Holland’s Houses

Today is Holland Day at EuroSavant! The good reason for that is that yesterday was Prinsjesdag, or the third Tuesday in September, which is when every year the Dutch Queen Beatrix rides an elaborate, old-fashioned coach to the Binnenhof in the Hague, the Dutch house of parliament, to read out a speech which the current government provides her with, which lays out that government’s program for the year. It probably comes as no surprise to you that this year’s government program has already provoked much wailing and gnashing of teeth: €10 billion to be saved this fiscal year, €7 billion the next, and so cut-backs in all sorts of government programs and services held dear by Dutch society.

Given that good reason to make today “Holland Day,” though, I’m going to ignore it – too boring, and too specific to Dutch conditions. If you don’t live here, why would you want to know about that? In fact, you’ve already discovered everything you would want and need to know in my two sentences above.

No, if it’s to be “Holland Day,” let’s devote our attention to something a bit more interesting, to a phenomenon out of Dutch society that does pique the interest even of those who are not native Hollanders: bordellos. Does it come as a surprise to you that, recently, even the municipal authorities of Rotterdam have gotten themselves in to the business of setting up a bawdy house?

That’s what the Dutch newspaper Het Parool recently reported. Let me hasten to add that the reason they are doing this is to improve the prostitution situation in their city – not “improve” it in the sense of expanding it, making it more profitable, but in the sense of making it less of a bother for that majority of Rotterdam burghers who don’t want to have anything to do with it, and also in the sense of helping out those sex workers who have been forced into the industry, either by someone or by an addiction to something. It’s the usual tale – an admirable one, even – of not just pretending that a problem doesn’t exist, because it’s distasteful, but of grappling with it and making conditions better, and shunning the fantasy that it can somehow be permanently eradicated instead. (Although see my second article below.)

Plus, there’s even a free-market aspect here to try to please right-wingers who otherwise might be shaking their heads in dismay over the moral decay in Dutch society. That is namely that the Rotterdam gemeente (or local government) is not out to actually stay in the bordello business, but is only seeking to find and assist private business interests who are interested in making the investment. The core idea to this plan is to set up a fifty-room bordello somewhere suitable within the city limits – somewhere namely that is accessible but not in any prominent place to be an eyesore for respectable people. But it needs to have good security, too, of course. And those working on the project already have a site in mind.

Now, a fifty-room bordello is apparently a big deal in Dutch terms. The Dutch parliament made bordellos legal as of October 1, 2000, but the consensus is that, up to now, they never have attained a size such as that. But of course Rotterdam is a big, strapping, shipping-and-finance city, sort of the Dutch equivalent to Chicago. (It’s the biggest port in all of Europe, for example, and the second-biggest in the world, behind Singapore.)

A few notes here: 1) Before 2000 bordellos may have been illegal, but of course that did not mean that there was a prohibition on the sort of “window prostitution” which has always been there to be seen in the Amsterdam Red Light District – and the red light districts of other cities, including presumably Rotterdam. That has always been legal; the key to it all is what you could call the format of the sex industry’s offerings. 2) Before 2000 bordellos may have been illegal, but that did not mean that they did not exist; the Dutch are famous (and, to some, infuriating) for their unstated policy of gedogenheid or “tolerance,” specifically “tolerance towards the supposed illegality” of some nasty things, against which enforcing the law to the letter doesn’t seem to be worth the candle. This is a central theme in their approach to the consumption of (especially) so-called “soft drugs”; and, back on the sex industry front, you can be sure that Dutch bordellos existed before October, 2000.

So a fifty-room bordello is a big deal in Holland, but it’s not like that is unknown elsewhere. Fons Meijer, project leader of what Het Parool quaintly calls this “adventure,” knows that first-hand; the research he felt obligated to do to make this thing succeed led him and some colleagues to on-the-ground inspections of such bawdy houses in Frankfurt (am Main) and Cologne, where hundred- or even two hundred-room bordellos operate. And, anyway, this project is targeted at basically shutting down (by 2005) the drive-by prostitution occurring in an area of Rotterdam around a street called the Keileweg, where they have estimated 200 ladies-of-the-evening work. You see, they further estimate that only 50 of those really are eligible to be offered the chance to shift their operations to the new bordello (at a charge of maybe €100 for the room per day – this is said to be a generously-low rate). The other 150 are sex-slaves or addicts, and they need to be identified and helped rather than simply packed off to continue elsewhere.

