What’s the Right Way to Legalize Prostitution?: An Exchange

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Science is not sexy, even science about prostitution. But as concerned as we are about exploitation in prostitution, we can’t help anyone if we ignore the science. The recent article supporting a proposed ban on Nevada’s legal brothels by Julie Bindel, a UK anti-prostitution journalist, exemplifies this type of disregard for data.

Few people are familiar with the Nevada brothels, so it is easy to paint a biased picture of working conditions there. Teams of scholars at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and I have conducted research on the brothels for nearly twenty years and have concluded that Nevada’s legal brothels provide a far safer environment for sex workers than the criminalized system in the rest of the United States.

As in most service jobs, the women working in Nevada’s brothels endure better and worse bosses, good and bad customers, and selling sexual services is not for everyone. But the thirty-eight women we interviewed in one multiyear study told us these jobs had far more advantages than their previous straight jobs in restaurants, office management, or medical services. One woman came to the brothels to pay for medicine for her autistic child; another was the first in her family to own a house. One third of the women we interviewed had previously sold sex in underground markets, and they found Nevada’s system to be a far safer option, and were happy to have the police on their side. One woman told us she was able to leave an abusive pimp thanks to the legal brothels.

Bindel’s anecdotal evidence about the unenforceability of condom rules, and the spread of sexually transmitted infections among the brothel population, is factually inaccurate. Existing public health data shows that since condom use became mandatory in the late 1980s there have been no cases of HIV among working women in Nevada’s system (a positive test for an STI means that a woman can’t work). One woman we interviewed expressed what other interviewees also indicated: “I wouldn’t go and do a condom-less party and risk my life so I could earn $5,000, I wouldn’t do it for $10,000.” That the majority of Nevada workers are dissatisfied or feel unsafe is just not supported by the evidence.

Unfortunately, Bindel’s article not only missed the evidence, but it also missed the big story: that there was so little voter support for the anti-brothel petition in rural Nye County that they failed to get enough signatures to bring the issue to a vote.

It was shortly after the high-profile brothel owner Dennis Hof announced his candidacy for the Nevada state assembly that a small faith-based group calling themselves No Little Girls, headed by a local attorney and also a former candidate for state assembly, launched a petition to close the brothels in the two counties where Hof owns several. When Hof won the primary, the Nye County Commission had no appetite for placing the issue on the general ballot. But the group successfully lobbied the commissioners in Lyon County, near the state capital in Carson City, to step in before the petition was complete, and the issue will be on the ballot there in November 2018.

Bindel’s methods, techniques, and ethics have been discredited by scholars in her home country in the past. Her article relied on selective interviews, statements taken out of context or applied too broadly across a diverse industry, and some sources that use questionable methods. In the self-published book on Nevada’s brothels by Melissa Farley that Bindel cites, Farley disregards her own interviews with workers, writing, “I knew that they would minimize how bad it was,” and ignored the broader conclusions from the sources she cited.

Peer-reviewed research certainly does not find that all prostitution is “empowering.” But the overwhelming body of global evidence shows that workers are better protected from exploitation and trafficking in systems, like Nevada’s, where prostitution is decriminalized and/or regulated. Health professionals in the British Medical Journal and The Lancet and organizations including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization have recommended decriminalization. A wide range of scholars, sex workers, and politicians in Bindel’s home country also support decriminalization, including the Liberal Democrats (a mainstream political party) and a parliamentary report co-authored with the English Collective of Prostitutes. In New Zealand, where prostitution is not a crime and brothels are regulated, bad behavior by brothel owners is subject to disciplinary action, and one brothel worker won a sexual harassment case against her employer.

The Nevada brothel industry is small, but it is one workable alternative to criminalizing prostitution. Bindel’s conclusions fly in the face of the majority of the evidence we have. If we want to help sex workers, we should support better working conditions. There are ways to conduct and regulate commercial sex that will reduce harm and protect a worker’s right to earn a living as he or she chooses. Let’s use the evidence to find these solutions.

Barbara G. Brents
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Julie Bindel replies:

Brents, who is not a dispassionate academic but an active advocate for the radical removal of prohibitions against the pimping, pandering, and buying of sex from women, characterizes the sex trade as a “service industry,” as though a woman’s renting out the inside of her body for a man’s pleasure were no different from working in a restaurant. To make her anti-prohibition argument, Brents poses the issue as a dichotomy between the legalization of prostitution versus its criminalization—as if this were the only possible choice. Blanket criminalization causes enormous problems for the women involved, and it is not what I, nor other legalization abolitionists, argue for.

The Nordic model, in which buying or attempting to buy sex is criminalized while the selling of sex is totally decriminalized, is our preferred solution. This is no moralistic anti-sex law. The aim is to create a society in which commercialized, one-sided sexual gratification has no place because women are no longer deemed saleable objects. Alongside the criminal law, the provision and funding of exit programs should be available to those who wish to leave the sex trade. Several countries have adopted the Nordic model to date, with a number of other countries seriously considering it, including the UK.

