Amsterdam: In the Heart of Sin City

The Dutch are pragmatically permissive, not licentious.

AMSTERDAM–When a Belgian politician called the Netherlands a “cesspool of sin” in 2005, Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot knew that his country could no longer be blase’ about its libertine reputation. Not when its southern neighbor, usually the subject of many barbed jokes here, was laying claim to the moral high ground. So Mr. Bot gathered his ambassadors around him and told them to go forth and counter the “foreign press caricatures” of the Netherlands.

That’s a tough job when the facts paint a rather bizarre picture. Holland has legalized prostitution and euthanasia, and it tolerates the use of soft drugs. The state makes sure that children as young as 12 receive sex education, and contraceptives if they want them. Little wonder that two years after Mr. Bot’s softer-image offensive, the stereotype of the average Dutchman is still that of a pot-smoking dude who visits an underage prostitute just before pulling the plug on his mother’s life-support machine.

Having recently moved to the capital of this “cesspool,” I’ve seen a very different picture. The Dutch don’t strike me as a bunch of post-moral, ultra-liberal hedonists. On the contrary, they’re rather ordinary, even conservative, folks. The Netherlands is a country where people wash their cars on weekends and lovingly place garden gnomes in their flower beds. How immoral or uninhibited can a society be where not one but three Christian parties vie for votes and a popular proverb, basically the national motto, translates as “Act normal, that’s crazy enough.” Acting “normal” doesn’t include indulging in any of the legalized vices, either. The society that taxes away extreme disparities in wealth also frowns on extreme behavior.

See Also

Live and let die is new Dutch religion: How the Dutch became tolerant

McCaffrey: Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics: How former U.S. drugs czar Barry McCaffrey lied his way through Europe and deliberately misinformed the American public (that is: he deliberately lied again and again and again…)

To unmask the Dutch conformist behind that anything-goes facade, I recently explored Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light district at night. “Yeah, sure,” some readers might be thinking now. But let me reassure them (and my fiance’e) that this was a legitimate, journalistic assignment: penetrating the heart of sin city for evidence of Dutch guilt, or–as it turned out–innocence.

My gaze (seriously, honey) never fell on the women displaying themselves in the windows and focused solely on the other passersby. My experience seemed to confirm what locals had repeatedly told me: Ordinary Dutchmen might visit the bars and restaurants in this neighborhood, but they are not the ones thronging the narrow alleyways to look for sexual gratification. I heard many languages spoken as I strolled the reddish gloom but rarely any Dutch (and a stray local on the prowl is likely to be as furtive, and afraid of public contempt, as any upstanding burgher). Every person I asked for directions turned out to be a tourist.

In a nearby coffee shop the experience was similar. The patrons were almost exclusively foreigners. Coffee shops, for those unfamiliar with the local euphemism, may also serve coffee but usually only as a side order to the main course: cannabis. For the record, I neither smoked nor inhaled–only dutifully reported. Also abstaining would seem to be the average Dutch citizen.

So, what accounts for the strange existence of rather mainstream moral codes amid centers of lust and psychoactive substances? Paradoxically, while Dutch policies might be liberal or libertarian in effect, they derive from a fairly paternalistic, conservative instinct, mixed with a good dose of pragmatism. That pragmatism goes back at least to the 17th century, Holland’s Golden Era as a great seafaring power. In those days, the country was a Puritan stronghold. But even the pious Dutch, who offered the Mayflower Pilgrims a temporary home, acquiesced to Amsterdam’s emerging Red Light district. Early on, this nation of world traders concluded that it couldn’t stop the world’s oldest commerce. Yet then, as now, many of the prostitutes’ clients were foreigners; mostly sailors in the old days, mainly tourists today.

The modern Dutch consensus is that making outlaws of prostitutes and soft-drug users only pushes them underground and into the hands of real criminals. Better to control and regulate such behaviors by legalizing–or in the case of cannabis, tolerating–the otherwise objectionable. The Dutch word for this is gedogen, which has no equivalent in English yet roughly means permitting what is officially illegal.

The Dutch hope that this approach will let authorities focus on fighting serious crimes, such as the forced prostitution of human trafficking, and allow soft-drug users to hang out in places where they aren’t so likely to bump into dealers of more dangerous narcotics, like heroin. The added bonus–this is still a nation of traders after all–is that once brothels and marijuana cafes are legal, you can tax their profits.

Practicality is sometimes taken for licentiousness. Yet the Dutch don’t offer sex education and contraception at an early age as part of a social experiment to promote or condone teenage sex. They are simply attempting to regulate the inevitable, or at least what’s believed to be inevitable.

The euthanasia law is in another category altogether, since it grew out of a conviction that it is morally right to allow patients to end their own suffering. But here, too, the Dutch also saw a need to be realistic, by codifying and regulating what was already taking place in hospitals and homes without rules and supervision.

Some statistics seem to show that the Dutch are on to something with their approach to the baser human desires. The Netherlands has one of the lowest drug-related death rates in the industrialized world and far fewer abortions or teen pregnancies than in comparable Western societies.

And where gedogen doesn’t seem to work, the Dutch are willing to stop looking the other way for a minute and fine-tune their policies. Late last year, Amsterdam authorities began legal proceedings they hope will close down about 30% of the windows in the Red Light district, where owners are suspected of using the sex business as a cover for money laundering.

On closer inspection, it turns out that a lot of the finger-waggers and other outside critics are mistaken. The Netherlands isn’t so much a cesspool of sin as it is a well of pragmatism. Even if, it must be said, that pragmatism attracts a whole lot of sinners.

Mr. Schwammenthal is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday February 3, 2007.
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