We are excited to share the next installment of our 2019 Student Blog Series! The student blog series highlights original pieces authored by first-year law students at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Read on for Sarah Blum’s contribution to the Student Blog Series, and check back soon for additional installments of our series.
Melissa Farley’s investigation into the world of prostitution in her book Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections reveals that many of the dangers of prostitution continue to exist even with the legalization of prostitution. Farley’s interviews with 45 prostituted persons and several brothel owners in Nevada show that legalizing prostitution neither eliminates sexual violence nor increases prostituted women’s freedom of choice.
Prostitution is dangerous and this remains true despite whether it is legalized or criminalized. In 1996, a study by the New York University of 854 prostituted women in 9 countries reported that 70-95% of the women experienced physical assault, 60-75% had been raped, and 68% were diagnosed with PTSD symptoms in the same range as combat veterans. In 2017, between 57-100 % of homicides of prostituted women in the United States were committed by sex buyers. In light of these statistics, it is not surprising that Nevada ranks as second in the nation for the rate of women killed by men as many prostituted women in Nevada are killed by their sex buyers. In 2015, Neal Falls, a sex buyer and serial killer of prostituted women, was shot and killed by a prostituted woman in West Virginia as he tried to strangle her. Nevada police are investigating Neal Fall’s connection to three Las Vegas-area prostituted women who were killed from 2003 to 2006, when he was living in nearby Henderson. Even more recently, on October 25, 2018, Nathan Burkett pled guilty to murdering Tina Gayle Mitchell, 27, and Althea Williams Grier, 32, both prostituted women, in 1994. Authorities found Burkett’s DNA inside Mitchell and the similar circumstances of Grier’s death led police to finger Burkett.
With the legalization of prostitution, many prostituted women also experience violence by the hands of the brothel owners themselves. Three prostituted women who worked for Dennis Hof, the deceased owner of seven brothels in Nevada and author of his memoir The Art of the Pimp, accused him of raping them throughout their work at his brothels. According to Theresa Lowe, who worked for Hof between 2006-2012, her first encounter with Hof proceeded as follows: “I had just flown in [to Carson City]… I walked in the house. He said let’s go upstairs… And he raped me. It was violent, choking me, grabbing me by the hair. . . We had sex, no condom.” Lowe alleges that Hof went on to attack her on ten other occasions, and she finally walked out after an alleged incident in which he choked her in his kitchen.
Additionally, legalizing prostitution in Nevada did not increase prostituted women’s freedom of choice. In fact, Farley’s book depicts that working in Nevada’s brothels adds additional restraints to a prostituted woman’s autonomy. Described as “pussy penitentiaries” by one woman interviewed for Farley’s book, Nevada’s brothels are in the middle of nowhere and surrounded with barbed wire. Women are expected to live in the brothels and work 12 to 14 hour shifts. The women pay tips and other fees to the staff of the brothel, as well as finders’ fees to the cab drivers who bring sex buyers. “To top it off, [prostituted persons] are fined for just about everything. Fall asleep on your 14-hour shift, and get a $100 fine, late for a line-up, $100-500 in fines.” Brothel owners end up typically pocketing half of the women’s earnings. Additionally, prostituted persons must register and present their medical clearance to the police. Sheriffs in some counties in Nevada enforce even stricter restrictions. For example, prostituted persons are not allowed to leave the brothel after 5 pm, are not permitted in bars, and if entering a restaurant, must use a back door and be accompanied by a man. Mary, a prostituted person in a legal brothel for three years, stated, “It’s like [the pimp’s] own little police state.”
From this case study of the Moonlight Bunny Ranch, it is clear that legalized prostitution is still exploitative and is a far cry from the victory supporters hoped for. The conditions depicted by the women working at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch are not far removed from the conditions of women working in the illegal prostitution industry because, as Farley observes, “prostitution is an institution that can’t be fixed up or made a little better.”
Recent legislation proposed in Nevada suggested that some political leaders are ready to acknowledge that prostitution is an institution that can’t be fixed, and that legalization of prostitution only increases commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. On March 21, 2019, a bipartisan pair of state senators introduced Senate Bill 413 “Prohibits Prostitution in the State of Nevada” to ban prostitution entirely in Nevada for all the reasons discussed above. Senate Bill 413 would have prohibited cities from granting licenses to operate brothels or operate a business that employs prostituted persons. Additionally, this bill also had the effect of rendering prostitution a criminal offense throughout the State. As of April 12, 2019, it will not be heard by the full legislature.
However, Senate Bill 368 “Revises provisions relating to protections for victims of crime” is still being considered by the current legislative session. Section 19 of this bill provides that a prostituted person who is less than 25 years of age is deemed a victim and must not be arrested or subjected to any punishment. Although the CSE Institute supports the decriminalization of the prostituted persons themselves, this is an insufficient remedy in isolation. It is necessary to shift law enforcement time and resources away from the prostituted women and focus on criminalizing the sex buyers to decrease the demand for commercial sex. Thus far, Nevada law enforcement has not adopted this demand-focused approach in their policing tactics. In the Senate Judiciary session for Senate Bill 368 on April 4, 2019, Michelle Holland mentioned that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has made 2,118 arrests for prostitution, and only 32 were of sex buyers. When asked to defend the purportedly weak action on targeting sex buyers in Nevada, law enforcement replied that it was merely because john stings are harder to coordinate than stings that target prostituted people. This mentality must change in order to sufficiently deter sex buyers and their perceived entitlement to purchase women’s bodies.
Although Senate Bill 368 is a step forward to end the criminalization of prostituted women, the CSE Institutes hopes that with the current momentum to change prostitution policy in Nevada, Nevada legislators will consider the Nordic Model– a policy that aims to criminalize the demand for prostitution and not the prostituted persons themselves.
Sarah Blum received her B.A. in Law and Society from Oberlin College in 2018. Prior to college, Sarah taught English to children in a slum in Nicaragua, inspiring her desire to advocate for victims of human trafficking. While attending Oberlin, Sarah started Project Unbound, a student organization dedicated to educating the community about human trafficking and fundraising for the local human trafficking collaborative. In addition to serving as chair for Project Unbound throughout her undergraduate career, Sarah interned with Covenant House Philadelphia and the Sungate Foundation, both organizations dedicated to fighting human trafficking.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.