Prostitution in the Netherlands is legal and regulated. Operating a brothel is also legal. 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.
UNAIDS estimated the number to be 25,000 in 2016.
Around 90% of sex workers are estimated to be female, 5% male and 5% transgender.
In the 1970s, the majority of foreign prostitutes were from Thailand, 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, 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 Facebook 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 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.
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.
Most prostitution consists of females selling sex to males. About 5% of prostitutes were estimated to be males and 5% were transgender.
In 2011 Dutch authorities started asking sex workers to pay taxes on their earnings.
Some Dutch cities provide facilities called "afwerkplek", a sex drive-in enclosure for cars for street prostitution.
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 tolerated. The attitude of worldly and religious authorities towards prostitution was pragmatic. Many cities tolerated prostitution to protect non-prostitute 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.
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 did not, 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 could not uphold the laws against prostitution and tended to leave brothels alone if they did not 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 prostitutes.
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.
At 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 the 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.
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 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 Dutchmen, 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.
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 those 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 legalisation of 2000 had led to more criminality and to the taxation of the trade.
Despite a change in law that made prostitution legal in the Netherlands on a national level, many town councils have acted in ways that point into the opposite direction, making prostitution illegal. Under the law that legalized prostitution in the Netherlands, a legal brothel needs to have a license that should be obtained from the local government, i.e. the town council. In theory, this could work out fine, but local governments rarely ever give licenses to sex workers who choose to play by the rules. Many cities have policies in place in which only existing brothels can have their licenses renewed, after a complicated procedure ('wet BIBOB') in which the owners of the brothels have to prove that their management has always paid their taxes correctly and has never committed any crime whatsoever.
The Bibob law was designed to move criminals out of legal businesses with cannabis and prostitution, but this law has had some unexpected effects: Since owners of brothels who have a criminal record to their name, even if their only crime(s) would have been (associated to) operating a brothel before prostitution was legalized, don't pass the bibob-law-checks, some legitimate owners of brothels, not acting as criminal pimps, were forced to stop their business. The lifting of the ban on prostitution in the year 2000 has given town councils the authority to enforce upon legal brothels any rules they consider necessary. The biggest fear that owners of brothels have, would be to loose their license, so they have little choice but to comply with those rules. This has forced owners of licensed brothels into the role of police officers, a role that most brothel owners dislike, but they reluctantly comply to keep their license. Many sex workers have lost their safe work space, because they were foreign nationals from outside the European Union, forced to work underground, because they could not obtain a work permit.
Despite being a legal profession, sex work is often associated with crime by wide parts of the general Dutch population. The stigma surrounding prostitution has never disappeared and continues to influence the way sex workers are treated, as policy makers often talk about sex workers, as related to safety concerns, but very few politicians talk with sex workers about safe ways to regulate their profession. Voices in favour of an open and liberal society, where sex work is an accepted source of income, seem to be declining in numbers. Even though there is no majority to change the law and forbid prostitution again on a national level, Christians, feminist groups and Muslims pair up in putting pressure on town councils to stop them from granting (or renewing) licenses to brothels. In the Netherlands, the political landscape is heavily divided and majorities of seats in town councils often depend on religious politicians, or on those who believe that prostitution can never be a free choice, so political minorities can use their town council seats to veto licenses for brothels.
Some municipalities in the Netherlands have a zero-tolerance policy, meaning no licenses for brothels will be granted or renewed. If a town council were to grant (or renew) a license to a brothel in a residential area, they would have to publish this plan in the local newspaper. Non-licensed brothels in residential apartments can operate under the radar for many years, and some even do so without getting noticed by their neighbours, but as soon as a license application procedure for a brothel becomes public, the town council will start to receive waves of complaints, threats from voters, or even financial claims from people (or their lawyers) who fear that the value of their house will go down, because of a brothel next door. Under this same pressure many companies in the Netherlands are afraid to be associated with prostitution, so sex workers often are refused for bank accounts and insurance.
Not granting licenses to brothels leads to a shortage of working spaces where prostitution can be practised legally. This shortage of safe and licensed working places forces sex workers to work in illegal ways, from hotel rooms and from houses in residential areas. When a town council finds out about an illegal home-based brothel, the sex workers are often confronted with hefty fines for illegally operating a brothel. After that, the tax man will come and demand a share of tax money, based on earnings that are sometimes estimated too high. Last but not least, if a sex worker is found working from her own house that she rents from a social housing corporation, she will almost always get evicted, because operating a brothel in your own house is considered a nuisance to neighbours and a breach of the rental contract, regardless if this brothel was receiving 1 or 50 men per day. To protect themselves, sex workers can sometimes feel forced to hire pimps to stand on the lookout, or they end up with no other option than renting workspace from abusive people.
The city of Utrecht had a red light district on boats on Vecht river, at the Zandpad. After repeated reports of abuse of sex workers (some were alleged to have been forced to work their against their will) and violence against prostitutes, the city of Utrecht has closed down their entire red light window district in 2013, by taking away the licenses from the 2 landlords. The city council of Utrecht kept looking for a new landlord, but plans for self-governance by a new cooperation of sex workers were turned away. The next year, the boats were towed away, despite the promise of the town council to reopen the red light district soon after it was closed. Some local residents raised their voices against reopening the red light boats district, either based on concerns about abuse of sex workers, or on religious belief that sex work is considered immoral. Plans for building a new passage with red light windows have been developed, leading to heated debate in the town council. As of 2020 nothing has been built, because no new landlord has been tested (Bibob!) and approved.
All that was written above in this section shows the paradox between the national law that made prostitution legal and local politicians who don't dare or don't want to grant licenses to any form of brothel, even those where sex workers manage themselves without bosses or pimps. Not granting licenses to brothels has made sex workers in the Netherlands more vulnerable for abuse, which is exact the opposite of what lawmakers intended to do when they decided to legalize prostitution. The original intention of the new law was to move prostitution out of its dark corner and into the visible part of society, where local police forces and social workers could keep an eye on sex workers. In the years after legalization of prostitution the Dutch government has made financial cuts on police forces and social workers, so sex workers in abusive situations were too often left alone without help. If help was provided, it often came from people who think they need to rescue sex workers from the consequences of their 'bad choice to sell sex'. A wave of young women from Eastern Europe has flooded the sex work scene and spoiled the market in Western Europe, which has made competition stiff and unfair and on top of that, safe workspaces have become rare.
See also: Human trafficking in the Netherlands
NGOs and police estimated that the number of women and girls trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation ranged from 1,000 to 3,600. The Foundation Against Trafficking in Women (STV), an independent NGO that helped victims of trafficking, registered 579 victims in 2006, up from 424 in 2005. The top five countries of origin were the Netherlands (157 victims), Nigeria (91), Bulgaria (42), Romania (35), and China (30).
Countries that are major sources of trafficked persons include Thailand, India, the Netherlands, Mexico, China, Nigeria, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Sierra Leone, and Romania.
According to figures obtained from the National Centre against Human Trafficking, there were 1,711 registered presumed victims of human trafficking in 2012, of whom 1,177 were women forced to work in the sex industry. However, an increase in identified presumed victims does not necessarily mean an increase in trafficking but can be caused by, for instance, better awareness and cooperation among the different agencies which come into contact with potential victims.
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. 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 1,000 to 7,000 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 window brothels in particular are overrepresented.  
At the end of 2008, a gang of six people was 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 removed 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.
The United States Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons ranks the Netherlands as a 'Tier 1' country.