Prostitution can have a place in society.

Article from the Las Vegas Sun, Monday, Oct. 4, 2010
Barbara G. Brents and Crystal A. Jackson
link to article

A Canadian judge last week struck down key provisions of Ontario’s prostitution law, ruling that criminalizing prostitution does more harm than good. While the law will be appealed, for now the message is clear — perhaps the parts of Nevada with legal prostitution have it right after all.

What is significant about this decision is the attention it paid to the scientific evidence that not all prostitution harms women. The ruling cited research from five government studies, five published, peer-reviewed articles and testimony from seven expert witnesses finding that “there are ways of conducting prostitution that may reduce the risk of violence and that the impugned provisions make many of these ‘safety-enhancing’ methods or techniques illegal” (from section 360 of the ruling, which can be found at tinyurl.com/274um3t).

The ruling specifically cites research we conducted in Nevada’s legal brothels that points to a number of safety mechanisms that protect workers, such as: management listening over an intercom to negotiations with customers; cash is taken directly to a manager, providing the prostitute with an opportunity to communicate any reservations she may have about the client; panic buttons are available in every room to call management or set off an alarm if pressed; the brothel setting prevents clients from leaving very quickly and removes client anonymity; and after payment and before the sexual encounter, prostitutes perform a visual scan for indications of sexually transmitted infections — if there are issues, the money is returned and the client is asked to leave. More than 80 percent of licensed prostitutes we surveyed felt that their job was safe. We found no evidence of trafficking in the legal brothels.

In fact, the ruling went out of its way to decry those opponents of prostitution who confused personal beliefs with fact. Several highly visible anti-prostitution advocates were called on the carpet for proffering misinformation on the average age of entry into prostitution and for claiming that all prostitution is abusive and harmful (sections 352-358).

The ruling held that provisions criminalizing prostitution violated principles of fundamental justice and a worker’s right to security and were, therefore, unconstitutional. In striking down the provision against brothels, Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel ruled that “the evidence suggests that working in-call is the safest way to sell sex; yet, prostitutes who attempt to increase their level of safety by working in-call face criminal sanction.”

In striking down the provision against living off earnings of a prostitute, the judge ruled that even legal outcall work “may be made less dangerous if a prostitute is allowed to hire an assistant or a bodyguard; yet, such business relationships are illegal due to the living on the avails of prostitution provision.”

The judge ruled that the provision against soliciting in public “prohibits street prostitutes, who are largely the most vulnerable prostitutes and face an alarming amount of violence, from screening clients at an early, and crucial stage of a potential transaction, thereby putting them at an increased risk of violence” (section 351).

None of these findings should challenge one’s personal beliefs about prostitution’s moral worth. They just show that criminalizing prostitution neither stops the practice nor helps prostitutes.

Canada is far away, but the message that certain laws criminalizing prostitution are counterproductive is a message Las Vegas might take to heart. We’ve built an economy on sexy tourism. It makes no sense that we allow such a large portion of this market to operate underground, untaxed, at such great cost.

Barbara Brents is an associate professor of sociology at UNLV. Crystal Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UNLV. Both are co-authors of “The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland,” Routledge, 2010.

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