Nevada Sells Sex But Does That Make It Worse For Women?

Nevada has legal brothels, racks of free newspapers line the streets of Las Vegas offering 'women direct to your room,' not to mention the topless shows, and strip clubs.

A week ago, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation put the entire state of Nevada on its "Dirty Dozen" list for sexual exploitation.

Lisa Thompson is with the center. She said Nevada is on the list in part because of legalized prostitution.

"We believe that legalization is actually enshrining in law male sexual entitlement," she said, "In the age of MeToo this is completely incongruent with women's empowerment." 

She said prostitution reduces women to sexual objects.

Further, Thompson and her group say that all forms of prostitution - both legal and illegal - are exploitative. 

"Especially where you have systems of legal prostitution, I view them as just an elaborate supply chain," she said, "It is an organized system of sexual exploitation whereby women are literally offered up as sexual commodities."

According to Thompson, all paid sex is coerced sex. Plus, she said the industry is predatory on economically vulnerable women, whom she believes deserve better job opportunites than those in the sex industry. 

Lynn Comella, a UNLV professor of gender and sexuality studies, disagreed with the center's assessment of the state and of prostitution, in general. 

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"This strikes me as a bit of puritanical click bait," she said, "The list is designed to ensure that the issues that this organization cares about are a topic of conversation and an object of media discussions."

Comella said there is a difference between being sexually open and sexually exploitive. She believes the "Dirty Dozen" list and Thompson's argument lack some of the nuances involved in the sex industry.

"If I'm being frank, I get a little tired of the 'Is it empowering? Is it disempowering?' because those are questions that we rarely ask about almost every other type of work," she said.

Comella said we should be talking about the sex industry like we do other labor markets, that the stigma is unfair.

UNR professor Sarah Blithe studied that stigma in her book about Nevada's brothel business.

Blithe said sex workers she interviewed for the book did not feel exploited but told her they liked the work and the money that came with it. Blithe would like to see prostitution decriminalized around the country.

"I think not casting them as criminals is important in the same way that we don't want to cast them all as victims either," she said.

Blithe believes sex work should be destigmatized so that prostitutes aren't punished for the work they do.

Katy Hartley had a different experience. She works for Awaken Reno, a faith-based organization that helps people who want out of the sex industry.

Hartley works with women and girls who have been both legal and illegal prostitutes and sees the trauma they have gone through.

She said there's no truth to the idea that legalized brothels are safer than illegal prostitution. She pointed to the fact that brothels have panic buttons in the rooms as evidence that the industry is not as safe as some might think.

"I think we become desensitized and normalize the fact that men are paying money for women's bodies and women are far more worth than their bodies," she said.


Lisa Thompson, National Center On Sexual Exploitation; Katy Hartley, Awaken Reno; Lynn Comella, professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, UNLV; Sarah Blithe, professor of Communication Studies, UNR

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