tools are different, and the approach more hostile.

Not only is police milling about in front of your house very bad for your standing in the neighborhood, and does the police wreck and impound as they do in the window brothel raids, but they exploit your vulnerabilities as a social outcast as well. This is a process they call "ketenaanpak" (chain approach) where as many problems are brought to bear as possible. All to "help" you, of course.

The municipality is informed you're working without a license. Whether you need a license or not, now you're in trouble, because since you've been raided, you're now suspected to be involved with trafficking, and therefore you can't work anymore. It doesn't matter if you got off clean. You haven't been careful enough to keep the suspicion of crime-related activity off yourself, so you're now contaminated. I'm not sarcastic, this is how judges rule.

What's more, police will officially inform the municipality that you're working commercially, because otherwise they wouldn't have been allowed to raid you, would they? So you must be commercial, which does need a license, so you've been in violation during your whole career, and they're able to fine you tens of thousands of Euros. Unless you submit to some other stipulation, like leaving the municipality or joining a licensed brothel.

Police will inform your building society, landlord or mortgage bank that you're "running an illegal bordello" in your house. This very often means eviction. Especially sex workers with foreign roots or sex workers with any kind of troubled history don't stand a chance. If the work was provided in a house registered to a third party, then this third party is automatically a trafficking suspect.

If you're the owner of your house, and it is not mortgaged, there is still the option of evicting you because you're in breach of zoning laws. Apparently this is a costly or difficult affair, because municipalities and police lean heavily on the other eviction options, before trying zoning as a tool to make you homeless. I haven't been able to get further information on this issue.

Many independent sex workers do the sex work part time, in addition to a regular job. Sex work is variable, and it is flexible enough to allow it to be tucked in outside of office hours. If an independent sex worker is caught by police, and they manage to track down where you work, they commonly inform your employer. This very often ends in dismissal, and judges tend to side with the employer. Independent part-time whores don't like LinkedIn.

In rare cases, insurance companies and banks have been informed their client was a sex worker. Even those few financial institutions that don't flat-out refuse services to hookers will do so after being "warned" by police. Whether this is done intentionally to further ruin the sex worker or is a side-effect of police trying to track down money to impound is unclear.

The tax office is often used as a boogie-man, but rarely gets involved. This is a strange fact when compared to all those other people who are so willing to add fuel to the fire of the witch hunt, especially because their behavior towards sex workers is generally all but benign. The threat is otherwise realistic, because claims by police of any kind of foul play, including impossible turnovers, are indisputable to the tax office.

Of course, police will try to take your money. And often they will be able to find it, or to track it down after you sent it elsewhere. As long as it's been moved legally, they can easily find it and take it from you. They claim you could get it back if detective work shows it to be clean, but so far I haven't heard from anyone who actually had any returned. Procedures to get anything returned are a waste of effort.

As if all the above weren't enough, they go after your loved ones. Not only do they tend to inform parents if you're still in your early 20s, but if you have kids, those will come into the sights of youth services. If they get involved, the suffering multiplies. At the smallest provocation, you can lose your kids. They make that abundantly clear to you. They often offer to take your kids right away, to spare everyone the trouble.

Given that many independent sex workers work from home, a raid will often find her not alone. In the press statements this is always put forward as a clear sign that something fishy is going on. Men in the house must mean violent pimps, another woman must mean that this was a crowded brothel where clients are tag-teamed, and when a 15-year old girl was present in one case, this caused quite some press buzz.

The press, of course, doesn't question in what capacity that 15-year-old is found in the house. Prostitution to them is a world of cardboard cut-outs, who don't have relatives, who can't babysit for a neighbour when between clients, who don't live in houses where they also have a family, so anyone near them must be part of the misery porn story. Especially if it makes that story more juicy.

There is a way to make this all go away. Once they've threatened you with all they're willing to do to make you miserable, childless, homeless and jobless, they explain that if you would turn out to be a trafficking victim, then all this would disappear. You would even get help, if you wanted. All you have to do is claim that you were coerced, and accuse somebody. Then everything will be right.

You'd think they would have gotten used to it, but every time a sex worker doesn't want to give enough information to actually put anyone in prison, the cops are baffled. They just can't get your head around a victim not wanting her perpetrator in prison. And they got you to admit you're a victim, that's something that they just will not doubt. Or maybe vice cops are extremely good actors. They keep pressuring you, because you must just not have understood the choice you got, right?