There’s no indication in the article that this oh-so-tender offer (pun in bad taste?) will be restricted to Dutch nationals. Are you entrepreneurially inclined? Like to work with people? Like to have an element of passion in what you sell? Looking for a challenge in a unique line of business? Simply get in touch with the Rotterdam gemeente (no, I won’t list their phone number here).

That’s Point; now Counter-Point. Word now comes from the Nederlands Dagblad (as you would expect – it sub-titles itself the “newspaper for involved Christians”) that the Dutch Minister of Justice, J.P.H. Donner, is thinking hard about how to get rid of bordellos in the Netherlands. (It’s also logical that Minister Donner is himself a member of the CDA Party – that’s Christen Democratisch Appel, or “Christian-Democrat Appeal.” This party is currently the strongest party in the Netherlands, and so is also the party of Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende. It is not as explicitly Christian in its orientation as some other Dutch political parties (which, in the view of many, go pretty far in what they demand, i.e. they don’t permit women members because to them politics is not a sphere of activity for women, they’re very strict about Sunday as a day of rest, and the like), but it clearly is guided by Christian principles in its policies.)

Unfortunately – at least in the view of the Nederlands Dagblad, which published an interview with Minister Donner – he has serious reservations whether such a policy move would really be possible, no matter how desirable it may be. This is despite that fact that, in the agreement that was arrived at last spring enabling the present coalition government to form, the CDA pushed through a measure giving regional authorities which want to ban bordellos on their territory the power to do so – the so-called “zero option.” You see, in Donner’s view (and he should know), that’s not enough – you can’t really start forbidding bordellos as long as they are still strictly-speaking legal. That would basically amount to forbidding someone from engaging in permitted economic activity to earn a living, and that won’t wash.

Indeed, the article goes on to point out, one local government (that of Elburg, over to the east of Amsterdam) already tried to ban bordellos, citing the “ethical objections” of its inhabitants. But the Raad van State (you could call it Holland’s Supreme Court; you could better call it Holland’s House of Lords, at least with regard to the House of Lords’ legal duties within the British system) told Elburg that it couldn’t do that, since bordellos were after all legal.

Still, those Christian-oriented politicians (including the Man himself, Minister of Justice Donner) keep trying to find some solution to at least allow local authorities the “zero option.” After all, the article notes, gambling is also legal but still some communities have succeeded in banning gambling houses. If the revocation of the bordello legalization in the national parliament (the Tweede Kamer) is impossible, maybe it’s possible to pass laws to the same effect at the local level. Or maybe just a little bit of cleverness is needed: the article ends by describing the tactic of a couple of gemeenten in the south of Holland (the historically Catholic area) of simply omitting any space for bordellos in their city land-use plans. The Raad van State has yet to comment on these measures.

Perhaps by now you yourself, dear reader, are agitating for a “bordello-prohibition” on the sovereign cyber-space territory of EuroSavant? Well OK, but on the other hand, no “pun-prohibition” is allowed – it would simply be unenforceable! But today is still “Holland Day,” and I hope to have time later to add another contribution. This one should be somewhat more respectable, on a topic mentioned in a previous post, namely the Dutch government’s determination that EU governments violating the Stability Pact’s 3%-of-GDP budget deficit limit be fined, even if it means it has to file suit in the European Court of Justice (that’s the EU’S Supreme Court).

Which means that, if I did succeed in posting about the Stability Pact, then you’ve already read about it. Weblogs put the latest entry first up-top, after all; and I deliberately refrained from giving this one the sort of explicit, racy title that would make you want to click through to it first!

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