Brents concedes that “[p]eer-reviewed research certainly does not find that all prostitution is ‘empowering.’” That is the understatement of the decade. There is a vast body of research that documents the profound physical and emotional damage caused by prostitution. I have spent considerable time in Nevada speaking to women who work in the brothels, and to those who have left or escaped, so any picture I paint is biased only in the sense that it comes from the mouths of the women working there. But Brents calls for data, not anecdotal evidence. I provided plenty of both in my original article, but I would further cite Melissa Farley’s 2007 research study of Nevada’s legal brothels, conducted partly at the behest of the US State Department, that found what has since been validated in other countries: that legal prostitution is strongly linked to human trafficking.

Although the pimps who run the Nevada legal brothels vehemently deny it, women are regularly moved between legal and illegal prostitution in Nevada. Women are also trafficked from other countries into Nevada’s legal brothels under the cover of thirty-day work visas or tourist visas. In 2010, the FBI filed charges based on a series of cases of trafficked women in a Nevada legal brothel. In fact, a 2013 study of 150 countries from the London School of Economics found that wherever prostitution was legal, sex-trafficking tended to increase, not decrease.

Brents would do well to study what scholars have learned about legal prostitution in other parts of the world. The Netherlands, for example, has moved to reduce, rather than extend, legal prostitution in the last decade. On the grounds that legalized prostitution had not cut crime as hoped, then Mayor Job Cohen closed more than half of Amsterdam’s legal prostitution businesses, starting in 2007.

The only way that the women in Nevada brothels are safer is that they are not arrested by law enforcement for prostitution. That is a good thing. Brents dismisses Farley’s study as self-published, but her survey, which involved interviewing forty-five women, remains one of the largest surveys to date of Nevada’s legal brothels. Farley found that 81 percent of the women interviewed said they wanted to escape prostitution but could not, often because of poverty or homelessness (almost half reported having been homeless); nearly a quarter had entered prostitution as children.

Even Brents’s own research shows the inherent violence of the industry: a woman interviewed by Brents and Hausbeck for a 2005 journal article described a near-lethal assault by a john in a brothel where he cornered and choked the woman, fracturing her larynx. The woman said she would probably be dead if another woman hadn’t heard the commotion and intervened. Another woman Brents and Hausbeck interviewed spoke about the need to “keep something as a weapon an arm’s length away” in the brothel.

Brents’s insistence upon the prevalence of condom use is also misleading. In Nevada, and everywhere else, men who buy sex pay extra for sex acts without a condom. Several Canadian studies found that about 50 percent of all sex buyers report non-condom use with women in prostitution, endangering the women’s health. Women from the Lyon County brothels reported that it is common to agree not to use a condom in exchange for a generous tip, according to Melissa Holland of Awaken in Reno, an agency that offers services to women exiting and thinking about exiting prostitution. The State Department of Public Health may never see a positive test for a sexually-transmitted disease, since the brothels can use private labs for testing and are essentially on an “honors system” to let the licensing boards know if they have prostituted women who have tested positive.

This undermines the narrative that legalization in Nevada prevents HIV transmission, but there is a reason for the story. Since the late 1980s, much prostitution policy has been determined by HIV/AIDS funding, largely from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Society Foundations (OSF). OSF is not only a major donor to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and UNAIDS (all proponents of decriminalization), but also to a number of pro-prostitution lobby groups across the world. It is the world’s largest financial backer of the pro-legalization lobby.

Actual data from other countries’ decriminalization of prostitution, however, should be considered when assessing Nevada’s system. Although a 2008 report of the New Zealand Law Review Committee gave an overall optimistic assessment of New Zealand’s 2003 decriminalization, it noted that after prostitution was decriminalized, “sex workers continue to experience adverse incidents such as exploitation and violence” and “[t]here have also been reports of some sex workers being forced to take clients against their will.” Legalization had also failed to eliminate under-age prostitution and sex-trafficking, the report found. Brents talks the language of workers’ rights, but without backing up the rhetoric with data of her own. In fact, there is extremely low membership in prostitutes’ unions in the legalized regimes of the Netherlands, Germany, and New Zealand. Most women in prostitution avoid prostitutes’ unions because the social stigma of prostitution remains the same, regardless of prostitution’s legal status. Furthermore, labor unions can’t offer what most women want: economic alternatives to prostitution.

“Once upon a time,” wrote Carolyn Maloney, a co-founder and co-chair of the US congressional Human Trafficking Caucus, in 2007, “there was the naive belief that legalized prostitution would improve life for prostitutes, eliminate prostitution in areas where it remained illegal and remove organized crime from the business. Like all fairy tales, this turns out to be sheer fantasy.”