In fact, the National Rapporteur in her reports calls for even more explicit explanation of the choice between the government ruining your life or you coming up with an accusation. Because if it isn't because we're too stupid to understand the decision we're making, then she doesn't understand why we would choose bearing the brunt of what government can throw at us over falsely accusing an innocent. It can't be morals, whores don't have any, right?

The police is pretending to be fighting the battle they lost in the 90's. They're fighting gangs that don't exist anymore, mafia structures that never did exist, claiming success after success, but never getting any real gangsters. They use excessive violence to force whores to help them shore up their fantasy war on trafficking. They're not making anything better. They are the cause of untold misery. The material damages caused by police alone are, after taxes, the most significant cost of doing business for many independent girls.

It is interesting to see how the trafficking mythology gets a new twist every time a raid, which is meant to bag more than 100 coerced prostitutes, going by the numbers the police purports to believe, ends up with zero sex workers "rescued." There is always a new explanation, always a new insight. And they make it look like this was expected, and they knew beforehand they wouldn't find anything. Whatever the justification was in advance.

Sometimes "this action was only meant to map out the criminal infrastructure." Sometimes "Coerced prostitution has moved to the illegal sector." Sometimes "we never expected any woman to come forward immediately, but you never know how many women will be made to think in the coming months about their situation by showing we care." Sometimes "this is a signal we don't accept human trafficking, which is modern slavery, and which happens here in our country."

Even though many actions, especially after showing no results, are justified as "getting a grip on prostitution and retrieving information," police really isn't interested in any information about how things really are. When confronted with their lack of results and lack of insight, they either deny the problem or lament that it's actually impossible to get any reliable knowledge of our shadowy business.

Knowledge does exist, although it is scarce and sometimes naive. There are university researchers like Hendrik Wagenaar or Dina Siegel, and there used to be a wealth of knowledge in advocacy group De Rode Draad (the Red Thread), before it was bankrupted for not kow-towing to Amsterdam municipality. Still well-informed researchers like Sietske Altink try to educate, but because their information doesn't paint the desired picture, they are largely ignored and considered troublemakers.

Partly this is because the media are completely uncritical of government. They go to great lengths to toe the government line. But partly it is also self-serving behavior by those same media. Dry truth doesn't sell, whereas misery porn does. So again and again Dutch media choose to be complicit in hoaxes. It is unlikely that a journalist worth his salt would not be critical enough to see that something isn't right.

It happens over and over again. One time it's a fake ex-prostitute who is the only one agreeing with Amsterdam municipal policy, another time it's a girl who works in window prostitution in a city without window brothels, and is in a leadership position in a drug and gun running syndicate at 12 years old, every time they fall for the same stories. And they act surprised when, time and time again, it turns out to be a hoax.

Misery is news, and sex sells. No wonder the media relish in horrific slave girl stories, often with slightly more sexual details than would be strictly necessary. The pornographic element in the stories is camouflaged by pretending it is a story of heroism and courage, even though it requires careful screening from any critical question to keep that facade intact. The tales are shocking, and shockingly fragile.

A small number of semi-professional victims dominate the soft news, misery porn books and documentaries. They get new fake names for each publication, and because their stories change each time to fit prohibitionist fashion, the public tends to view each appearance as a new case. Any comment on internal inconsistencies or plain impossibilities in their story is dismissed as "heartless," and proven lies are justified by assuming something really horrible must underlie the need to deceive.

Nor are the media ever disillusioned when large scale police raids fail, over and over, to uncover any significant amount of trafficking, let alone coercion. The carefully crafted evasions by politicians and police aren't followed up on or questioned. The stories have to be in line with the slavegirl fantasy that passes for common knowledge about prostitution. But unfortunately, it doesn't end there.

In the Netherlands, there is an explicit rule for judges that they don't need evidence for any fact that is well-known. This becomes a real problem when trafficking cases are judged by judges who have been selected and trained to be specialist "experts" by the rescue industry. They literally take rescue industry dogma over actual evidence. The waves of hysteria used to break on unimpressed judges, but they have become part of the problem.

Dogma states that trafficking is extremely hard to see, because the pimps are very clever and have completely brainwashed their victim. That is a blank cheque to dismiss anything the "victim," "perpetrator" or in fact any witness says, and fill in the whole story from the preconceptions learned from rescue industry rhetoric. Since the prosecutor acts in the same way, and sometimes edits the statements and evidence to fit this narrative, it all slots right into place.

