By Isabel Youngs
Over the last week, several opinion pieces have been published regarding Nevada’s laws around legal (and illegal) sex work. Every single one was reductive and borderline cruel, invalidating the autonomy of sex workers by stating they either all love or all hate their jobs; that brothels are safe or brothels are inhumane.
Like any profession, there are hundreds of factors that go into why one either enjoys or despises what they do. Each piece did nothing to address the many nuances of why some sex workers are happy and others are not. There are problems in our legal brothel system; however, much of that stems from society’s cultural lack of respect for women and sex workers.
There is absolutely no peer-reviewed study corroborating that legalized prostitution expands illegal prostitution or that brothels are rife with trafficking, rape, abuse, drugs, suicide and imprisonment. There is no factual or philosophical basis for criminalizing prostitution.
Additionally, there is no research comparing legal sex work and the safety of other professions, like domestic work. The problem of abuse, drugs and misogyny is engrained, and encompasses several industries, not just the sex industry.
Sexual and physical violence is tied to power imbalances, discrimination and the devaluation/stigma of certain people. Targeting sex workers does not help to solve systemic abuse and violence across many communities and in many professions. In fact, stigmatizing sex work could increase violence against workers.
However, there are inherent problems with the way we have established our prostitution laws, and many workers do end up in horrifying conditions with few opportunities for recourse. Nevada law limits legal sex work to specific locations in specific counties, operated largely by affluent businessmen with no incentive to provide benefits for their employees. In our current climate, workers have less choice, less autonomy and less negotiating power under contracts at brothels than they would as either unionized employees or private independent contractors who decide when, where, how and with whom they do business.
However, these problems are not solved through the criminalization/outlawing of prostitution, which paints women as victims who are disempowered and lacking autonomy. Many of the problems rampant in sex work are a result of a sweeping lack of choice for marginalized communities across the board. By improving access to high-paying alternative employment and educational opportunities, as well as legislating protections for marginalized workers, we can begin to transition people out of sex work who do not want to be there, and end the stigma against those who willfully choose that employment.
The creation of better laws protecting the interests of workers and offering legitimate paths out of the profession for those who want to leave it is much better public policy than throwing sex workers in jail or attempting to pass laws that would make trafficking victims less safe.
Many of the people and organizations doing work in the sex trafficking prevention arena are not asking underground sex workers and trafficking victims what they need, but relying on research that is rarely peer-reviewed or procedurally vetted. Recent peer-reviewed articles about sex work tend to find positive outcomes to decriminalization. The prominence of bad research makes it difficult to speculate or theorize the harms of sex work in other contexts, and when problems in prostitution do materialize, we rarely see suggestions of solutions to specific issues – we see a call-to-arms for criminalization.
UN Women reports, “The conflation of consensual sex work and sex trafficking leads to inappropriate responses that fail to assist sex workers and victims of trafficking in realizing their rights. Furthermore, failing to distinguish between these groups infringes on sex workers’ right to health and self-determination and can impede efforts to prevent and prosecute trafficking.” While there are claims that “pimps bring their victims to Nevada” because of prostitution, trafficking is tied far more to immigration, population and globalization than legal prostitution.
Traffickers also often use the danger of police intervention and criminality to control their victims, accusing them of breaking the law or threatening them with deportation. Despite “safe harbor” laws in some states, which have been implemented to protect victims from criminal punishment, the State Department reports that many victims, including minors, are routinely prosecuted by state or local officials on charges related to their trafficking.
At the end of the day, legal prostitution has its demons, but to unfairly target sex work and delegitimize the self-determination of many sex workers who do want to be in that profession by claiming that “no little girl wants to grow up to be a prostitute,” we do irreparable harm to ending the stigma of sex work. Enacting thoughtful, respectful and well-researched labor and education laws that give sex workers power and autonomy will do far more to make our state better than trying to outlaw prostitution.
Isabel Youngs is a Reno local and advocates in the issue areas of sex work, disability rights, health care and child welfare. She studied political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, with an emphasis on social policy. She currently works at a legal aid nonprofit. The opinions here are her own and not necessarily reflective of any organization or employer she is affiliated with.