Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s brief comment at the Nevada Legislature on Tuesday that the brothel industry is an impediment to economic development seems to have come out of left (or, rather, right) field. Regardless of what one thinks about the moral rightness or wrongness of the brothels, the argument that they hurt business flies in the face of fact.
Nevada became the fastest-growing state in the nation, among other things, by marketing sex. The existence of a tiny rural industry, employing at best 500 workers, has hardly the effect on economic diversification compared with, say, cutting higher education by 30 percent.
It is too bad Reid even mentioned the brothels because his larger points about the direction of the state may go unnoticed. Brothels are stable businesses in many parts of rural Nevada, providing important tax dollars while other businesses come and go.
Regardless of Reid’s motive for wanting to outlaw prostitution, he is doing it on the backs of female workers.
A study in Australia found what we already know — that making prostitution illegal does not stop prostitution. The study, published in last year’s Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, found that Australian states where prostitution was legal had improved health and safety records for workers compared with states where prostitution was illegal.
Nevada’s brothels have a documented record of being safer, less-violent places than the streets for selling sex. There is no evidence that the brothels are sources of forced-sex trafficking and, indeed, brothels can help combat trafficking.
What closing the brothels would do is send hundreds of women and thousands of customers into the huge black market. In that market, where workers must use whatever means necessary to hide from the law, there are no labor rights, few social services, and no way to monitor underage workers or severe exploitation.
Many women interviewed by my colleagues and I, during 15 years of research at the brothels, work there to earn money for mortgages, for kids’ health care, for their own education, or to escape the danger of the streets. Without this legal venue, many will likely have to continue to work with no legal protections.
Nevada is not, in Reid’s words, “the last place where prostitution is still legal,” but rather it is a potential innovator in 21st century public policy. Treating sexual services as businesses is a growing trend as countries seek creative ways to address problems with global migration, a growing market for sexual tourism, and the trafficking and exploitation of workers.
Canada recently rescinded its laws against prostitution, listening to the preponderance of scientific evidence that there are methods of reducing risks surrounding prostitution and that laws against prostitution make most of these methods illegal.
Nevada got to where it is by being unafraid to confront difficult moral questions. If Reid’s goal in these brief comments was to start an adult dialogue on prostitution, then good. Let’s add taxing the industry, opening a red-light district in downtown Las Vegas and granting rights to independent workers to the list as well.
Barbara G. Brents is a professor of sociology at UNLV. She is a co-author of “The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland,” Routledge, 2010.