The fable of the Emperors New Clothes springs to mind whenever a prohibitionist official solemnly states that trafficking can only be seen by those who have become "capable" by having been vetted and instructed to fit the facts of the case to a mold of expectations and preconceptions. They call this "expertise." Those critical of this way of working are denounced as naive, romanticizing sex work, possible clientele, heartless towards victims, or ignorant.

For prostitutes, it is very important to notice when the police stops trying to find reasons to subject you to an investigation, and when the investigation actually starts. The signals of trafficking used to decide that you are to be investigated are not the same as the items of evidence that are commonly used to convict your friends or your partner.

Evidence judges think proves your partner is coercing and exploiting you can be many things that a sane person wouldn't even consider. If your husband picks up your work phone, he is obviously controlling you. If you both testify you love each other, then that is an obvious lie, because no real loving husband would tolerate his wife doing something so vile as prostitution, so he's faking it to coerce you.

If you work during your period, you're working while sick, and that's proof of coercion. If your friend spots for you by calling for security words before and after bookings, that's controlling your work and therefore evidence of coercion. If your man bought lingerie or condoms, then he is supplying your work and this is proof of coercion. After all, if you give a whore lingerie, you know it will be used in her work, so private use is no excuse.

Having your husband in the house during dates is damning. No real loving husband could stand being around while his wife is doing the horrible deeds in the next room. If he carries your handbag, he's controlling your documents, that's evidence too. If there are deeds to his name, that's evidence of him exploiting you - and if the deeds are to your name, that's evidence he's using you as a shield. Both are evidence of trafficking.

These are actual pieces of reasoning used by judges to reach a guilty verdict on human trafficking, lifted from the verdicts. Many verdicts aren't easy to find, but they can be a treasure trove to learn what you must avoid in order to make sure you don't get trapped. The amount of evidence that suffices is very low. But even with the lowered thresholds, there are still cases where they go too far.

A while ago, a conviction of a trafficker, who had been sent to prison for seven years, was overturned on appeal. It sent a modest shockwave through the world of prostitution politics. It turned out that the original court had convicted based only on the statements of a single accuser, without any supporting evidence. This was such a violation of due process, that even in a trafficking case this could not hold.

The judges were lambasted in national newspapers by the head of the human trafficking division of the national prosecutors office about demanding evidence and adherence to basic rules of due process, saying they are ignoring the realities of trafficking. He lamented that human trafficking should only be adjudicated by specialist judges who had been properly indoctrinated in trafficking theory.

In the same newspaper, a number of judges wrote that the court overturning the conviction had consisted of indoctrinated judges, but that there were limits to how far they were willing to go. This is a rare crack in the machine where probable cause for investigation may be assumed, where powers for detection purposes are granted very easily, where common fiction is allowed as prejudice, and where the minimum requirements for evidence are lowered. And still the prohibitionists bay for blood.

Now to taxes. In the Netherlands, prostitution is taxed. There are two ways to pay, one is to be a registered enterpreneur, in which case all regulations apply, but everything is scrutinized down to the last detail, and any error is taken as fraud. The result is that slip-ups cause the Tax office to estimate your turnover three to ten times too high, and after-tax and fine you into poverty. If they don't know you earn your living by hooking, this doesn't happen.

The other way is via a so-called "opt-in" system, where taxes are levied via your operator. This means you pay taxes like an employee, but you don't get the concomitant rights. This is treated as if it's a concession towards prostitutes, but the benefit is mostly for the operator and the tax office, who have a lot less paperwork to do to get their money from you.

It shouldn't be surprising that the tax office gets chummy with the brothel operators. "To polder" is a verb coined in the Netherlands to indicate that extensive compromising is used to obtain compromises in policy that will avoid future conflict. This "polder model" is proudly viewed as a better way to do things. And from the perspective of policy makers, it probably is.

The best example of poldering is government, representatives of entrepreneurs and labor unions meeting to decide upon labor regulations and wages to avoid the messy series of conflicts that usually accompanies finding an acceptable balance. It is of course impossible to have everyone affected represented, but the important thing is that those forces too great to suppress are satisfied.

In prostitution, the concept was the same. Government, NGO's, political pressure groups and the licensed operators decided on policy. Any consultation with "the sector" is never with the girls, always with the licensed operators. It should come as no surprise that rules were made that were quite easy on the licensed operators, and very harsh on independent sex workers. Current and future regulations all push sex workers to subject themselves to an operator.

From our perspective it looks like the tax office lets itself be used as a tool to wipe out the competition of the licensed operators in exchange for the convenience of the licensed operators doing the extorting of taxes without the tax office getting dirty hands. In a direct economy like prostitution, proving turnover is a problem, and the tax office values not having to do that.

