Why closing legal brothels is a bad idea
By Ronald Weitzer
Prostitution is legal and regulated by the government in several countries, including Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand and some Mexican states. In most of these places, street prostitution remains either illegal or officially discouraged, while indoor prostitution is legally permitted under certain conditions and monitored by local authorities – much as it is in Nevada’s rural counties. The logic of legalization is similar to that for marijuana and casino gambling: the principle that tolerating consensual vice is far superior to criminalizing it, forcing participants underground and perpetuating the risks and harms inherent in any black-market enterprise.
The potential advantages of legalization are recognized by some prominent organizations and agencies. In 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court unanimously declared the country’s prostitution laws unconstitutional. According to the court, these laws violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms because they endangered sex workers safety. Amnesty International embraced the same logic when it officially endorsed decriminalization in May 2016, following earlier decisions by Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization. And, although long forgotten, the National Organization for Women voted in 1973 to support decriminalization in the United States. The resolution declared that NOW “opposes continued prohibitive laws regarding prostitution, believing them to be punitive” and “therefore favors removal of all laws relating to the act of prostitution.”
These are just a few examples showing that legal prostitution is not a crazy, fringe idea. In fact, the American public is much more sympathetic to the idea of it than is commonly believed. Recent national polls show growing tolerance: Support for legalizing prostitution increased from 38 percent in 2012 to 44 percent in 2015 and 49 percent in 2016. And legalization bills have been recently introduced in Hawaii, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C.
Anti-prostitution activists claim that legalizing prostitution will increase sex trafficking. This notion defies all logic. Organized crime thrives where an activity is criminalized and clandestine, not where goods and services are lawfully exchanged. The history of alcohol and drug prohibition offers overwhelming proof of this maxim.
One fatally flawed “study” in Europe purported to find a link between legalization and increased trafficking, but this paper was roundly criticized by other scholars, including me. In the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legal since 2000, a report by the Ministry of Justice in 2007 stated that “it is likely trafficking in human beings has become more difficult, because the enforcement of the regulations has increased.”
Evidence from Germany seems to confirm this argument. Government figures show a consistent decline since 2002 (when legalization took effect) in three trafficking measures: From 2000 to 2014, the number of officially certified victims decreased from 1,197 to 524; the number of suspects prosecuted dropped from 927 to 485; and the number of convictions of traffickers fell from 148 to 77.
While these figures do not necessarily prove that trafficking is decreasing in Germany, we would expect to see a consistent increase in these three metrics if trafficking has increased since legalization. The trend lines clearly show the opposite pattern.
What about Nevada? The best research on the state’s legal brothels comes out of UNLV. This research shows that brothel workers are generally satisfied with their working conditions, do not consider themselves victims, rarely experience altercations with customers, have freedom to choose the kinds of services they provide and are working in healthy conditions.
Since the state mandated monthly testing for HIV and sexually-transmitted infections in 1986, not one legal brothel worker has tested HIV-positive (condom use is required by state law). Moreover, the brothels have little if any adverse effect on the surrounding community.
Unlike illegal street prostitution in many other places, Nevada’s legal brothels do not disturb public order, create nuisances or negatively impact local communities in other ways. Instead, they provide needed tax revenue for cash-strapped rural towns. The brothels also have a long pedigree, having been legally permitted since 1971, almost half a century!
None of this is intended to romanticize sex work, but it is clear that it is not going to disappear. Outlawing legal brothels in Lyon and Nye counties will only be counterproductive – disrupting a well-regulated system that protects sex workers’ health and safety, imposes a set of regulations on business owners and is not considered problematic by most Nevadans.
Ronald Weitzer is a Professor of Sociology at George Washington University and the author of Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business. He has spent nearly three decades researching sex work in various countries and is considered one of the leading international experts on the topic.