Language Barrier

Prostitution in Europe


European Union member states may require that brothel owners only employ sex workers who share a language with management, per a new ruling from the European Court of Justice.

The case originated in Amsterdam, where prostitution is legal but highly regulated. Four years ago, the city's mayor declined to grant new business licenses to J. Harmsen, a Dutch man who rented space to sex workers in the city's red light district. According to Amsterdam officials, Harmsen rented to women from Hungary and Bulgaria who did not speak English, Dutch, or any other language comprehensible to Harmsen, and was thus breaking the law.

Under the E.U. criminal code, the owner or manager of any prostitution business must ensure, among other things, that workers are not being trafficked by asking them if they are. While mere denial is considered sufficient, Amsterdam's mayor contended that this conversation must take place in a language shared between the worker and the business operator.

Harmsen argued that using a third-party translator or online translation service should suffice, and that verbal statements aren't the only way to assess whether someone is being forced into prostitution. The court disagreed, holding that the language requirement makes sense in order "to facilitate…compliance with the provisions of national criminal law." Furthermore, "there do not appear to be any less restrictive measures capable of securing the legitimate objective of general interest pursued," although whether the requirement goes beyond what is necessary "is for the referring court to determine."