Whores in the illegal sector often pay taxes under creative euphemisms for their job. This allows them to be treated as normal single-person enterprises, with all the discounts and advantages that entails. They pay their taxes and assume that this fulfills their fiscal obligations. Unfortunately it doesn't, and it is considered fraud. Whether the tax office actually enforces it is impossible to say in any single case. Some get away with it, some are bankrupted.

Finally, government also tries to get the general populace mobilized in their crusade against trafficking. They sponsor anonymous tip lines, they place ads in press, TV and online media encouraging suspicion, they try to make clients report the slightest and most ridiculous hints of trafficking. They try to erect a boogie-man and then look good fighting it.

Years of trying to make whores turn each other in have not been very fruitful. Trying to convince someone of obvious falsehoods about something they experience every day does not work well. As a result, recently the anonymous snitching line M bowed to realism and stressed in their latest campaign that by turning in colleagues as trafficked, you cut down on the competition.

Another example is the hotel business. To combat trafficking, a new rule has been "voluntarily self-imposed" by the hotel sector after significant government pressure. It entails making a firing offense for any hotel personnel not to expel guests when suspicions of prostitution arise. In the Netherlands, this is a draconian measure. It came after newspapers speculated that by closing down many of the legal brothels, whores would start working in hotels.

Similar things happen in housing. A building society not evicting a known prostitute is not quite accused of facilitating human trafficking, but we're getting close. It is considered suspect if it shows that it doesn't care. People and organizations are expected to display their allegiance in the fight against human trafficking by ostracizing sex workers, no matter what the actual consequences.

These articles sketch the Dutch model in broad strokes. It is not portrayed like this in media, but this is the drill-down of what actually happens at the sharp edge. I hope everyone who doubts any point in what I write will investigate for themselves. Skepticism is the only means to get to a realistic view of the Dutch model, and to see that it is nowhere close to the image portrayed about it by anyone.

Claims about the Dutch model exacerbating trafficking rely entirely on data from our rescue industry. There is hardly any coercion in Dutch prostitution, and there has never been any to speak of. The only comparisons made are between one set of fantasy figures and another. There is no actual information about Dutch prostitution in mainstream media, and there is great pressure to keep it that way.

Sanctimonious prohibitionist media personalities are already claiming that decriminalized sex work had its fair chance, but it blew it. They're getting no push back from moderates. People are very hesitant to question trafficking dogma, even if they can see that it defies facts. The problem is that they will not start to doubt the overarching mythology despite seeing it conflicts with reality in any part they can actually see for themselves.

People like getting their preconceptions reinforced. They view us as bizarre caricatures, and find it difficult, inconceivable, embarassing, painful even, to consider that we might be people in charge of our life, with different choices and different values. They find the discussion awkward, and are rarely game to get some information from somebody on the inside. Those that do, usually aren't the ones that need it.

I have a hard time dealing with people believing misery porn so readily. I have an even harder time with people dismissing my experiences with the Dutch system as irrelevant compared to the huge suffering in their imagination. I get told that I'm lucky, because in other countries, like Sweden, the UK or the USA, the situation is worse than here. But that they make a bigger mess of it than we doesn't excuse a single thing that's happening here.

The Dutch model is not a failed experiment in liberty for sex workers. When I read about Dutch legalization and what people think it entails, I despair. The actual situation is so far from what people think it is, and so much farther from how the Dutch government likes to pretend it is, that a quick answer just doesn't suffice. The fact is that we went from pretending it wasn't criminalized to pretending it's been decriminalized. Currently we're pretending we gave equitable treatment an honest try. In fact, the amount of government repression has only ever increased. Of course then the Dutch model works badly - but not as badly as the Dutch government would want it to.

Series on the Dutch Model:
Legal history
Legal developments
Daily reality
War on sex work

4 opmerkingen:

upkawi zei


you left out references (links) in the blog.
I regret that, because your english text also provides a good overview to dutch readers.

Anoniem zei

Good piece of work, sadly it will barely be read by anybody who matters... I hope we will ever reach the time where you can admit having paid contacts, but then I might need to live forever...

DJ zei

Fijn stuk, ik heb het gedeeld met anderen, goed dat het ook eens in het Engels is zodat niet Nederlanders ook eens weten wat er in ons hyperige dorpje gebeurt.

Hella zei

I agree, references would make this an excellent starting point for journalists and others interested in the war on sex work.

Thank you for writing, as always.