This is our response to an ongoing conversation hosted by the Reno Gazette Journal newspaper on their online forum, check it out here:

Widely legalizing prostitution: Authors of Nevada brothel book support alternatives to criminalization

Posted by MarkRobison at 11/9/2009 11:27 AM PST on

blog post photoWe’ve been asking three questions about widely legalizing prostitution to people in Nevada with special knowledge on all sides of the issue. (Click here for other responses.)

The latest response comes from two professors and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who have a book coming out in February on Nevada brothels called “The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland.” They are Barb Brents, Kate Hausbeck Korgan and Crystal Jackson. Here is what they wrote:

1. What do you think the benefits would be if sex-for-money were widely legalized?

This is a difficult question to answer hypothetically, as the devil is in the details.  What do you mean by legalized?  There are numerous, differently nuanced models of legalization around the world, some of which work better than others. The legal Nevada brothel industry is an example of a legalized system. Likewise, there are several models of decriminalization — which is different than legalization, but similar insofar as both policies eliminate criminalized prostitution in exchange for a different political, legal and socio-cultural approach.  So perhaps a more useful question to ask is: What are the costs of criminalizing adult, consensual prostitution?

First, the women who work in the sex industry are stigmatized as law breakers, deviants and criminals.  This compounds the moral judgment often placed upon them by their communities. Second, the women who work as prostitutes are triply vulnerable to violence (by customers, by managers or pimps, and by police) because the work they do is criminalized. Many fear reporting crimes (such as a client stealing money from a worker) because their work is illegal, or because police are the ones perpetuating the violence. Third, municipalities spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year policing adult consensual sex for money when those funds could better be spent targeting other criminal enterprises. Finally, criminalized systems have never eradicated prostitution. So, the system is costly, detracts from other law enforcement activities needed by communities, makes women and their customers vulnerable to crime and abuse, and further stigmatizes sex workers. Thus, the first benefit of embracing a different type of prostitution policy would be the elimination of these inherent flaws of criminalization.

This is not to say that all approaches to prostitution policy other than criminalization are perfect. But research shows that many of the problems we associate with sex work are problems of poverty, discrimination and poor workplace conditions. Drug abuse, exploitation, abusive pimps, abusive clients, and even harm to self-image are problems that arise when individuals lack social power and resources. Criminalization only makes these conditions worse.

It is also important to note that criminalizing clients in the prostitution exchange simply shifts the stigma and burden to customers and will do nothing to improve conditions for sex workers. The exchange of sex for money, in and of itself, does not cause the harms we tend to associate with prostitution.

Second, research on Nevada’s existing legal brothels and other countries shows that legalizing the exchange of sex for money has these benefits:

• Allows police to better control crime associated with prostitution, such as coercion and violence against sex workers or clients, trafficking, child prostitution.
• Controls the spread of sexually transmitted infections when STI testing and mandatory condom use are incorporated into prostitution policies;
• Reduces public nuisance associated with some forms of street prostitution (litter from condoms, loitering, etc.).  It is important to note that street prostitution is a small and declining sector of the industry, yet receives attention because it is an easy public target, and plays into our stereotypes of prostitutes as poor, desperate street workers. Most prostitution occurs right under our noses by people who work in a variety of indoor venues, with no ill effects to them or those around them.
• Improves conditions for those who choose to exchange sex for money, including social exclusion, access to services, reduces the need for pimps, provides a safer work environment.
• Gives sex workers the same rights and responsibilities as other service workers.

Third, our research on the workers in Nevada’s legal brothels evidenced the following facts:

• The average age women started exchanging sex for money was 25
• The majority of women had worked in low paying service jobs and came to the brothels to earn more money.
• There is no evidence of human trafficking in the Nevada brothels.
• For the women who had sold sex illegally (about 1/3 of our interviewees), they  reported that brothels are much safer work environments than engaging in illegal prostitution.

2. What do you think the negatives would be if sex-for-money were widely legalized?

We are a society that is still hung up on sex, as Alison Gaulden of Planned Parenthood said in an earlier blog post. Sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment, abuse and coercion are still dominant social problems today. The issues of violence against women are sometimes thought to be caused by the sale of sex. Or to say it another way, that selling sex is a form of exploitation and violence against women. Yet to assume that worker exploitation, objectification, and the physical use of one’s body are unique to sex work is very short-sighted. But other industries that are legal must provide basic protections to workers, follow laws, and can call on police as allies. Criminalizing sex workers is discriminatory and harmful; it is our policies that discount sex-for-money as a viable job that are oppressive.

Now, these problems will not go away by simply changing laws.  Social stigma is lessened, though. When an act is legal, as we have shown above, it improves the quality of life for workers. Eliminating criminalized prostitution would provide added protections and rights for sex workers.

Many of the problems surrounding sex work are problems that affect all workers: economic hardship, social marginalization, and problems related to a lack of labor rights and inhospitable work conditions.  Without broader social change, stronger labor laws, and tougher enforcement of the ones we have, there will continue to be exploitation and abuse.  Legalizing sexual commerce (to join the ranks of existing legal adult industries, like Nevada’s brothels, the porn industry and erotic dance) would be the first step of many toward securing basic rights for sex workers that other workers already have, such as union protection, right-to-work, and coverage by the Occupational Health & Safety Association (OSHA).

Laws related to prostitution need to be written in consultation with sex workers, in order to implement effective regulations.  Failure to do so will result in laws that may benefit business owners at the expense of individual workers, or that inadvertently worsen the work conditions and experiences of sex workers.  Any problems resulting from legal changes need to be addressed creatively, and with input from sex workers, their advocates, customers and others directly impacted by the laws. The Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP), for example, has national and local chapters that educate and promote awareness of sex workers’ rights and needs.

At a basic level, the ability to work legally would be a huge boon to sex workers. While a few community members have issues with sex work because they believe it to be degrading or violent, sex work advocacy organizations like SWOP champion decriminalization as the best option to improve the working conditions and lives of the women and men who sell sex. Listening to what sex workers want is an important element to any conversation about legalizing the sale of sex.

3. If you could change laws or public policy regarding prostitution, what would you most likely want to change?

Create a workable alternative to criminalization of prostitution. This means a change of laws and a change of social service provision:

• First, bring a variety of stakeholders, including sex workers, current and potential business owners, and citizens to the table to discuss the best course of action.  There are a range of options from decriminalization to regulation, and there are many countries with experience in all of these different models. We should learn from them to create laws that will work best for our community.
• Enforce existing labor laws in the legal brothels.
• Create and fund an ombudsman office, staffed by experienced sex workers and advocates, to monitor labor conditions and worker rights in Nevada’s legal brothels.
• Fully fund social services to provide real options for anyone working in the legal or illegal sex industries, including on the streets.
• Provide decent sex education in high schools.
• Fully fund an education program for all criminal justice and social service workers to help reduce stigma against sex work.
• Ensure that social services, like domestic violence shelters, are open to sex workers.
• Establish a non-judgmental healthcare center, similar to the St. James Infirmary in California that is run by and for sex workers.
• Fund programs for sex workers so that they can learn their rights and responsibilities as workers.

Our criminal justice system is increasingly functioning as a social service system. Laws criminalizing the exchange of sex for money are a big part of this. This is an expensive way to deal with social problems. It harms individual freedom and removes the chance for many to make something of themselves. We can do far better for our citizens, our sex workers, and ourselves.

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