Conservatives Are Angry That Dutch People Are Trading Driving Lessons for Sex

In the Netherlands, recent debates over legal "transactional sex" mimic the country's long-running tensions over legal prostitution.

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Jan 4 2016, 6:20pm

Photo by Ilya via Stocksy

Giving head to your handyman might be a porn cliché, but it's also a legitimate form of payment in some Dutch circles. Plumbers and house painters have long exchanged their services for sex in the Netherlands, according to professor Hendrik Wagenaar, who is working on a book about sex worker policies across the globe. He estimates the practice began sometime during the recent economic crisis in 2008, when single women with little money offered sexual favors for a fresh coat of paint on their living room walls. "There were lots of ads where this was offered, and nobody raised an eyebrow," he says.

But politicians today aren't accepting the ads with open legs. In December, Gert-Jan Segers, from the Netherlands' socially conservative Christian Union party, objected to the practice known as a "ride for a ride": In the country, driving instructors can accept sex as payment for parallel parking pointers. While Segers argued in parliament that the practice should be banned, transport minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen countered that the exchange, which is growing in popularity, was legal, so long as the driving instructor offered the lesson with the payment provided in sexual acts, and not the other way around—which would be considered prostitution.

Legal prostitution is a fundamental part of many foreigners' perception of the northern European nation. But while both legal sex work and casual, off-the-books trading of sex for services might seem like separate issues, they're both targets for politicians who are uncomfortable with the commercialization of sex in Dutch society.

"The Dutch might seem very progressive, but there is a very repressive debate at the moment," says Wagenaar. "At the level of local government, this has translated into all sorts of measures, like attempts at registration of sex workers, which we have shown empirically never works."

The brouhaha over swapping sex for driving tips is recent, but fears over so-called "transactional sex" are not. In recent years, an intense public debate has also taken place over the phenomenon of teenagers exchanging sex for money, drinks, mobile phone credits, or designer jeans. A 2011 study conducted in-depth interviews with men and women aged 14 to 24 who had engaged in the practice. "For most participants, the sex itself was unpleasant and required considerable emotion management," reads the report. Still, the teens felt "adequately compensated," telling the researchers that the sex was "preferable to other jobs."

Social workers, and above all politicians, have an interest in fostering negative perceptions of prostitution.

This controversy carries over into discussions about prostitution as well. In the Netherlands, everything from the extent of sex trafficking to if and how prostitutes should register with the state is still being fiercely debated, with sex workers caught in the middle of shifting public opinions. Mariska Majoor, a former sex worker in Amsterdam and co-founder of the pro-prostitution advocacy group PROUD, believes that politicians and feminist activists consistently mischaracterize prostitutes in the media. "In today's society, a prostitute is often assumed to have been a victim of horrible acts of incest, rape, abuse, or coercion," she writes in her book When Sex Becomes Work, released this month. "Anti-prostitution organizations are continually trotting out token victims in order to strengthen their fight."

Majoor first became a prostitute as an act of rebellion—"in my younger years, I thought it was great to do everything forbidden by God," she writes—but she doesn't see her story represented by organizations that purport to help those who've followed a similar path. "The stories that do emerge are from victims of trafficking," writes Majoor. "Social workers, and above all politicians, have an interest in fostering negative perceptions of prostitution. If there is one thing that stands in the way of a strong position for sex workers, it is even greater stigmatization."

Amsterdam's Red Light District, "De Wallen." Photo via Wikimedia Commons

While prostitution has been "tolerated" at various points throughout the history of the Netherlands, the country's ban on brothels was only overturned in 2000. "Shortly thereafter, Christian fundamentalist parties, like the Christian Union or CU, entered into a coalition with radical feminists and the mainstream social democrats in an effort to prohibit [it]," says Wagenaar.

The city of Utrecht made headlines in 2013 when it closed all its legal prostitution zones, or windows. Amsterdam, meanwhile, had closed 115 of its 500 windows in April 2015, with more to be scheduled. Real estate can be blamed for some of the closures—the windows are in the kind of high-traffic areas that hotel developers salivate over—but Wagenaar also thinks xenophobic panic over immigrants trafficking prostitutes is a contributing factor.

"You had a wide anti-slavery, anti-prostitution movement in the 90s, which coincided with large waves of immigration, and we have the same now," he says.

They constantly have the idea we need to quit, that we didn't voluntarily choose to do this job.

In 2008, lurid reports emerged about the "SNEEP" sex trafficking case, which involved a small group of Turkish men who had been forcing women into prostitution, battering, and raping them, as well as making them have breast enlargement surgery and abortions. An estimated 120 women, mostly from Eastern Europe, were involved in the sex crime ring.

It was a massive, horrifying case. But around that time, the National Police published a report (which Wagenaar calls "completely overblown") alleging that between 50 and 90 percent of women working behind the windows in Amsterdam were forced into prostitution, leading social democrat and Labour party politician Lodewijk Asscher to call prostitution a "national mistake."

Read More: Stigma Puts Sex Workers at Higher Risk of HIV

Felicia Anna (not her real name) is a Romanian prostitute who works in Amsterdam and runs the blog Behind The Red Light District with help from her Dutch boyfriend. She believes policymakers only see prostitutes as victims. "They constantly have the idea we need to quit, that we didn't voluntarily choose to do this job, and therefore constantly try to block anything that would make prostitution easier," she writes in an email. "They're making prostitution more difficult, which makes beginner sex workers more vulnerable to people taking advantage of them."

The issue policymakers take with "transactional sex," like that between driving instructor and student, comes from a similarly patronizing place. That said, does Felicia Anna think it's a very good idea to allow driving instructors to trade a ride in their car for a ride in bed? "Getting a driving license requires skills and concentration, [which is] not really a good combination when your mind is on sex all the time," she says.

Majoor agrees. "Driving instructors that offer this should lose their license," she says.